What does this mean? I will get to this, but first, over the past week I have been putting up a fence. The process of digging holes in the earth, finding the rock underneath and then recognizing that the only way to get the hole deep enough to set the post was to break out a small sledgehammer and a pry bar to chip away at the stubborn limestone one hammer-blow at a time served to be most fruitful. My internal poet embraced the challenge with each swing of the small sledge punctuated by a shrill and penetrating ping. Not only were the holes getting deep enough, so was the metaphor.
I am a white American man. What does this mean? My family descends from Europeans. Simple enough answer, no? Not a wrong answer, but not a complete answer. Let’s call this a C. To get to a B, I will add that my family largely associates with the Scottish heritage of my paternal grandmother while her husband, deceased before my birth, was born in Wales. The only family legend we have is that you would regret calling my grandfather English. He was WELSH! On my mother’s side we have Irish and German. Most of these relatives disappeared from our lives long before any of my siblings were born largely due to now cliched differences between Protestants and Catholics. Someone Catholic married someone Protestant and the rest of the family disowned the rogue. I know more facts than this, but in reality the facts don’t matter as much as the stupidity highlighted by the legend. Now, I feel I have earned a B.
What would be an A answer to this question? All of those ancestors, known and unknown, had a choice to come to America. While our family may not know the legends, we don’t have any Ellis Island name-changes and my sisters are not qualified to be members of any Daughter of the American Revolution (DAR) branch, we can assume that our family tree is one whose roots were largely planted in the fertile soil of choice. For instance, when my own father decided to get off the road as a traveling salesman for a Boston-based lumber company and take a managerial position in Rochester, New Hampshire my parents did the research and were able to choose the town with the reputed best school district in southeastern NH to raise me and the younger of my two older sisters. Thus I became an Oyster River Bobcat K-12 and in the pool an Oyster River Otter. My A-answer is that my whiteness meant my heritage is one defined by choice.
My ancestors were not torn from their homelands, thrown in chains, carried across the grueling seas and sold at market to the highest bidder. My ancestors were not torn apart from their families. Were not tortured. Were not raped. Were not lynched. Were not told they were 3/5ths of a human. Were not told they had to use separate but inferior facilities and schools. Were not told to sit on the back of the bus.
My ancestors could catch their breath when needed.
When I think about the struggles my non-descript white family has had over the years, the untimely deaths and surgeries, the addictions and recoveries, the failures and successes, the periods of struggle and their little victories, I can see that there is something fundamentally difficult about life. No one said it would be easy, and it hasn’t always been; and when it was hard we were free to do the work and, more often than not, did it.
I, however, cannot begin to fathom how these struggles could possibly compare to a man’s whose story also includes slavery, servitude, segregation, and subordination; whose heritage as a black man is defined by horrors we wish were unspeakable, but must NOT be unspoken.
A man whose ancestors could not catch their breath when needed. A man not free to do the work. A man whose heritage is not defined by choice but slavery.
I am a white American man and that has meant choice when another man, as human as me, did not have a choice because he was black.
Image from the following website End Slavery Now.