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The Both/Ands of Family History in a Month Dedicated to Immigrant Heritage, among Other Good Things

To be completely honest, I often resist the idea of (only) dedicating a month or a day here and there to important historical moments or ideas. This is especially the case when these superficial, capitalistic, or corporatized efforts are that only and not part of true systemic change. At the same time, if there are not specific times dedicated to ideas and histories, we can’t get to a time in which they are part of our everyday living and learning. All of those both/ands being stated upfront, it is June, which marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and there is so much, besides that glorious sun, to soak up and learn from. June began in observance of day two of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It is also the month for Pride, Loving Day, and Juneteenth, which finally became a federal holiday. I am sitting with both the celebration and the concern around that proclamation from the Black community but definitely NOT the 14 representatives who voted against it. (Yep. Sometimes there are not both/ands but only either/ors for me. And that would be one of them.)

I was grateful to spend part of an afternoon during the week-long Juneteenth events that were planned near my hometown in Johnstown. Speaking of home, a reminder of family and my roots, it is also Immigrant Heritage Month. This is a time in which we can reflect on the complicated history of immigration to what is now the United States. I’m doing this after a year-plus of sitting with my family history and the larger historical events that intersect with and bump into it. And I’m urging you, dear reader, to take time to think more carefully about your own family history and the times in which your ancestors occupied the roles of both oppressor and oppressed.

A few months before the pandemic, I learned that a great-great-grandfather died in a bituminous coal mine explosion in southwestern Pennsylvania on the day before Christmas Eve in 1899. I did some further investigating to find more details, which were graphic. It made me think about the trauma it caused and continues to cause, despite what I have gathered are low levels of generational awareness around the event, and how my great-great-grandmother and her children were not the only family to have experienced this over the course of coal mining history. Thinking more broadly about generational trauma, this aspect of family history is quite common and sometimes even more horrific. Resmaa Menakem’s work looks specifically at the racialized trauma passed between generations, and I recommend his book My Grandmother’s Hands to almost everyone I meet.

Keeping with what I know about my own European immigrant family roots, I recall a trip I took with a student group to an anthracite coal mine in eastern Pennsylvania. Part of the tour included an underground “hospital,” where mildly to seriously injured miners had to wait until the end of the shift to leave with their crew. While standing in the depths of the dark, barely lit mine, we learned how families of deceased miners would find baskets of body parts on the front porch of their company homes. These baskets would have a note that read something like, “Replace this worker within 48 hours or vacate the premises.” This is how some children ended up working in the mines, which still happens in other parts of the world today. Each of these familial and regional anecdotes helped me understand and better appreciate my great-grandfather’s role in the unionization of mine workers in western Pennsylvania. I recently learned that this great-grandfather, a child of Hungarian immigrants, learned to speak five languages as a foreman. Though, I try to hold these heroic feats equally with other kinds of stories, like his open discrimination against racialized minorities. As a kind friend said to me as I struggled out loud about this, this is all part of my story. And it carries me on my journey in investigating the role of my ancestors as both oppressor and oppressed and looking for ways to heal the generational and racialized trauma within myself and across my relationships with fellow human beings.

Family histories are complicated, but I don’t believe very many families approach their histories in these ways. In my interviews with retired steelworkers during my grad school days, I observed and thought deeply about the concept of nostalgia, which is a way we selectively remember and forget. As humans, we prefer to focus on the happy times. Even hard times can be cast in a positive light once we make it through them. Extending that to narratives around family history, ancestors are often cast in a light as heroes but not as oppressed and oppressor, as that would dredge up stories inconsistent with narratives around declaring freedom from tyrants outside of the United States and escaping persecution in other lands that are not the United States.

Last summer, while taking a course on music, myth, and ancestry, I learned of a field called “critical family history” where, particularly for people of European descent in the United States, scholars and family historians resist the myth-making that led to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s firing from CNN. These are the kinds of myths (and nostalgia) that create heroes out of settler-colonizers and enslavers. They erase the histories of the indigenous people who were the original inhabitants and caretakers as well as the trauma experienced in the displacement and enslavement of Africans. Critical family history can also bring to light the complicated nature of the treatment of ancestors considered immigrants at different points in time as well as the exclusion of immigrant groups who have either established themselves here, are fleeing violence, or whose ancestral lands the United States now occupies.

The more that full-time and folk historians approach family histories in this way, the more hopeful I am about the ability of relationships in the United States to heal emotionally, politically, and materially. Yet, it’s still not a widespread practice, especially for family members drawn to media outlets that mischaracterize not only the field of critical race theory but also exaggerate about how it’s “infecting” our schools. If only that last part were true, we’d certainly understand our relationships to one another more clearly and find the pathways to healing as communities of human beings in this part of the world and beyond.

A compiled family history and family cookbook on the other side of my family contain various sentiments and points of pride about buying land indirectly from William Penn’s sons and being the first to farm a plot of land in eastern Pennsylvania. These ancestors, to be fair, escaped persecution in Europe for being Anabaptist. However, they managed to overlook the displacement and persecution of the Lenape when they indirectly purchased land not only from William Penn’s sons but possibly the Walking Purchase. The purchase of property continued to flow with ease in later generations because of the wealth that was passed along to subsequent generations, helping to further cement racial inequity in generational wealth in the United States. One grandmother donated a decent portion of this accumulated wealth before her passing to various organizations. I wish I could ask her what moved her toward those actions. Was it Christian charity, an attempt at healing generational trauma, or both? And how can I continue to live in a more transformational way through my own work and actions? What more can be illuminated as I shake the family tree?

As I search the less obvious parts of my family tree – following maternal links and looking for ancient, pre-Christian medicines and traditions in Europe from which my immigrant ancestors descended – I hold both pride and horror at what they survived, perpetuated, and created. I marvel at how each human being on this planet is the result of thousands of relationships that could have never been. And, like one of my ancestors, I struggle with whether it should have been, as we recently learned of a sexual assault in our lineage. (Again, something that I know many women and girls have experienced over time and continue to experience.) These searches and imaginings have led me to talk to colleagues about how to think about their own family histories, inspired some happy and angry poems for another time, and helped me to more completely understand how and why I got “here.” It has made me more patient with myself and others related to hesitations and confrontations with the truth of things. And it’s certainly helped me to resist romanticizing the past and honor the complications of it all. The both/ands. All while finding ways to heal the trauma experienced and perpetuated by my ancestors that I see in myself and those around me, which, I’m learning, is messy but necessary work.

I’m going to end with a quote by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson that popped up in a Sojourner’s daily email this week. It speaks to my ability to sit with the sadness and discomforts of our histories and realities:

May I have the eyes to see this as a good world in need of restoration / Rather than a bad world and an obstacle to my personal peace and rest.

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