ESSAY

Week 3

“And When Ancestors Are Dishonorable?”

by Ken Collier

Many people think of their ancestors as dead and gone, and therefore to be thought about only occasionally and with no real attachment, as if they have no claim on us who live. But how can we embrace our heritage while turning our backs on the ancestors who carried that heritage forward and gave it to us?

My African-American friends insist on the necessity of honoring our ancestors. To honor the ancestors is to embrace our heritage and carry it forward in our turn. I believe this, and it is one of the things that led me into genealogy. But understanding my genealogy has presented me with a serious problem.

It is easy to honor ancestors when those ancestors were honorable, but what does one do when one’s forbears were dishonorable? How does one honor the dishonorable?

My parents were good and gentle, kind and compassionate people. When I look back through the generations of my ancestors, though, I find an unbroken string of slaveholding, giving way to the neo-slavery of Jim Crow and on into the racism of the 20th century. My family’s dishonorable history begins at least in the mid-1600s and quite possible earlier.

For just one example, my ancestor, Lockey Collier, was murdered in 1778 by the people he enslaved, presumably because of the harsh way he treated them. How is it possible to honor such a man and others like him? Would that not be giving tacit approval to the slavery they practiced and the racism they embraced? Are we just to ignore these dishonorable ancestors? Do we say, “OK. I’ll honor these ancestors but not those. I’ll honor only the ones I can approve of.”

That won’t do. These dreadful people are also part of our heritage, and we cannot embrace our heritage while ignoring the hard parts, pretending that our heritage is all fine and dandy and has no stains upon it. It is dishonest; it is a kind of lie.

So I wrestled with this problem and for years, I had no answer. Then I watched the film Amistad for about the third time and found a solution that makes sense to me. In the film, as John Quincy Adams is preparing to argue the case of the captured Africans before the Supreme Court, he has a conversation with the Africans’ leader, Cinque. Cinque gave me the answer as he spoke eloquently of his ancestors. He says that the line of his ancestors from the very beginning will stand with him and help because he is the culmination of their line. They act in history through him, and they are honored by his honorable actions and life.

And that is my answer. My ancestors’ crimes against humanity (and what else are slavery and racism but crimes against humanity?) cry out for redress, for atonement, for being set to rest. Neither my ancestors nor the people they enslaved are still living. So how can these crimes be atoned for? How set to rest? And by whom?

By me. The ancestors act through us. We honor our dishonorable ancestors by acting honorably for them.

My ancestors call out from beyond the grave for me to atone for their crimes, and I honor them by confessing my family’s sins and working to repair the damage they inflicted on so many people. How can I forgive my grandmother for the racism she worked to plant in my heart? I forgive her by working to erase the very racism she embraced. I do not take their guilt on. I work to heal the wounds they inflicted.

I work to create the heritage that I want my life to carry forward.