Saturday, January 31, 2015
Owning My Heritage: Sins of the Fathers
Today we find ourselves in the midst of a new Civil Rights movement. My prayer is that we will at long last come to grips with our nation's disgraceful history around race, from Slavery to Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration. It also is abundantly clear that Four Hundred years of indoctrination stands as a massive barrier to moving forward. I think it is crucial that we people, especially we white people, face that history head on and own our past and our role in perpetuating that past. Only then can we really move forward to work towards healing. We too often are blind to our privilege and blind to the serious harm we are doing to so many others in our refusal to face this past. Here then is the first of several blog entries where I will face some of my own history.
Not all my family has been documented that well in early America, but one line has. My family on my mom's side has been faithfully documented ever since the Dedman's (Debnam's, Dudman's) arrived in Virginia as early as 1631. We see the first indications of owning slaves in the 1700's. In the will of Phillip Dedman Jr, we read in part from The Dedman Geneaology and Allied Families, Wanda Colvin, 1983:
"I give to my son Philip Dedman my Negroes, Will, Tom, and Mole, upon express condition the he suffer my wife to hold and enjoy the use of Tom during her natural life...and upon condition Mole be allowed to go and work upon my land"...(all to last until she passes.) He goes on to give to his son Samuel land purchased in Mecklenburg "my negroes named Diego, Jenny, Nanny, and Paul upon express condition that he suffer my wife to hold and enjoy the use of Nanny during her natural life." Then he proceeds to give his daughter Mary Dunn "one negro woman named Frank and two negro girls named Kabe and Edy, and Harry, a negro boy, upon express condition that my wife shall have the use of Kabe during her natural life." Daughter Susan also gets a girl named Phillis, Sarah and her child Mary, and Grace and her child Lawney.
So that's 16 human lives being passed off as property. What relationships were broken in this parceling out of human lives? Were they beaten? Are there some who never show up because they perished before the writing and probate of the will? We don't know those stories, but we know all of those things were possible. What follows in this genealogy is page after page of future generations, parceling out people like land. Later however they did not even bother itemizing the names of these souls, instead stating only "certain negroes."
So on it went. Many fought in the Civil War, defending a system of human enslavement. I found similar stories on my Father's side, though so far not so well documented. My family on Mom's side made lots of money in the lumber business, much on the backs of the hard labor of poor black and white men. I'll talk a bit more about my dad's side of the family in another post. I visited and even worked for a time in one of their sawmills. I heard the N word tossed about with such contempt.
I relate all of this, not out of any pride. No pride to be found there. Many of these people no doubt possessed good qualities. Very few are all good or all bad. But they by their action and I might by inaction as well, supported a system of inequality. They benefitted from it. Some were very well to do thanks to this system of inequality. It's hard truth by which each life must be judged.
So why drag out the dirty laundry? I think people like me have been conditioned to gloss over or relegate to the past a reality which still lives on. Look around all those who would see. Unequal education, policing and justice systems that preserve the advantages of whiteness. We cannot move forward until we own our participation in this injustice. We cannot continue to pretend the history most of us got in school is anywhere close to the truth. The truth will set you free. Only however if you face it. Our problem is NOT a black problem. It's not hoodies or naturals or any of that. Our problem is white people, and we as white people have to step forward and act. In the AIDS years of the early eighties, there was a saying. "Silence = Death." it's true here too. It's not South or North. It's right vs wrong. It's a white people thing. I've no power over what my ancestors did. I do however bear a responsibility, to make amends for the wrongs they did, but also for my own behavior as a human being in a society still structured around racist notions of inequality. Or as my church social justice arm says it, standing on the side of love. If we own it, perhaps eventually we can fix it.