Thursday, April 8, 2021

Family History And Heritage

In the mid-1980s, I was infected with the genealogy bug. I had a desire to know more about my family history: who I came from; who those people were; how their life unfolded; how I resulted from their journey. I began by following the traditional route of family history researchers. First, we identify the cast of characters by name in our ancestral pool, both direct ancestors and their siblings and descendants. Next comes the basic, dry facts of them: dates (birth, marriage, death); their relationship to us. Then their geography (where did they happen; what were their movements). We interview extended family members for their recollections, oral histories, and perhaps personal documentation. We search the public records in federal / state / local archives: census reports for each decade; wartime service records; business directories; newspaper articles: state and local bureaus of official records. We search the ancestry data resources available.

The stories in the history books find a place on our desk. When we begin to connect the stories and events and dates within the school textbooks to our emerging genealogical landscape, our accumulated names gradually come alive as “real people.” People who were part of the historical story; historical stories that were lived by the people. Over time, our own life begins to expand. Expands beyond one’s usual day-to-day existence, our usual focus on ourselves as the center of the Universe. Connection with our ancestors helps us share connection and space with our contemporary companions.

Each step, each contact, in the genealogical journey yields more pieces to the ancestral puzzle, yet also another research step to be undertaken. Until a trail runs cold, and the next ancestor in the line disappears, apparently lost into time. At which time we start down a new trail and repeat the process. For all its time demands and inevitable frustrations, it is a highly rewarding journey. If you are a White American. Preferably of Western European descent.

If you are an African-American setting out on a genealogy journey, you will likely travel a very different trip than the one described above. Many of the above resources and official records created between 1900 and the present would be available, whether one’s ancestors came to America post-1900 or before. But “story information” could be harder to come by, given how much Black history in the 20th Century has been buried and under-reported until fairly recently.  If you had ancestors in America during the post-Civil War / Reconstruction / 1865-1900 period, resources and information could be a mixed picture. Black Americans were just beginning to be “officially” recognized as individuals in the Census recordings, the Vital Statistics records, school records, etc., but it would be very hit-and-miss depending on one’s individual situation within the Jim Crow racial segregation and  oppression framework.

But it is the Civil War that rings down the genealogical curtain, hiding an unseen civilization behind its silence, a curtain rarely raised except for perhaps a quick peek. In the 245 years that Black America was also slavery America, Black Americans were treated as non-human beings. There were no birth certificates. If given a name, it would be one determined by the slave owner. Death was routinely burial in a mass, unmarked grave, its occupants identified by no headstones. If recorded in one of the census listings, a slave could be noted as simply one of a number – e.g. “6 slaves,” individually unidentified, familial relationships unstated, perhaps even with a dollar value assigned. Further, our Constitution directed that slaves be only counted as “3/5 of a person” for government representation. In short, slaves were legally considered on the same par as farm livestock, sold and bought at public auction, “property” literally chained to their owner, their existence found (if at all) only in commercial records, not government recordkeeping. These antebellum Black Americans may have been highly visible in the flesh given their numbers, but the acknowledgment and substantiation of their existence was invisible, lost to time. They are known only in the collective, except perhaps the few “family oral histories” that have survived.

“Heritage” is the accumulated stories of our ancestors reflecting their times and events. Stories often only partially true, historical snippets that selectively pick out the “good stuff” while ignoring uncomfortable omissions. But that is intellectually and ethically dishonest: we have to take the good together with the bad before we can properly claim “our heritage.” They are also stories handed down over potentially long periods of time, increasingly impassioned with each tick of the clock.

There is much talk these days about “our heritage,” and the need to preserve and defend it from supposed attack (e.g. the “cancel culture” movement). The first problem with this call to arms is that most people cannot define what their heritage is. At best, we get those romanticized ideas that quickly come to one’s mind. The second problem is, whose heritage are we referencing? White southern history; Black southern history; New England history; Southwestern frontier history? Asian- / Italian- / Scottish- / Middle East-American history? Each person, each group, has a unique heritage story. These stories, collectively and interwoven, form America’s collective and complete heritage. Which is why, when we talk about our own personal heritage, we are obligated to remember that our personal heritage is not everyone’s heritage. My story includes soldiers on both the North and South side of the Civil War. So whom do I honor? What is my heritage? Black heritage is not my personal heritage, but my personal heritage interacts with Black heritage to create America’s heritage.

Can it be that the outcry we hear today about “protecting our heritage” is not from the fear of potential loss? Rather, could it be the growing pains of our national heritage expanding to include our many heritages trying to live together? What I feel confident in saying is that there is no White American who has an ancestor that was bought, chained, sold, forcibly separated from family, and lived an undocumented life with no legal rights as a free human being, and no safety protection from the State. My heritage is not your heritage. But they are our shared heritage.

©   2021  Randy Bell    


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Advice Regarding Advice

Advice. People have been giving and receiving advice ever since the first human beings arose on this earth. There are people more than willing to offer their opinions on a host of topics regarding what one should think and do, and others more than happy to receive said opinions. They can be opinions on major life decisions, or a simple task now in process over the next five minutes, and everything in between.

Structurally, there are two sources of advice available to us: “Institutional Advice,” and “Individual Advice.” Institutional Advice comes from three principal providers: Government, though its constitutions, laws and regulations; Religion/Church, through its formal dogma, rituals, and sacred writings; and Culture/Society, through its codes of acceptable conduct within one’s group. We may not think of these institutions as true “advice givers,” but rather as the necessary and acceptable mechanisms for holding group societies together. But given that – for better or worse – humans can accept or deny these various institutional rules, and decide whether to follow them or not regardless of any societal punishments, then realistically all of these institutional expectations are ultimately simply advice from which we make our life choices.

Then there are the more familiar Individual Advice Givers. They are the friends, family, sometimes even strangers who give us their perspective on some issue or activity with which we are engaged. The fundamental goal is to help the Advice Receiver find from within him-/herself the solutions and decisions appropriate to him/her; it is all about Self-discovery. When done well and with purity of intention, such advice can be very helpful to us as we plod our way through our daily lives. For the Advice Giver, it can be personally satisfying that one’s experiences and opinions have some value worth sharing, and satisfying to know that one has been helpful to another human being. For the Advice Receiver, the ability to share one’s burdens, and having the benefit of wider experiences from which to draw, can ease the burden of one’s personal decision-making. But when done poorly and with impurity of intention by either party, advice can make our already complicated and difficult life even more problematic; a potential gift from the emergence of one’s latent creativity may be forever lost. There are four key scenarios that disrupt well-intentioned and effective giving and receiving of advice, and can in fact create personal friction in the relationship between Giver and Receiver.

1. Receiver: “What would you do [in this situation or problem]?” What I would do if facing your challenges is speculation on my part, because I am not actually facing your very real challenges in your very real circumstances. So my imagined solutions would be theoretical at best. My desired outcomes are not necessarily appropriate to your aspirations. The real question is, what are you trying to accomplish? What I think I might do is irrelevant to your decision-making, other than perhaps illustrating some options that you might consider for yourself.

2. Receiver: “What would you do if you were me?” or Giver: “If I were you I would …”: I am not you. My life experiences, goals, priorities, and circumstances are different than yours. My current situation may have similarities with yours, but overall our lives are significantly different. Without strong restraint, I will wind up describing what I would do for ME, not you. The best I can do in this scenario is to surround my reply with full disclosure of how I reached that conclusion for me. Thereby, you can determine whether my decision considerations and objectives have any relevance to your aspirations and concerns.

3. Receiver: “What should I do?” I do not know. I cannot possibly know. What I do know is that this question turns the conversation on its head. It effectively allows the Receiver to surrender control and responsibility for making his/her own personal decisions. We each have to make our own call in response to the challenges we encounter. We each need to take advantage of the opportunities for personal growth, maturity, and learning that come with making and assessing our decisions. As tempting as it may be in the moment, those opportunities are lost when the Receiver avoids the decision and leaves it to others to determine instead.

4. Giver: “You should ...” The two killer words in any advice discussion. Nothing of real value comes from any words that follow after. The Giver has moved from a position of “helper” to one of control, of dominance over the Receiver. In turn, the Receiver has moved either into a position of subservience towards “going along with the should,” or defensiveness in order to retain the integrity of his/her Self. This is no longer a conversation, but a lecture. It is not to be mistaken for advice, but rather a treat for the ego of the Giver.

There is one check that is helpful to measure whether our intention as an Advice Giver is in its proper place. When we give advice, it is critically important that we detach ourselves from the advice itself. That we retain no sense of expectation or judgment as to whether the Receiver takes our advice or not. We were asked for our thoughts and opinion. We gave same. If we take personally the Receiver’s ultimate decision, and are miffed if s/he goes another direction, then we know that we actually attempted to make the conversation about us, not the Receiver. The goal was for us to be humbly helpful to another in their struggle by finding where their heart and mind are leading them. It was not supposed to be about our own wonderfulness, the superiority of our knowledge and supposed wisdom, and our life instead of theirs.

Which brings us to the final overriding and cautionary axiom for Advice Givers: THE WORST ADVICE THERE IS, IS UNSOLICITED ADVICE. Advice giving is a response function, not a self-initiated function. Sometimes the best advice is to say nothing at all, but to just listen; minding our own business can often be the best advice we can offer. Often, what people really want is just to be heard. If our egos really call us to offer advice not requested, then we would do well to at least first ask the permission of the Receiver as to whether s/he wants it.

This is my unsolicited Advice Regarding Advice.

(With thanks to a special meditation group for stimulating this essay.)

©    2021   Randy Bell