There is a problem I have been wrestling with for many years. One of the refrains I hear over and over among people working for racial reconciliation is the necessity of honoring the ancestors and the insistence that the ancestors are helping us in our work, especially in the unraveling the intricacies of enslavement and its genetic and cultural legacy.
Well, let me tell you a little about my ancestors. The earliest any of them arrived in the New World was 1609, when a young ship’s carpenter’s apprentice named John Powell arrived in Jamestown aboard the Swallow. Thus began my mother’s family history. The first Collier, Isaac Collier, arrived in York County, Virginia about 1655, and just about the first thing he did was to establish a plantation. His grandson, Charles Collier, purchased 350 acres nearby in what is now part of Langley/NASA and established his own plantation there. I am directly descended from this Charles Collier.
The Colliers enslaved Africans and African Americans from the very beginning until Emancipation in 1865, and my grandfather’s cousin was actively involved in Jim Crow activity in the 1920s. As far as I can tell for sure, the Powells did not hold anyone in slavery until the late 18th or early 19th century. Benjamin Powell, my 4th great grandfather willed several enslaved people to his son, George Cader Powell, in 1833. And somewhere along this line, some Sub-Saharan genes entered my gene pool.
The legacy of this slaveholding is a line of racism running through my family. The most virulent post-Emancipation racists that I have actually encountered were my paternal grandmother and an uncle by marriage, but I have no reason to believe that the others, all of whom benefitted from both slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices, did not share some degree of this racism. The first people who I am sure fought against it were my parents. Yet, of course, they had an enormous uphill battle and never completely overcame the racism they grew up with.
And here is my problem. My ancestors were not honorable people. One was so cruel that his enslaved people rose up and murdered him, slowly to insure that he suffered. So how do I honor these dishonorable ancestors, these ancestors whom I see as undeserving of honor? How does one honor the dishonorable?
Last night a solution to the problem occurred to me. Anne and I were watching the film “Amistad” for about the third time. Shortly before the hearing before the Supreme Court, Cinque speaks eloquently about his ancestors, and says that the line of his ancestors all the way back will stand with him and help as they can because he is the culmination of their line. They act in history through him, and they are honored by his honorable actions and life.
And there is my answer. My ancestors’ crimes against humanity (and what else is slavery but a crime against humanity?) cry out for redress, for atonement, for being set to rest. When I was very young and she was very old, I met that last living person to have been enslaved by my family. She died in 1961 “about 100 years old”. And so neither my ancestors nor the people they enslaved are still living. So how can these crimes be atoned for? And by whom?
By me. The task falls to me, and this why I am called so powerfully to work for racial reconciliation. My ancestors call out from beyond the grave for me to atone for their crimes, and I honor them by confessing my family’s sins and working to repair the damage they inflicted on so many people. I think again of my racist grandmother whose hatred was so deep that I am sure she did not even acknowledge the humanity of people of color. How can I forgive her for the racism she planted in my heart? I forgive her by working to erase the very racism she embraced.
When I talk about my family’s slaveholding history, I can count on being told that it’s not my fault or my responsibility because I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. So I should get over my guilt trip. My response is that this misses the point entirely. Of course I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. But I am responsible to my descendants and to my culture to extinguish the legacy of despair and racist hatred that my ancestors handed on to me. And now I realize that I am also responsible to my ancestors to expiate the guilt and shame their actions created.
I know that I will not be able to erase the hatred of racism entirely, and that realization can be a temptation to freeze and do nothing. But if I give in to that temptation, then I dishonor my own ancestors, and I dishonor those they enslaved and their descendants. And I dishonor my own children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. I dare not do that, for then I take on my own guilt. I cannot do it all, but I commit myself to do whatever it is that I can do. For to do nothing would be a crime before God and against humanity.