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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sins of the Father

The Bible, and other religious texts as well, contains a running discussion on exactly who is responsible for someones actions. Is it that person alone, or is the guilt for their actions passed on to future generations? Am I responsible for the sins of my father, or are they his alone? Can someone rightly ask my children to atone for my shortcomings?

For me, the interesting thing about these discussions is that there are really two questions at work in them. The first is a question of guilt, while the second is a question of responsibility. It is precisely to the extent that I can pass off responsibility for my actions to my progeny that I can avoid my own responsibility for my actions. I would assert that allowing me to slough off responsibility for my actions in fact encourages me to do things that I know to be wrong, while holding children responsible for the sins of their ancestors can put them in a place where they feel that there is no point in trying to do the right things because they were, essentially, born with a guilt load they can never overcome.

We might ask what, if anything other than certain genetic material, is passed from generation to generation. At what point, for example, do we stop identifying our ethnicity as being that of our ancestors. In my own case, I am a second generation American. Is my ethnicity American or still that of my grandparents, all of whom were American citizens even if they were not born here? Certainly whatever cultural influences that were present in my grandparents' homes - and I honestly cannot recall any, quite possibly because being of German heritage was rather unpopular during World War II - have long faded away. While I find myself sensitive to any American activity that resembles the concentration camps of my forebears, I cannot honestly say that I feel any personal responsibility for Auschwitz or Birkenau. After all, I wasn't born yet and my grandparents and their extended families were in the United States by that time.

What, then, of the idea that present day Americans hold some collective guilt for slavery - and, if there is collective guilt, does that translate into individual guilt? I believe that, in the same way I am uncomfortable with anything resembling a concentration camp, all Americans should rightly feel a collective responsibility for the fact that not only did we enslave people but we were not among the first nations to stop the practice. It should make us vigilant, perhaps even hyper vigilant, to the issues of modern day slavery to include human trafficking and the sex trade. That is a very different thing than believing that, individually, any person living in the 21st century is responsible for the moral failings of the 19th century and earlier in America. I cannot help but wonder - and I know that many people will disagree vehemently with me on this - if continuing to understand oneself as linked directly to ancestors five or more generations in the past and the horrific mistreatment they endured during their lives doesn't create a self-understanding that is inherently limited and limiting by inflicting a kind of false memory syndrome into my consciousness. That's not to say that people of color don't have experiences of oppression and abuse in present day America because they certainly do. What I am asking is if choosing to take on as my own the experiences of great-grandma and beyond doesn't in fact add to my load and leave me in a place of helplessness so great it is difficult if not impossible to overcome.

The truth is that most all of us, tracing our family histories back far enough, will find indentured servants in their family tree. In fact, between one half and two-thirds of white Europeans coming to America between 1630 and the American Revolution came as indentured servants - a precursor to slavery. What's more, indentured servants continued to exist in America until the early 1900s. I certainly don't mean to say that the two practices were the same, though similarities certainly existed, but rather that most of us can find relatives who were tied up and taken where they would rather not go. As an aside, there certainly seem to be forces within American politics who long to return to those days. I want to say quite clearly the we need to continue to talk about these things and to teach about them in schools so that we never forget the horrific things human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. I also want to say that if you are waiting for me to apologize for any of this, you are going to be disappointed.

In fact, I believe that if we are ever going to move forward we need to learn from our past and then redirect our focus on the present moment and what the future might hold. We simply cannot do that well if we keep looking over our shoulder and pining for what should have been different in the past. We can cry "hotep" all we want, but the past will not change. We can self identify as people of another heritage, but if we are third or fourth generation Americans the truth is that we are only deceiving ourselves when we do so. It's wonderful to hold on to our cultural heritage, but the fact is that were I to decide to move back to Germany tomorrow the fact that I don't speak the language would cause me to be seen not as a returning son but as a foreign immigrant.

Who, then, is responsible for my thoughts, beliefs, and behavior? Three people are - me, myself, and I. When I make a mistake, I should be held accountable. Should you try to hold my children accountable, they should call you out for the fool you are. I'll do the same if you try to hold me accountable for my father's behavior. As for the behavior of relatives whose name I don't know, I will doubtless laugh in your face. Don't take it personally, I do that whenever confronted with the absurd.

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