Everything changes

(May 27, 2018) — The thing about discovering that my ancestors participated in the economic institution of slavery is that it changes everything I thought i knew about my heritage. Growing up in New England, going to public schools meant that I learned about the Pilgrims, wore their funny hats, and how they had a lot of help from “the Indians” when they settled — sort of like it was one big happy family. I made handprint turkeys cut out of construction paper and headbands with construction paper feathers when it was my turn to play the part of the happy and welcoming Indian. One of my all time favorite field trips as a kid was going to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. I remember very clearly that people were there dressed in Colonial clothing, women were making meals on the hearth and men were hammering nails in the blacksmith shop. Children were playing games that were popular during the Colonial times and best of all, I had rock candy for the first time in my life. I loved it. I loved the re-enactment of colonial life. I loved “going back in time” and talking to people who talked like the colonial people did. It was idyllic. I felt at home. I still love going on these tours. I do not remember if they had cranberry bogs or talked about the cranberry harvest at Sturbridge Village. They did not have reenactments of people held in “perpetual servitude” as the Massachusetts law allowed for in those days. Nothing that I recall was mentioned about people who were enslaved.

As I advanced to junior high, I learned that people were held in captivity and forced to work in deplorable conditions, often suffering illness and injury without much concern or care for their well-being. If I remember correctly, the textbooks in my junior high history classes did not go into much detail about the conditions of slave labor, but I learned that it happened in American South. I do not recall learning about people being enslaved in Massachusetts colony. In my high school classes, the lessons were a bit more detailed — but the history of enslavement was mainly taught as a factor associated with Civil War, and not much else was said about it: we did not learn when slavery as an economic institution was started, or where, or why, other than southern plantation owners held hundreds of people in chattel bondage for the benefit of their agricultural production, and perhaps other labor needs.

So, while I found myself really grossed out about the lives that enslaved people were forced to live, and I was disgusted by the old Southerners who enslaved them, treated them miserably, and then profited from their labor; it was distant from me and my heritage. My people did not do it. My people fought for the Union in the civil war… my people were on the good side of this terrible history. I did not have to relate personally to slavery as an institution, because I did not see myself or my ancestors in that history.

I grew up knowing that my ancestors were from England, and arrived in Massachusetts in 1638 — the earliest known and documented relative that I had in North America, that is. I knew that my 9th Great Grandfather arrived in Massachusetts early on and may have been related to Captain John Carver from Mayflower fame (I will write more on that in the future).

Now that I know my ancestors authorized slavery in Massachusetts in 1641, and that I have documented at least two relatives (so far) who held people in bondage as slaves, it’s personal. In the colony, so it seems, the earliest attempt to enslave people was targeted towards the Indigenous people of Massachusetts. “These savage barbarians” proclaimed William Bradford who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, “were readier to fill their [the Pilgrims] sides full of arrows than otherwise!” And did not take well to “the yoke”.

In 1638, the same year my long-known ancestor arrived, a ship named Desire brought enslaved African people to Massachusetts from the West Indies. It seems they were the “cast offs” from the vigorous and lucrative sugar industry, so they were a “bargain” for the slave owners.

Take a moment, if you will, and consider the degree to which one must be dehumanized in order to see them as a “bargain” for purchase?

What has changed in me from learning about this history? Slavery, as an economic institution, started in the place where my ancestors thrived, partly because black ancestors were enslaved. And so now it is personal to me. I am not removed from it because I’m from “the North.” I do not know if slave labor was used in the harvesting of cranberries, but I aim to find out and also to dig into the old records to see if my ancestors were involved in that. But, I can’t drink cranberry juice, or have cranberries on my salad without wondering about it. Thanksgiving, of course, is mythical in many ways and if we want to be true to the Pilgrim’s experiences, we ought to be eating venison that Indigenous people hunted. But turkeys are a bit easier to make using a hand print and construction paper, I suppose.

I have long hated the injustices of slavery, I am a sociologist and so my training is to examine closely how power is exercised and how it is used to maintain large scale social inequalities. But now it is not just an abstraction, a theoretical concept I teach my students. Now it is a personal conundrum that I have to resolve. Slavery is not a problem from the distant past of American history. Slavery is alive. It’s a shape shifter in some ways, and it benefits from the “cloak of invisibility” (to borrow from Harry Potter) … More on that later.

So, what has changed? I have. I own this. I will keep digging and as I find new information, I will share and own it. Claiming it and acknowledging that I have inherited advantages that I never wanted, but I have to look at it, long and close up, and I have to work on making amends.

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