Friday, January 25, 2013

A mixed view of legacy

The theme of the 30 Days of Love this week has been "honoring the legacy".  I've been getting the daily emails, the reminders to think about Martin Luther King, Jr., the 40th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, how proud Caesar Chavez's grand-daughter feels of her grandfather, and asking folks to nominate heroes and justice-seekers.  I should feel inspired.  I wish I felt like writing posts about my heroes.

But all this talk of "legacy" (and also, the field trip the kids and I took this week to hear about living Native Traditions), has me thinking about another kind of legacy.  The legacy of privilege, prejudice, and racism.  I think it's fair to say that I'm a 1st-generation justice-seeker.  And when facing the question of "legacy", I have to be honest and confront the legacy I inherit from my family.

My family aren't particularly prejudiced.  They are good people.  But no one has ever marched for civil rights, either.  And, as European Americans, we inherit the legacy of white racism and privilege.  Yes, a few generations back many in my family faced discrimination (No Irish Wanted, etc and my german-American family had a rough time of it during WWII), but then there is also this:

When I was in Army training, there were many other young soldiers with the same last name as I have, but I was the only white one.  One of the guys asked me how I got this last name .... told me I was the first white person with this name he'd ever met, that he'd thought it was a black name.  My name is from Wales.  However, this name has a long history in America - a whole county in Virginia was the original plantation-land of this family ... and they owned many slaves.

That is an awkward conversation to have with your fellow-trainees (all 18 year olds and what did we all know about how to talk to each other about this stuff?).  A couple hundred years ago, white people with my last name probably owned your great-grandparents.  I don't know how my branch of the family is related, but in all likelihood those were some of my great-grandparents who were slave-owners.

I'd love to be writing a post about my heroes.  We need heroes, we need to embrace our heritage of justice-seeking and honor those who came before us.  But we ignore the icky bits of our heritage at our peril.  How can we move forward to build the community and the world we dream of if we haven't dealt with the baggage of the world we inherited?

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