Genealogy held absolutely no interest for me up until three months ago. When friends waxed enthusiastic about their lineage, my eyes glazed over. When my memoir students are passionate about their ancestors’ stories, I’ve responded with impatience; the past means nothing if it doesn’t change the present, and what defines memoir as a genre is exactly this dynamic interaction. Your great-grandmother’s experiences are interesting enough, but how do they impact you?
I was born into a family with precious little history. My father’s Italian heritage was erased within two generations of immigrating. My mother’s working class German, Welsh, and English lineages were lost in the American melting pot and broken by dysfunction and loss. I grew up wrapping my identity around my individuality. That is, I defined myself by who I was as a stand-alone person, supported by immediate family with a handful of grandparents, aunts, and uncles cheerleading in the distance. Listening to a podcast recently on whiteness in America (which I can’t recommend highly enough: John Biewen’s “Seeing White”), I learned that this sense of individuality is a phenomenon white Americans take for granted. No one lumps us into a racial group. The capacity to understand oneself as a person undefined by and unconnected to others is a benefit of white privilege. I get to write my own story.
Or so I thought. Then three months ago I began researching my Italian ancestors in preparation for a genealogical trip to Basilicata. All I could find were names, birthdates, marriages, immigration records, and deaths—no stories. Even so, I was floored by how my life echoes my ancestors’. My fourth great-grandmother’s surname, E Sposito, signals that either she or one of her predecessors was abandoned as an infant—the thread of loss and adoption binds us across the decades. When we visited Maschito, the village settled by Albanians where my grandfather’s family lived for centuries, we were warmly embraced and even claimed—you are Maschitan! We walked through streets and prayed in churches where our people—our people!—had walked and prayed, the places that had formed them, where they learned to survive despite hardship, where they grieved, where they practiced the values they passed down to their children and their children’s children… Suddenly I wasn’t just me but rather one in a stream of people. All these relatives contributed to my life. Their stories exert an influence on my story. When I become conscious of them, when I welcome their being into mine, I become them, too, at least in part. An important dimension of myself is returned to me.
It’s an extraordinary shift in perspective. The United States’ particular brand of whiteness demanded of my people assimilation, so my many privileges as a member of the dominant culture bear consequent, shadowy losses. The same systemic racism that grants me innumerable benefits also stole part of my humanity. I hope that, by reclaiming my ancestors and by thinking about myself as not just an individual but also as part of this vast web of relations, I can in some small way dismantle the system of oppression.
Wishing you peace during this season of darkness! May your new year bring light, healing, and creativity.
Warmly, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew