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Can Genealogy End White Supremacy?

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August 7, 2019 at 9:19am

At any given moment, I'm about as likely to be thinking about or researching my family tree as doing anything else. It's been an obsession since I was teenager, one I've always attributed to my father having died when I was young. What I lacked in a mature, palpable relationship with him, I tried to compensate with one of blood. Besides, it had been made clear to me that even in death, we were linked.

When I failed, I let him down, when I succeeded, I made him proud. Or so I was told. And through all of it, I was as much assured, he loved me. And if his father had lived to meet me, I would have been his grandson, and he would have known me and loved me, so couldn't all the same be said of him? And his father? And his?

And so it was with each father's father and mother I could add to my tree. And as I did so, and fleshed out the lives of those men and women, I found more. Traits, both virtues and vices, that seemed glaringly familiar. Long, simple lives, short, violent ones. Ones that played out in the background of vast historical events, others at the forefront of them.

Eventually, I was able, to some extent, to form a sort of narrative of myself as a link in a chain grounded by an anchor, inching ever closer to a solid foundation beneath the water. Those before me had since submerged, and I may have appeared alone above the water, but was connected just the same.

The events that formed this country became much less distant and incomprehensible. Zooming in on the microcosms of my ancestors' involvement in them, they became, real, rich, personal, and this country seemed more and more my country.

At a glance, that sentiment might seem a good basis for nativism and white-supremacy, but yesterday, walking from my office to my car at the end of the workday, I couldn't help but wonder whether that sense of connection might be something that the white-supremacist murderers once again dominating the headlines lacked.

Though it's obviously debatable, I don't lay any of it at the feet of President Trump. People did not become hopelessly, murderously paranoid because of his Presidency, he became President because people had become hopelessly, murderously paranoid.

He was elected because, as others have detailed more fully and thoughtfully, a chunk of our population that feels certain they once had every advantage are equally certain they now have none at all, and see the world today as so alien to the one they grew up in that the future becomes unimaginably terrifying.

I suspect that those people are drawing from a narrative they've created from their own lives, the lives of their parents, and maybe as far back as their grandparents. A narrative that begins in the depression, moves to American victory in Europe and the Pacific and the well-earned boom of the post-war era, and then descends into Vietnam, no-fault divorce, shuttered factories, transgenderism, and southern border crossings.

As a parent dealing every day with young children, I see the same effect of a limited sense of scale in practice. Just last night, my seven-year-old pitched a fit over having to take a bath in the evening because it would cut five or ten minutes out of the hour he had left before bed. On some rational scale he must have known that another long summer day awaited him in the morning, but deep down he had no real faith in it and fought desperately against the prospect of wasted seconds.

And so we look at the El Paso shooter's manifesto. Illegal immigrants will "take control of... [his] beloved Texas". They will make it "a Democrat stronghold". They will "form interracial unions".

All of this may very well be true. Texas may become Democratic, just as it became Republican with the rest of the South all of forty years ago, following years of oppressing black voters that, like Latinos today, tended to vote for the opposite party from the whites. Except that the black voters voted Republican, and the Latino voters (to a lesser degree) vote Democrat. And of course, the parties have both changed, though perhaps not as drastically as some would suggest. The Democrats were certainly the larger magnet for white-supremacists fifty years ago, but they were also still the party that tended to be more concerned about poor folks, while Republicans (though more in favor of civil rights) still focused more on industry and its titans.

All this to say that there is an irony in someone fighting for their "beloved Texas" in 2019. Because while they may have found common cause with a Klansman in the 1960s that was certain the blacks would be given enough ease of access to vote that they would turn Texas Republican, they would have been less likely to find as much with folks like Jim Bowie and his wife Ursula Maria de Veramendi, or others who joined him in giving their lives in defense of the Alamo like Guadalupe Rodriquez or Damacio Jiménez.

In my experience, if you ask a proud Texan how long their families have been there, they're as likely as not to say "forever!" which typically means that they never knew their grandparents, born in the 1940s, to have lived anywhere else.

In one respect, having seen the land grants two of my maternal ancestors received in Texas when they arrived during the days of the Republic gives me a sense of superiority, probably not unlike what those whose families arrived before the days of the Republic would feel toward me. But being able to also trace those ancestors' decedents as they fought and died for the Confederacy, married into the Southern families that flooded into the State during Reconstruction, stormed out of JFK's nominating party and became avowed Republicans, there's a much stronger sense of scale to show that if you love Texas today, you love something not only unrecognizable to earlier Texans, but probably distasteful.

So to kill for the sliver of it you've experienced becomes preposterous. The change has already come, and it was you, and you were accommodated.

Your ancestors lived through infinitely greater upheavals than you can begin to imagine. They railed against the influx of Irish immigrants. They railed against electricity, and television sets, and mechanized farming. Then you arrived and thought, for the most part, everything was fine, until now...

And so, as much as my ancestor worship might lend not-entirely-virtuous airs, at the end of the day it gives me a sense of comfort and security not threatened by change or failure.

I hope that I leave such a legacy that someday my name will be one my descendants speak of with pride, but whether they do or not, they'll still, if they care to, be able to find it.

And I hope that my country will end up looking as I'd like it to look, but whether it does or not, there will never be any doubt that it is my country.