Slaveowners in the Attic
August 8, 2013 3:51 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend recently found out that one of the branches of her family owned slaves pre-Civil War era in North Carolina. This has really devastated her at some level, especially because she was previously so proud of her near generation family (1 or 2 back). Even worse, it's her last name so she feels that she's been tainted by this revelation. While I was trying to make her feel better, it occurred to me that I didn't quite know how one deals with the fact that your family history is entwined with an evil like slavery, and the fact that it was legal at the time doesn't really assuage her guilt from her ancestors' actions.

Beyond the standard "you don't bear their guilt", I wanted to know if anyone else had insight how to come to terms with something like this. How does one approach a connection to slavery without whitewashing and shrugging your shoulders?
posted by Lord Chancellor to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My late first wife's family were slave owners about 4+ generations back. Mine did not, at least from what I can gather. We were obviously poor or bad managers or stuck in Europe until after 1865. Had we been here, and had we had money, and had slaves been available, I am sure we would have had a pile.

It's a waste of time to nurse guilt over the actions of ancestors. The best way to 'deal' with it is knowledge, I think. If you go back far enough, you get back to non-slave holders, you know? It wasn't always legal. America helped make it legal and keep it legal for a long time. It's wonderful when modern Americans get a face full of reality when it comes to the national myths. If it helps, the rest of the country, pre and post-1776 was busy raping, murdering, and ethnically cleansing native Americans, so few of us are really free from historic shame. Europeans, in particular devastated this place. Then, there were the yellow folks we murdered for the railroad. And that other pile of Japanese Americans we deprived of their constitutional rights, their property, their lives and futures in the early 1940's. Mexican agricultural workers today face the same crap in civilized California, Texas. Imprisoned southern blacks faced de facto slavery into the 1950's. We really don't know what's going on in our prisons to this date. Worse, some / many are now for-profit games.

Black skin is just another shade white America once decided was unworthy. Girlfriend, and the rest of us, should ponder that, not worry if our 'family honor' has been besmirched. It most certainly has, pretty much across the board.
posted by FauxScot at 4:13 PM on August 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

If we go far enough, all of us can find some relatives that did things that would put us to shame ... if we were to do them. To me, what's really shameful is that there are still people today that would feel proud of that fact. I would suggest that she think about this.
posted by aroberge at 4:21 PM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

This post on Racism Review might help, mainly for the reading suggestions of others dealing with similar situations.

My gut feeling is that she needs to come to terms with the fact that she does bear some responsibility, in that her family exploited black people's bodies in order to get ahead or survive, and her very existence is owed to that. So "guilt" might not be quite helpful, but acknowledging how she personally benefited from other people's oppression is probably the first step toward atoning, making amends, and integrating this knowledge into her life in a healthy way.
posted by jaguar at 4:23 PM on August 8, 2013 [13 favorites]

Any American bears the weight of this, especially when racism is still so prevalent. It's not specific to her ancestors. It's a social problem.
posted by mdn at 4:23 PM on August 8, 2013 [12 favorites]

Blacks enslaved other blacks in Africa, the Japanese whom we so maltreated during WWII were busy committing unspeakable atrocities in China, the Chinese throughout their history have been monsters to subjugated peoples, Latino immigrants who are so put upon and want US citizenship today are descended from civilizations which sacrificed virgins and enslaved enemy combatants, American Indians cut the scalps off of living children, even the gentle, ukulele-strumming Hawaiians had a caste system so harsh they would bury their untouchables in the ground _alive_ in the foundations of new temples to consecrate them.

Every national/cultural/linguistic/ethnic group has at one time or another perpetrated acts of such utter barbarity on another group that even Rhett Butler would have to give a damn.

Tell your girlfriend that while it's not bad for her to feel a bit troubled, she's not alone. You, the (ironically named) Lord Chancellor, have as blood-stained a lineage as she does, and so does everyone else.
posted by luke1249 at 4:30 PM on August 8, 2013 [30 favorites]

My direct ancestors owned slaves on both sides. On one side, I am also descended from a black woman who "passed." Neither weighs against the other. I am Mississippian.

It's a thing I am. It is my name and my nature. I can never not be a descendant of slaveowners. But there are things I can choose not to be. Every day, I choose to do my best not to do anything racist, to recognize my white privilege, to try to make things better in the little ways that are left to me as an individual.

She's no different than she was yesterday. She can choose to be different tomorrow. From the sound of her, as you describe her, I think she is going to be just fine.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:34 PM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

I do a lot of genealogies. Grandfathers that have murdered grandmothers, parents abandoning their children, and a lot more. We aren't our fathers and mothers. Or our ancestors.

I love doing genealogy - for millions of years, your ancestors successful bred despite predators, plagues, wars and accidents. EVERY SINGLE one met a mate, successful bred and then that offspring did that ALL over again. That's goddamn amazing, but to think everyone of those people is a nice person is pretty unlikely.

I think we learn lessons from genealogy- not gain pride.
posted by beccaj at 4:36 PM on August 8, 2013 [17 favorites]

I am acquainted with one of the members of the family who made this film. She might find it relevant and interesting, though it won't necessarily give a bunch of concrete answers. There are many people struggling with how to deal with this.
posted by marylynn at 4:42 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The US Constitution forbids "corruption of blood". What that means is that none of us can be held legally responsible for the acts of our ancestors.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:43 PM on August 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Due to the fact that every generation has twice as many ancesters as the previous, as you go back you'll find everyone has someone that has done something horrible in their family tree. It doesn't taint the family tree, it gives you goal to overcome.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:46 PM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

How does one approach a connection to slavery without whitewashing and shrugging your shoulders?

Channel how she feels into detailing it out and telling the story. Make a chart of her family tree. Go to schools and talk about how she felt. Write a letter to the local paper with the diagram and the story. The truth is the truth. It's startling how many young people today have no feel for how recent slavery was. She should educate young people so they understand this is a real thing that happened that had a real effect on actual people. That awareness can help them as they grow up, understanding that many of the things they see are a direct result. She can talk about both sides - about how x many people were enslaved at place y there for z many years. Then she can say "You are innocent. Imagine for the next z many years, you are imprisoned, forced to do whatever someone says, under penalty of death. The government knows you and your family are imprisoned, and is fine with it."

Then she can hit it from the other side and say that for z many years, her ancestors had people making them money. Even if she just assumes a modest figure - say $500 a month. Multiply that for Z many years. Free money, at the expense of terrified, beaten, enslaved people.

It'll be a powerful lesson, and one they aren't likely to forget. She can also check with local historical societies and see what slave songs were known in the area. I had a white professor teach a lesson on the details of slavery, and after giving us the statistics that are so incomprehensible they are downright boring, she sang a couple of the slave songs. I'm in tears just remembering it. That would obviously be a big task, but I think it would be an amazing lesson and really humanize for the present, those who were dehumanized in the past.

If your friend wants to feel better about this, I wouldn't sweep it under the rug, I would display it. Teach people. Help them learn and understand.
posted by cashman at 4:48 PM on August 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

She needs to channel her discomfort into a new and more accurate world-view. Frankly, all Americans benefit everyday from centuries of unpaid labor. My family didn't own slaves, but all citizens of this country bear a responsibility to acknowledge how our lifestyle is based on the compound interest on slave labor, so to speak. We do not bear the guilt directly but have a responsibility to recognize the situation and correct our white-washed views, especially since the effects of the horrid racism still play out on the "children" of these slaves. What I'm saying is that she is experiencing the loss of an illusionary world view and it's a great opportunity to reorient herself. Rather than trying to explain away the guilt, she should explore it and embrace it. She will be thankful for it in the years to come.
posted by milarepa at 5:01 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Here are some examples:

One genealogist's response is curiosity about the people impacted by his ancestors. This one too.

This woman made a film.

In Virginia, descendants of former slaves and slave-owners met to talk about the past.

You say she just found out. I don't think you're asking for advice on what to say to her, but if I were in your shoes I'd just listen and give it a couple of weeks while she adjusts to the information.
posted by bunderful at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2013

I knew that there had been some slaves in New York back in the 17th and 18th centuries, but I always figured none of my ancestors had ever been prosperous enough to have been involved. Guess again. It was a real gut-wrenching feeling to see the papers that proved otherwise for the first time.

One of the first things I consciously decided to do was not use the phrase "owned slaves." To me, that implies a certain legitimacy of ownership that I didn't want to give it. I'm more comfortable saying that they "kept slaves." That sounds more to me like a description of something they didn't really have the moral right to do, but did anyway.

Knowing the awful things people tend to do to each other, I take some comfort in being sure it's not the worst thing an ancestor of mine has ever done.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:11 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

No slaves in my background...but then the native American indians? Many of us, I imagine, had relatives, if they were here early enough,who direcdtly or indirectly were involved in the horrors perpetrated upon them
posted by Postroad at 5:17 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

American Indians often practiced slavery. My (Native American) dentist recently told me that in my neck of the woods, the Modoc people regularly raided Northern California, took people from other tribes, and sold them up near the Columbia River.
posted by Danf at 5:21 PM on August 8, 2013

Here is a thing (and I think I may do this myself, although my family didn't arrive until after the Civil War - but we benefited materially from racism and Jim Crow because we had less economic competition and a clear narrative about whiteness as valuable) - I really believe in putting your money where your mouth is. Not because donating money "makes up for" slavery or because it's possible to put a "dollar value" on the lives of enslaved people, but because in this society money is a form of power, and giving people money to do with as they please is an important sign of respect, find anti-racist projects led by people of color and donate meaningful amounts of money (whatever meaningful is to you). Don't make a fuss, just give the money. Your slave-owning ancestors took away power and potential from the people they enslaved; one way to give back power and potential at least fractionally is to give money to racial justice causes. You could pick educational ones - Black Girls Code is getting a lot of mention in my circles, for instance - and/or specifically political ones, like groups that work against the prison industrial complex.

In my experience people often say things like "oh, it's insulting to suggest that mere money could make up for [Awful Thing]" and then they use that as an excuse to do nothing. Mere money doesn't make up for slavery and genocide and generations of dispossession, but then none of the tools we have make up for it - exactly what could possibly make up for something so terrible? Money is a tool we have, and it's one that I have observed white people often do not put at the service of racial justice causes.

This is a really good reminder for me, actually. I should do the same thing.

Also, she can commit to speaking up whenever white people say the usual foolery about how "it was so long ago" and "can't people get over it" and bootstraps and so on - a white person outing herself as someone unwilling to "get over" what her ancestors did could really be a powerful symbolic force in those conversations.
posted by Frowner at 5:25 PM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

My Grandfather's people moved to Illinois to try to help make it a slave state. Doesn't have anything to do with me, as far as I'm concerned - I'll be judged on how I run my life, thank you.
posted by thelonius at 5:35 PM on August 8, 2013

I guess that's the shoulder-shrugging you didn't ask for. The only substantive thing I can add as to how I dealt with learning this was that it made me reflect that the sense that I am isolated from the evils of mankind is an illusion.
posted by thelonius at 5:51 PM on August 8, 2013

Response by poster: To help with a few things, because I'm hearing some good thoughts, but would like to fill in: my girlfriend is of Jewish origin (secular style) and does feel pride in those traditions. She also feels pride that her grandparents and great-grandparents took stands during the Civil Rights Era and all that. So when I say family pride, that's what she feels. Someone previously mentioned how her existence was in someway supported by slavery; a revelation that made her not want to exist any more. She is very aware of the horrors of slavery, but right now she's confronting that she might not be alive if not for those same horrors and that her family of so long ago succeeded and survived for so long in part because of bonded labor. So, right now, she's having a terrible time justifying her existence. The other revelation was that there was some inbreeding back then too (cousins marrying) that doesn't bother me so much, but does make her feel like her last name is tainted and that she should leave it behind.

As much as donations are good, she's also not financially well off (though of course in America, better than many). Whatever fortunes the ancient lines in her family had, they have long since dried up, and she now works retail.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:51 PM on August 8, 2013

Best answer: The thing is that slavery has been a very common human practice throughout the whole of history, almost everywhere, at almost any time that sociopolitical conditions were right for it to arise. (Check out the "By Region" section in the Wikipedia article.) It is a horrible, disgusting thing, but as a cultural practice it falls under the general heading of "shitty things people have been inclined do to other people since time immemorial, because People Suck." Given (as blue_beetle points out) how quickly ancestors multiply as you move back, I doubt there's any of us who doesn't have both slaveowners and slaves in the family tree. To feel worse because it's nearer in the ancestry doesn't make very much sense, imho-- all of our existences are predicated on somebody, somewhere doing something terrible and exploitive to somebody else.

To avoid shoulder-shrugging, I'd say you might encourage your girlfriend to consider how this could make her a more morally astute person-- how the unique experience of being closely connected to something so evil might make her less inclined to make lazy us-vs.-them generalizations, as well as helping her be more careful about fostering her own moral growth. She might also consider that among an enormous body of good and bad forebears, each of us has the opportunity of choosing which ones to emulate and which ones to react against. If she actively honors the memory of her twentieth-century relatives by continuing to work for civil-rights causes, that should go a long way toward effacing second-hand guilt over the ugly choices that show up farther back in the family line.
posted by Bardolph at 6:13 PM on August 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

maybe some volunteering would wash away the guilt that has been transmitted down through mitochondrial DNA. turn that useless bad feeling into something good for the world.
posted by jpe at 6:24 PM on August 8, 2013

Your girlfriend's concerns reminded me of this eloquent comment by jb five years ago in a thread about atrocities committed by or for the benefit of our ancestors:

We must look this history right in the face - not guiltily, but unflinchingly.

No, we are not the colonizers. We are the children of the colonizers. We did not do these things, nor did we support a government who did these things. We do, however, benefit everyday from the economic and political outfall of the colonial system. The British industrial revolution - which fed into a world industrial revolution - was fueled by the products and profit of slave labour in the Caribbean colonies. The nineteenth century empire was greased with the profits of unequal trade.

We shouldn't feel guilty - we should feel angry about what our ancestors did.

We should recognise that most were not evil - they were people. They were short-sighted, they were racist, they were ideological. They didn't plan to abuse so many people; they were just out to make some money. To get an estate in Jamaica, to invest in some grain shipping from India, to sell a little opium to China. Some of them were starving, and all they wanted was a farm so they could work and make a better life. But that land did used to belong to someone else - and in Zimbabwe (and many other places), they want it back (okay, Mugabe is crazy and the land reform program is messed and corrupt, but I at least understand the impetus.)

We should look at all the worst bits of history, and try to understand why our ancestors did what they did, and why they thought like they did. And we should try to understand why they were often wrong, and how what they did continues to effect the world today, especially in the way colonization disrupted environments, economies, and power structures, and how rapid decolonization left power vaccuums filled by strongmen who terrify their own peoples. And we should understand how our ideologies - about free trade and the nature of development - just might be wrong. They may look good on paper, but every time we boot up the program it seems to crash.

We should understand all of this, so that we don't go ahead and do it again.

posted by jb at 2:14 PM on January 11, 2008 [40 favorites −] [!]

On preview, I think your girlfriend's more existential concerns are little overwrought. She is more than the sum total of the historical atrocities committed by a handful of her ancestors. Her inherent dignity as a human individual immunizes her from guilt for the crimes of her parents, let alone those of her great-great-great grandparents -- so long as she does not perpetuate them, of course. As jb reminds us, your girlfriend is her own person, living in the present, learning from the past. To be so consumed by guilt for her ancestors' actions is, in some ways, to perpetuate the idea that our predecessors' actions sear onto us the mark of Cain -- an idea that permitted and perpetuated slavery for much of this country's history. It is an idea your girlfriend needs to resist.
posted by hhc5 at 6:25 PM on August 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

I doubt there's any of us who doesn't have both slaveowners and slaves in the family tree

I came along to say this. It's all very well just thinking about North American history, but all of us will have ancestors on both sides of the rouge/hero divide, as well as a lot of very average types.

she might not be alive if not for those same horrors

This is something a lot of people have in their past too. My wife's parents were WWII refugees who met in a foreign country after the war. If it had not been for Hitler, the Nazis and all the horrors of WWII, she would not exist. One doesn't go around saying "thank goodness for Hitler" in situations like this, but one can recognise that even the most monstrous evils can have secondary consequences down the line that don't reflect that evil in any way.

Your GF should be the best person she can be, and not punish herself over events she had no control over.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:27 PM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

A thing to consider is that she is being a little narcissistic or self indulgent to imagine that the actions of people long dead before her grandparents were born affects her in any way at all.
posted by gjc at 6:48 PM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

American Indians often practiced slavery. My (Native American) dentist recently told me that in my neck of the woods, the Modoc people regularly raided Northern California, took people from other tribes, and sold them up near the Columbia River.

Just a note, as Bardolph says slavery was/is extremely common across the world. And yet what was happening in Native American communities who practiced forms of slavery that involved humans as battle prizes is still markedly different in scale and substance from the legally entrenched market slave economy built on multinationa trade in vast numbers that is American chattel slavery. So yes, it's true, but it's also a little misleading in terms of how the communities involved actually understood what was going on, and in terms of raw impact.

I agree with cashman: this needs to be expiated. For those who say "we've all benefited," well, yes, some of us have, but for families who practiced slavery there was a profound and generational economic benefit that was not available to the rest of us, being (as it was) private profit from unpaid labor. In real economic terms, it's the same as if someone today hit a lottery that paid out 50 grand a year for 50 years. That would immediately affect their own standard of living, therefore their children's standard of living and early education and care, their children's opportunities, the presence or absence of significant debt or unmet need, etc., in ways that definitely echo down in individual families to the present day. Meanwhile, those they enslaved (and who faced decades of discrimination afterward) had no access to credit, no access to savings, no land ownership, and no access to education until relatively recent history. This matters in ways that have certainly effected people today as family members (not just more broad recipients) just a few rungs down the ladder of time. A few people have linked to the movie Traces of the Trade without naming it, so I'll do that, and just suggest that it's very much worth a watch.
posted by Miko at 7:05 PM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

> This has really devastated her at some level, especially because she was previously so proud of her near generation family (1 or 2 back).

First, it's clearly not her fault. The "sins of the father" don't apply to her at all; that is a terribly unethical way of looking at the world.

However, the reason I don't classify this advice as "shrugging my shoulders" is because it comes with a bitter pill: she's not allowed to feel vicarious pride for her more recent ancestors either. If she had "family pride" on behalf of the good ancestors then it makes sense she'd feel shame from the other ancestors. The answer is to realize that neither the good nor the bed are attributable to her.

She should be judged on her own actions in life, and that's it. Maybe this is a good opportunity for her to look at and be proud of how she's affecting the world. Is she volunteering, protesting on her own, writing a letter to her senator?
posted by losvedir at 7:14 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's not genetic. Frankly, I think dwelling on this smacks of privledge--can she really not find anyone alive to say who needs help, comfort, money or support?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:47 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine opened my eyes to the fact that slavery is alive and well today, and we in the developed world benefit via product consumption, at a rate and extent we all would probably rather not know. Perhaps your friend would be heartened to take action to eradicate present-day slavery- something boundlessly rewarding, if we all had the guts to try.

"One way to reduce our complicity and attack human trafficking is to participate in Made in a Free World, a platform started by Slavery Footprint to show companies how to eliminate forced labor from their supply chains. A smartphone app also allows consumers to identify items made by forced labor and send letters to the manufacturers, demanding that they investigate the origins of the raw materials used in their products." -from this New York Times article.

Donations to Made in a Free World can be made here.
posted by iiniisfree at 7:55 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Genealogy is one of my hobbies, but I really don't get why people feel personal pride, shame, or guilt regarding the deeds/misdeeds of long-deceased ancestors. If my great-great-great-grandparents' home was a stop on the underground railroad, I wouldn't feel entitled to bragging rights. And if they were slaveholders, that is their shame, not mine.

White folks reaped (continue to reap) the benefits of slavery and racism regardless of whether their ancestors were slaveholders or abolitionists. We are responsible for how we deal with this issue in our lifetimes. (On preview, I see that this point has been made by many others while I was chatting on the phone.)

Re first cousin marriages: there is a slightly increased risk for certain inherited disorders. The notion that these marriages are genetic horror shows is not accurate. In fact, in some societies first cousin marriages are arranged/encouraged in order to strengthen family ties.

Re her "tainted" name: she's the only person who can taint her own name. However, if her name is something like Lady Chancellor Hitler, I can see why she would want some distance. I mean, she could cure cancer, win the Nobel Peace Prize, and run a no-kill cat shelter and her obit will still mention her notorious ancestor.
posted by she's not there at 8:03 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I try to take inspiration and commitment from my ancestors, and leave behind the weird or stupid or evil things they did. Mostly that's because there's no good reason to drive yourself nuts with this kind of thing, but also because these people weren't walking around saying "WOOHOO, I'm eeeeeeeeeevil and I loooooooooove it!" And if they were, then screw them and by the way hardly any of your DNA comes from a specific 4th g-grandparent.

I also baptize them vicariously and pray that they'll have reformed themselves posthumously, but that's a little bit specific to my culture. On the other hand, lots of people try to do different kinds of things to basically say "screw you, evil perpetrated by my ancestors."

She may also want to take comfort in the fact that there are lots and lots and lots of people out there with slave-owning ancestors, that most of them do good things or at least try to, and that the people who are best off psychologically and in terms of giving practical service to humanity are the ones that refuse to let themselves be defined by this sort of thing.
posted by SMPA at 8:45 PM on August 8, 2013

First cousin marriages have genetic pluses and minuses - research into this should help settle her mind, because a) it is super common in many cultures, often preferred, and b) the genetics of it are no longer straight forward bad but a mixed bag and quite interesting.

She can do something with her guilt. Guilt is a good impulse when it drives you to repair the harm and understand and change the future.

She can look to truth - more family research to understand the full story of those ancestors and the people who were legally bound to them and exploited, more reading of the period to understand it. Maybe contributing her own research in the form of family diaries and what materials she can find.

She can look to compassion - take her experience as someone touched by awareness of this horror and deciding to volunteer against modern-day slavery. It can start with a $10 a month donation to an anti-trafficking group, or reading about human trafficking now and volunteering a few days a year.

Concrete steps to balance this out and understand it will do more to help her than just shrugging it off. It is painful to realise that you are bound by blood and family ties to people who have done terrible things.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:42 AM on August 9, 2013

In my faith practice there is a thing regarding praying for forgiveness for the sins of our ancestors. You say she is secular but still, she might find some value in identificational repentance for what they did. (This is NOT saying she herself is guilty, just so you know.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:37 AM on August 9, 2013

On the cousin derail, people marrying their cousins used to be extremely common. I would not be surprised if everybody who went back far enough has married cousins in their family tree. I found lots when I did my genealogy.

If you want more proof read some 19th century novels, people are always marrying their cousins.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:42 AM on August 9, 2013

Best answer: I think that sometimes - and I'm not saying this is what is going on with your girlfriend, but it may be - when you have a bad or unhappy immediate family, some people find it comforting to look back a generation. "Well, my parents might be awful, but my GRANDPARENTS were great!" It's a method of coping with something ugly - of skipping over current badness as just a "fluke", and looking at the "unbroken line of awesome" in order to provide comfort that an individual is not their parents and can be more than their parents.

Unfortunately, that often works the other way, too. No one is completely innocent.

I think other commentators talking about the wide prevalence of slavery is a really helpful way of viewing this. The Greeks and Romans kept slaves. The Spanish kept slaves. The French and English kept slaves. As someone else said, many African nations and Native American tribes kept slaves. I can't immediately think of a single culture that at no point in their history kept slaves - which means that she is not unique in having slavery a part of her background. It just isn't immediately apparent for many because most families in America don't trace their geneology back as far.

In addition, cousin marriages were completely, completely common - even in (and particularly in) royal families. I would urge her not to consider it as incest - rules against marrying cousins are actually relatively, historically speaking, recent.
posted by corb at 6:47 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider: I think it was on here somewhere in the last couple weeks, but there was a paper that showed that it is mathematically certain that everyone is descended from everyone if you go back a thousand years or so. (This is the one I read.) The mathematics of it are basically that for each generation you go back in time, your number of ancestors goes up geometrically. If you go back 5 generations, you have 32 ancestors. If you go back 10 generations, you have 1024. If you go back a thousand years (40 generations), you have 1,099,511,627,776 ancestors. That's more people than have ever existed, much less the entire population of the world at that time.

We are all descended from slaves, kings, slaveholders, murderers and saints.
posted by gjc at 7:23 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: According to Professor Wikipedia, anyway, marriage between cousins in 19th-century Europe may have even been anywhere between 2-12 times more common among Jewish people than Christians, depending on location and denomination.

People lived in small towns. They didn't travel or move as much. Communication was slow. Most people didn't have a huge dating pool to choose from. But even wealthy, educated city folk married their cousins. You've got to have many generations of close, repeated inbreeding before you start tp get your Charles II of Spains and your Holy Roman Emperor Francis II's.

The long and short of it for me ended up being:

It was upsetting to find out at frist, but I got over it with a very little amount of time and perspective. I'm sure she will, too.

I can laugh at it in a grim sort of way. I don't get defensive and say that the descendents of the victims of my ancestors have no right to point out what happened to their ancestors and say it was wrong, but I don't get wracked with personal guilt over it because that's not productive.

I do my best to work for equality today, and to take whatever opportunities present themselves to correct the misconception that slavery only happened in the southern U.S.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:04 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

how the unique experience of being closely connected to something so evil

No offence but the girlfriend in question is not closely connected, and it's some weird flavor of appropriation to pretend it is. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1865 so we're talking about a practice that ended 148 years ago.

Almost one-third of all Southern families owned slaves; if you have southern roots, it's almost impossible for this to not be on your family tree at some point. Your girlfriend should not feel like this history singles her out in a special way because it doesn't.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:47 AM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Wrote this last night, then suddenly fell asleep. Perhaps it's still relevant.

I, too, do a lot of genealogical research and etc. Your girlfriend's attitude is in contrast to that of my friends and family for whom I have done that research. Most of them assumed there have been some scummy, awful ancestors back there somewhere. And there always have been.

Slaveholding is only one of many unforgivable sins that one's ancestors may have committed. There are records to the effect that your girlfriend's ancestors kept slaves, but there aren't records of a whole bunch of other atrocities (great and small) they may have engaged in. Is she worried about those creepy child marriages one finds in their family tree sometimes? Or about great-great-great-grandfathers who ditched their families and disappeared into the night, never to be seen again? Or discovering that an ancestor abused/neglected/abandoned their children? None of these are on the scale of slavery, but they're all intensely screwed up.

(Cousin marriage was so dead common that it's boring. She oughtn't worry about that one bit.)

Your girlfriend appears to have drawn an understandable, but unreliable bright line between slaveholders and non-slaveholders. Slaveholders were abominable people. That's not in question. But, does she think that all the non-slaveholders were virtuous anti-racists, who didn't support slavery as an institution? If her ancestors had all been too poor to keep slaves, would she be happy? Even if they would have kept slaves if they could have? Is it the attitude that bothers her, or just the proof?

The slaveholder is a very visible form of familial evil, which makes it easy to clamp onto. All the while, ignoring that plenty of people are rotten in ways invisible to historical records. Your girlfriend is probably incorrect if she believes her non-slaveholding ancestors were, by default, all pretty decent people, who were aghast at slavery, who didn't support it in one way or the other. One's ancestors did not have to directly enslave other people, to have been totally in favor of slavery. She just doesn't have proof of that sort of thing, while there are records of a slaveholder. But if it was only opportunity preventing some of her ancestors from owning slaves, then they weren't any better than the ones who did.

This isn't to make her feel worse, but hopefully to offer perspective. She is understandably focusing on the Big Obvious Evil in her family tree, but that way madness lies. Everyone's family has evil in it, somewhere. The difference between your girlfriend and many other people, is just that she has proof and a conscience. But then again, her family still produced the great relatives that make her so proud - so why does she feel that the "taint" of a distant ancestor who she never knew, outweighs the good relatives she DID know, who had a direct influence on her?

It is, indeed, overwrought to think of herself as "tainted" by these revelations. It's like she's seizing on this issue, "I AM DESCENDED FROM A SLAVEOWNER", as some sort of a-ha moment of personal worthlessness. Or even as if she's thinking, "finally, I have found the Cross of Shame that I must bear." Fainting couches ahoy. That reaction isn't helpful to her or any of the causes she cares about. (Also, I hope she doesn't start talking in hushed, choked tones about the Great Pain of having slaveholders in her ancestry line. Not that the pain isn't real, but that kind of melodrama is probably going to fall reeeeaaal flat if she tries that with someone who had enslaved ancestors.)

Your girlfriend cannot flagellate herself for things her ancestors did. Nor ought she to feel like she inherited glory from her virtuous ancestors. She is free to be extremely horrified and and angry - and to do whatever good she can, to feel like she's compensating for some of the awfulness that her ancestors brought into the world. But she needs to recognize herself as her own person, and not just an end result of her family.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:14 AM on August 9, 2013

Everybody is related to everybody
posted by tarvuz at 9:33 AM on August 9, 2013

My uncle married his second cousin (they had children and they were fine btw). This was in the 50s and not an unheard of practice even at that time.
posted by waitangi at 12:03 PM on August 9, 2013

The fact that your girlfriend is upset by this tells me that she believes that it's wrong to treat others as flawed or inferior because of their race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc., since those are just accidents of birth. Well, so is her connection to her ancestors' transgressions.
Would she disparage others for having evil relatives several generations ago? If not, then she should stop doing it to herself.
posted by rocket88 at 1:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Most of us are descendants of Ghenghis Khan. He was not the nicest of people.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 9:34 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This 2 1/2 minute video (Q&A with writer/anti-racism activist Tim Wise) poses the best answer I have ever heard to this question.
posted by duffell at 3:25 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

If she went back far enough, she could find ancestors who were themselves slaves. Also kings and queens. Saints and sinners and in between.

Live your own life as well as you can. It's hard enough dealing with one's own misdeeds without worrying about those of people long dead.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:17 PM on August 10, 2013

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