In the discussion of the Confederate flag prompted by the Charleston massacre, I’ve heard the “I’m not a racist but I honor my ancestors” argument a lot. The old “heritage, not hate” bit. While the connection between the murders and the flag seems a little tenuous to me, since the topic is on the table we might as well address part of it: specifically, the issue of problematic ancestors.
Cartoonist Tim Kreider expertly skewered the “heritage, not hate” argument more than a decade ago by applying it to the Nazi flag. No one would accept a German saying “Well, the Holocaust was bad, but I honor my Nazi ancestors.” No. You cannot honor people who did such massive evil that it defines them, and claim to not be tainted by evil yourself. The only way you can honor an ancestor who fought for the Nazis is to honor whatever they did after the war to redeem themselves; and if they did nothing, they deserve naught but contempt from their descendants.
The same goes for those who have ancestors who were part of the anti-American pro-slavery terrorist group that called itself the “Confederate States of America.” (If you disagree with that characterization of the Confederacy, you need to re-learn your history, full stop.) You cannot honor someone who unapologetically fought for slavery without it having a corrosive effect on your soul.
I actually don’t know if I had ancestors who fought for or sympathized with the Confederacy or who owned slaves. Up until a few years ago I thought all of my family got here after the Civil War, but I did some digging on Ancestry.com and found out otherwise, but not the details. If I did, if I had ancestors who fought for white supremacy or who treated human beings as property and were never regretful about it, I say to them this: screw you, ancestors. I disown you, I have no responsibility to propagate your sins.
We all have ancestors who were assholes, who did terrible things, who were murderers or rapists or thieves or bigots. It’s a statistical inevitability that somewhere in your family tree you have an umpity-great-grandparent who was a real bastard or bitch. According to family lore, one of my ancestors was a rapist, a pirate on ship that raided an Irish coastal village. I owe that ancestor nothing but contempt.
If the heritage you receive from an ancestor is one of hatred or ignorance or violence, it’s your responsibility to not accept that heritage.
You don’t have to accept a gift, you know. If someone walks up to you with a big box of dog crap and tries to hand it to you, you can say, “No, thank you.”
But there’s also the less toxic but still problematic heritage of errors. A box of good stuff with some dog crap on it, if you will. In which case, you have to clean the crap off.
I love that my mother’s father was a gardener of no mean ability, that he taught me about composting back in the 70s, that he was known and loved in his community, that he was outdoorsy and active…but he was a racist, and I have to balance that. When I honor him, I cannot honor that part of him.
My own father is one of the best men I’ve ever known, a devoted husband, a community leader, an honest and upright citizen. I’m proud to be his son. But in his younger days, right out of high school in the early 1960s, he was naive enough to join the U.S. Air Force, which to his surprise soon decided that it needed to send him and a bunch of other young men over to some place called Vietnam. He never engaged in combat, but the fact is that he was used as a tool of America’s brutal and stupid foreign policy. When I honor him I have to do so without honoring the U.S. imperialism of which he was made an unwitting part.
Not all of our ancestors were good people; and of those who were, not everything they did was worthy of respect. Be selective in your veneration.
I’ll be presenting at Starwood, July 7-13.