Trackback Thursday: Ancestry
It’s Thanksgiving today, hope anyone reading this has/had a nice Thanksgiving or culturally appropriate equivalent.
As I’ve grown up Thanksgiving has started feeling like a weird holiday to celebrate. There’s the cutesy elementary school about it being a celebration of cooperation between native and settler peoples in colonial America. And we all know how well that turned out. But then it’s not a uniquely American thing to try and brush over past atrocities. Thinking about how you and yours have benefited from a history of cruelty and oppression… it runs counter to a lot of quote unquote common sense notions of independence and a general historical amnesia.
For my part, I’ve been trying to keep Thanksgiving as more of a remembrance of not just where we come from, but how we got from there in the past to here in the present. Not in a patriotic ‘history of the country’ way, more of a personal, familial, level.
Both sides of my family are Irish, and that was always something I was told to take pride in. But you wouldn’t really know it to look at us. We don’t really have any traditions or customs you could pin down as ‘irish’. My mother’s side of the family is Irish Catholic but seems to take more from the Polish and German families that they’ve married into. My father’s side of the family is Irish Protestant and well… the surname comes from a great-grandfather who drank too much and abandoned his children. We know precious little else about that part of the family. My paternal grandmother’s side of the family is German, or possibly Belgium, I’m not sure.
Yet, my family still identifies itself as Irish. But I’ve got to say, as these things go, that’s a pretty weak and tenuous claim. We have just as much claim to saying we’re German, really. And yet, I do still identify myself most strongly as Irish. Although I don’t know how much that really means anymore as an American. It’s an aspect of my identity I’m still working through I guess. It feels important to me to try and understand my family history and how we got to the point we are today.
In college I took a class on Caribbean studies and it focused heavily on colonialism and the attitudes that the European empires took towards they places they conquered such as Africa and the Americas. I recently started reading a book about the Irish potato famine, the disaster that prompted both sides of my family to flee Ireland. For reference, it’s called The Graves Are Walking, by John Kelly. It has been surreal and chilling to read the various excerpts from primary texts in this book and see the similarities in attitude that the British had between the Irish and their colonial holdings. I don’t really know what to make of it just yet. I’ve also been told, although I yet to hit this point in my reading to learn for myself, that there was a time in the United States that being Irish was considered a being a separate race from being Caucasian. If that’s true, I don’t know what to make of it. It just seems so far removed and un-talked about today that I don’t know how to grasp it.
So much of how we identify ourselves seems to boil down to stories we make up about ourselves. An ever more worrisome portion of our identities seems to be stories that have been forced upon us by others.