Carl at Young Anabaptist Radicals found several things troubling about my “Dukes don’t emigrate” post last week. He posted a couple of comments below my piece, and then wrote his own lengthy response here.
In my comments section, I had written:
We need to be honest about the mistakes of our ancestors. We also need to see those mistakes in a historical context, and avoid the tendency to mythologize and glamorize those who were the victims of colonization. Cruelty is a human universal, and sin â€” at least the capacity for sin â€” is found in every tribe and nation under the sun. Collectively, some have inflicted both more harm (and perhaps more good) than others.
Carl, politely but firmly, found that response wanting:
I canâ€™t count the number of times that Iâ€™ve heard something along the lines of â€œcruelty is a human universalâ€ from white people as a blanket dismissal of the idea that Euro-American culture might have anything significant to learn from indigenous people. Same goes for the tired bit about â€œdonâ€™t mythologize the victims of colonization.â€ You donâ€™t have to be a romanticizing, mythologizing, self-hating fool to be willing to simply look at another culture and say, â€œYou know, I value many of the things my ancestors taught me. But I think these folks have some things figured out about how to live on this earth that my ancestors once knew, but lost somewhere along the way.â€ In my experience, the resistance to this idea is huge – and the cliches in your paragraph are a key piece of that resistance.
That’s fair enough. I’m quite prepared to believe that indigenous groups in the Third World had “ways of seeing” nature and reality that were — and perhaps still are — immensely valuable. I don’t know how well I live out that conviction in my own life, however. Sure, I go to the health food store and stock up on homeopathic, “natural” remedies that were (so the advertisers say) the secrets of indigenous peoples. In recent years, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife’s family in rural Colombia, enjoying their “simpler”, more “pastoral” life. I’m never allowed to do any actual work when I’m on the finca, however. Despite my often sincere attempts to pitch in, my status as a guest (and perhaps, my status as a — comparatively — staggeringly affluent white man) means that despite my protestations, I’m generally waited on and catered to and told to lie in a hammock. Generally, I get a week or two to observe and to witness a different way of being. I come away appreciative for the tremendous hospitality of those who have so little, and filled with gratitude for the extraordinary privileges I have.
I’ve also been on a number of “mission trips” to Mexico, doing the usual things affluent white Christians do down there. Lots of short-term bursts of hard work (hey, I learned how to use a cement mixer in rural Sinaloa a few years ago), lots of prayer, lots of pious and hackneyed sentiment about how we Americans had “so much to learn” from those who “have so little.” Forgive a touch of cynicism, but after you’ve done a couple of these weeks south of the Border with a group of earnest teenagers, it’s hard not to poke a bit of fun. I’m aware, deeply aware, that no matter how much I try to humble myself, I’m still going to be the affluent white man waltzing into an impoverished community for a few days, bringing a bunch of chattering teenagers who come to do just a little bit of work. It’s easy to find oneself slipping into the role of the munificent bwana, filled with self-congratulation because I’ve left behind the air conditioning and the high-thread count sheets for a few days of sweat, dirt, ranchera and frijoles. I do make a sincere effort to avoid that role, but it invariably seems to be thrust upon me. Perhaps I unconsciously insist on playing it.
Carl also deals with the issue of reparations for the “sins of the ancestors”:
Many people talk about privilege and â€œworking for a more equitable societyâ€ entirely in the present tense, without any reference to the critical role of accepting _real responsibility_ for the sins of our ancestors. Responsibility in this case means recognizing that we benefit from our ancestorsâ€™ sins (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land), and then making things right. This choice has very practical implications. Here in South Dakota, there are plenty of well-meaning white folks who will say, â€œYes! Letâ€™s work towards a more equitable society!â€ The unspoken implication is: become a part of my society, on my terms, and Iâ€™ll try to help you get your piece of the pie. There are far fewer white people who are willing to hear Lakota people say â€œWe donâ€™t want your society – we want you to give back the Black Hills that you stole, and then leave us alone.â€ Doing the latter requires an understanding that the theft of the Black Hills is not ancient history, itâ€™s of critical present-day relevance. Same goes for slavery – it ainâ€™t ancient history, folks. We donâ€™t just need â€œa more equitable societyâ€ – we need to make actual, physical reparations! Until thereâ€™s been real recompense, the wounds of the past are still open and bleeding – they are, in fact, the continuing wounds of the present.
I’m not familar with the Lakota struggle (beyond a cursory knowledge from American history classes.) I am curious to know how many of the living Lakota have European ancestry themselves, however. When one is descended from both colonizer and the colonized, isn’t it cherry-picking to identify with only one aspect of your heritage? Isn’t it odd to demand reparations, when that means your mother’s side of the family ends up paying your father’s? Perhaps it isn’t odd at all; I’ll admit I’ve given it remarkably little thought.
As for reparations for slavery and other injustices, fine. On my mother’s side, my ancestors certainly owned slaves. (Though one branch of the family first came to California in the early 1850s, selling their plantation in East Texas and freeing their slaves, following the patriarch’s sudden revelation that slavery was immoral. That’s a feather in our family cap, one we periodically display.) Whatever modest wealth my mother’s side of the family was able to generate was at least in part built on slave labor. Here in California, my great-great grandfather made a living as a lawyer, serving as counsel for the railroads, “foreclosing on widows and orphans”, making money, I acknowledge, on the backs of Chinese laborers. Some of that money (not much) has trickled down to my generation.
Do I feel guilt because my ancestors owned slaves or served as hired legal guns for Southern Pacific? No. Do I admit some of my material benefits may have been connected to those acts of exploitation? Yes. I tithe on what I have and on what I inherit. I vote Democratic and support affirmative action. I am willing to support, with my money and my vote, programs that seek to redress historic inequities. But what else am I supposed to do? Shall I play amateur geneaologist, track down the descendants of slaves my ancestors owned, and send them a check? Shall I demand that we sell the small piece of land my family has owned in the Northern California hills, bought well over a century ago with money derived (in part, not in whole) from the largesse dispensed by the railroads? It was once Ohlone Indian land, and there are no Ohlone left. Shall we find the one or two folks who still have a drop of Ohlone blood, get on our knees, and make a personal and abject apology?
I’m not trying to offend, but I’d like some clear-cut clarification of what is asked of me. I give my first fruits to God and his work. I support government and private programs that seek to offer redress. If you want to raise my taxes to fund a massive reparations program, sure. I’ll write the check gladly. What else is there?
My favorite spot on earth is my family’s ranch in the hills northeast of San Jose. My family has been in those hills since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, and though most of what we once owned has been given to the public park system, a few very small parcels remain in our hands. In our old ranch house, pictures of my great- and great-great and great-great-great grandmothers and fathers hang on the walls and sit upon desks. I love looking at those people I never knew, knowing that they were the ones who crossed the plains in covered wagons, came around the Horn in storm-tossed boats, who longed for something new and bigger and better and different. There is a restlessness in the northern European, WASPy soul; a restlessness I see in my family’s history and in my own life. The longing for the new and the different runs deep in some of us. Call it the “pioneer spirit”. And it is, I fully acknowledge, a mixed legacy. Lord knows, that restlessness runs deep in me.
I love these ancestors of mine. I don’t worship them, but sometimes — as unChristian as it may seem to do so — I talk to them. I walk the hills and canyons of my truest earthly home, and I feel a cloud of witnesses hovering nearby. I talk to old “Albert Alfonso”, who first built the ranch houses. I talk to “aunt Jacqueline”, the family’s near-legendary matriarch. They died before my mother was born, and yet I still feel them to be a part of me, and I feel them most when I am on the land that they loved. Do I judge them perfect, blameless? No. Do I think that the means by which money came into their lives to have been so sordid that it vitiates any other good that they did? Of course not.
Do I know that the land I now call “mine” and “ours” once belonged to a native people, long since wiped from the earth? You bet. Do I grieve that? Yes. But will renouncing my heritage, giving up that land, right an ancient wrong? No. I don’t believe it. Perhaps I don’t want to believe it.