Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ancestor Worship

I actually was laying some groundwork in my post yesterday for something that's been nagging at me for a long time, namely how can I venerate my ancestors when clearly, many of my ancestors, as well as my living family, are pretty shitty? None of you have asked me this question, but it's one I often ask myself. ***** Yesterday I saw something that I briefly thought was the most brilliant comment on the whole Confederate flag problem: a swastika surrounded by the infamous "Heritage, Not Hate" slogan. Dwell with me for a moment in the possibility that this is snarky (it's not, but we'll get to that in a second). Through a slight exaggeration, it draws into sharp focus the ridiculousness of asking people to overlook recent history in order to let you continue to venerate a symbol you find historically meaningful. And, as far as symbols go, the swastika has thousands of years of positive meaning to cultures across the globe, whereas the Confederate battle flag obviously didn't even exist until there was, briefly, a Confederacy to fight under it. But that's the thing, you can't have it both ways. You can't claim a symbol has historic meaning--thus its importance to you--at the same time you try to insist that you can redefine it to mean something that isn't negative. Either things have their whole histories or they don't have any history at all. In the U.S., we place strong emphasis on the myth of the individual, the rugged man (usually) with no ties to anyone or anything who goes around conquering the West or space or wherever. So, we tend not to believe that things have much of a history at all and we have acted as if stripping people and things of their history is just one more necessary act for the expansion of the country. But things are slowly changing, I think, as one, among many, positive consequences of the rise of multiculturalism. The past, good and bad, and our complicated relationship to it, is something we can now start to come to terms with. But we can only do that if we acknowledge whole histories. Wanting to only keep the good stuff, though a perfectly human response, doesn't put us in right relation with the past. The past is no better than the present. People who lived in the past did not have it easier than we do. They were not better than us. And, most importantly, the things they did continue to affect us. Trying to reclaim the Confederate battle flag or the swastika is a grave insult to the past in that such an attempt denies the agency and experiences of those past people. You may say that those people who acted evilly under the banners of those symbols did so out of ignorance of what those symbols stood for, to which I say, exactly, and that's a shame, but exactly. Those actions are now intimately tied to those symbols. To oversimplify it for the sake of clarity, those symbols have an almost insurmountable amount of bad luck tied to them (using luck to mean a mixture of fortune and obligations), which you cannot insist folks not recognize. ***** One of the things the Professor and I keep coming back to over and over is the concept of Whiteness. It's been important for a lot of scholars to argue that there is no such thing as a positive concept of whiteness, because the concept is so loaded with racist, sexist, and classist assumptions. And I don't blame people for being tired and frustrated when talking about whiteness, because so much of it is about unacknowledged privilege. But the truth is that white people do conceive of themselves as white and that, right now, if the academy isn't actively defining whiteness, the white power movement sure as hell is. Get this straight, my scholarly friends, just because you aren't doing something, doesn't mean it isn't being done. Whiteness is right now being defined by the racist fucktards. Right now, there is an active and dynamic conversation being held about what it means to be white and, because we're all busy being unsure and uncertain about how to talk about it, the sure and certain voice of the racists is the one being heard. ***** I think that sureness and certainty are dangerous. Folks who are sure and certain never question what they're doing. They don't check their assumptions against the lessons of the past or their present circumstances. And that's what I want from my family--a large group of people, living and dead, with similar luck and obligations to me, against whose experiences I can check myself. It doesn't mean that I think they always made the right choices. In fact, it would be little use to me if they had. "Venerate,"then, is the wrong word. No one, living or dead, is better than me and I, in return, am not intrinsically more valuable than anyone else. I do the best I can with the privileges, luck, and obligations I have, and am mindful of my own worth. I try not to dishonor my ancestors by forgetting that they are also human, prone to good and evil the same as anyone else. I don't dishonor them by linking their value to their race(s) instead of their actions, as if the right things they did were due to a fluke of genetics and not tough choices. But I also don't venerate them. I adore the family members I adore, try to understand the ones I don't, and am casually mindful of the ones I don't know. I am, however, as certain of them as I can be in a family full of story tellers (I don't have any reason to believe that anyone has been made up out of whole cloth, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn it). And as much as I value uncertainty, it's nice to have something to count on.


Blogger Yankee, Transferred said...

Yet another in a continuing series of well written, thought-provoking posts, which is what I have come to expect from and appreciate about this blog.

6/28/2005 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger twila said...

Wonderful, insightful words. You make me think, and I like that!

6/28/2005 11:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Whiteness was determined by the size of one's trailer?


6/28/2005 11:58:00 AM  

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