Monday, January 20, 2014

The Ancestral Dimension: Freedom or Bondage

Photo taken by Sgarton
Growing up, family gatherings were filled with tales of blazing a trail within a land of opportunity.

On my Father’s side, my Great Grandma Pfiester came to America from Switzerland at the age of 11. She married my Great Grandfather Dooley a second generation Irish immigrant- originally it was O’Dooley, but they dropped the O’ because it sounded too Irish.  They were Pastors, inventors and rebel rousers. If you thing Italians are passionate, wait till you spend time with the descendants of a Swiss German/ Irishman.

On my Mother’s side, tales of Great Great Grandparents traveling the Mormon trail to a land of hope and religious freedom. Names like Gould, Pearmain and Coombs followed the call of Brigham Young to fill the promised land of Deseret. One of the Grandmothers died within weeks of reaching Fountain Green. Another, my Grandmother remembers speaking in a Cockney accent.

Other immigrants within my family tree I am not so close to. Those trace back to the Mayflower, Revolutionary war and some mystery as to if we are related to Mary Todd Lincoln.

What all these people have in common is this: they wanted to be here. They all came hoping for a better life. Fighting, blending in, and sometimes separating themselves from a world they saw as evil for the right to Life, Liberty and Pursue Happiness/property. 

But what if…
Photo taken by Sgarton

What if at those family gatherings, the stories had been different. What if they were filled with disillusionment and injustice? What if those Great Greats didn’t have a choice to come to this country? What if my Grandparent’s stories were filled with denied opportunity.

All my Great Grandfather had to do was drop the O’ from his name in order to avoid discrimination. To be able to get a job. A name like Dooley would have been accepted freely, promoted and granted liberties. A person cannot change the color of their skin.

For them, this was not a land of opportunity. It was a land of bondage. During the Revolutionary war, those who fought were promised freedom, only to be denied it in the end. The Astonishing Life of OctavianNothing is a brilliant series dealing with this very subject. My Revolutionary war ancestors' stories now have a deeper dimension. 

Around the tables of color, family stories of triumph in the face of adversity instead of hope and promise. They talk about how to love an enemy in the face of violence. The value of hard work is flavored with tales of injustice, being passed over and sometimes hopelessness.

Drew Hart wrote about his own experience as a black man. In a town where discrimination is still prevalent I often frustrated with those who say:

Slavery was long ago.
Why does it matter now?
Can’t they just move on?
Racism does not exist anymore. 

Photo of Cape Coast Castle by Ricorocks
But just as I am a product of my lineage, so is my fellow man. My privilege of having immigrants who journeyed because they chose to, can be named. The ability to know exactly where they came from blinds me to those whose only point of origin is the name of a continent. The slave trade decimated cultures in Africa. They don’t have the luxury of a cultural diversity as I do within: Irish, Swiss German, English.

My story would be much different if all I had to say was: my immigrants were from Europe.


It is my responsibility to remember the persecution my own Irish heritage felt. To keep in perspective the isolation my Mother felt as a non-Mormon growing up within a Mormon culture in the 1950s. It is for these reasons my parents marched with Martin Luther King for equality and I endeavor to teach my kids to live these same values- Love your neighbor, no matter the color of the skin. Share the hope of opportunity. Build those up around the corner because the cause of equality starts with me. Living within White Privilege

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