I was going to sit down and write about history and evolution, but instead the ancestral shrine tugged at me. Have I told you that story? Probably not. A few years ago now, I had the opportunity to participate in an ancestralization ceremony for my maternal grandparents with one of Malidoma Some’s students, Emenike La. It opened many doors to me spiritually. The elevation of my ancestors was like nothing so much as lifting the lintels on a door I didn’t even know was there; a whole world opened up to me.
Hard to talk about some of that stuff, though, because it’s, well, family business. Even if it’s weird family business. Maybe because it is weird family business?
My maternal grandfather was an Irish Rovers fan and so a CD of theirs sits with the ancestral shrine. When we first brought his records home after he died, Mom mentioned how there was one song he associated with his wife and, after her death, he would sit in the dark and listen to mournfully. Today, tugged, I opened it up and set it into the old CD player. It’s a flood of memories and thoughts, so that’s what you get today. It seems like it is talking to a recent post over on Runesoup, the ancestors riffing on what it means to live in the ‘New World’ that is America.
Both sides of my family have been in America a long time by European immigrant standards (which is just barely any time at all by American standards). I have a pair of many-great uncles who were bitter rivals in the early years of Harvard, one on my mother’s paternal side and one on my father’s paternal side. One of them owned an Indian slave, the other’s brother was involved in negotiating Mary Rowlandson’s release because the Indians didn’t hate him, because he had done decent things like speak against the removal of the so-called Praying Indians to Deer Island. Yes, I chose the ‘didn’t hate’ phrasing deliberately to avoid unnecessarily romantic ideas of what that was probably like.
That paternal many-great uncle was an esteemed Latinist and a preacher, while the maternal many-great sought to modernize the curriculum with chemistry and we know from correspondence between his widow and Cotton Mather that his library contained a few volumes of magic (nothing that seemed to worry either his widow or Mather). Think about that. the scholarly rivalries alongside the rivalries of peoples in the lives of these people.
My maternal grandmother was French Canadian and her family goes back to the early days of exploring the St. Lawrence. Her father was ‘raised by Indians’ after his parents died in an outbreak, likely code for the family ties between him and those Indians. Mom fondly recalls how he would weave snowshoes every winter, after the fashion of his adoptive family.
He was a bit of a healer in the folk European fashion, and one of Mom’s aunts was always a little bitter that he never taught her the cure for warts (the cures were supposed to be passed from man to woman, woman to man, across generations). When news of his mother’s death reached him, he received it stoically, already aware because “the tree in the front yard had bloomed out of season.” His wife would read playing cards and Mom recalls her mother talking about how when she got concerned about one of her daughters, she would sit down with the cards, then confront them about what they were hiding.
There are the dark spots, too, that genealogy has yet to illuminate like the mother of father’s mother who never said much about her family, except to say she was (if memory serves) from Cairo, Ill., and whom my mother had wondered might be mixed race. Genetic testing might illuminate that. I had Preto Velho spirits speak up in the Quimbanda consulta, and I’ve been wondering lately (that wondering where you feel like an ancestor’s hand is on the other end of it) if it might be an ancestral tie going back through her. Hard to say, honor the spirits and let the rest fall as it may.
I guess that is one of the ways that the ‘New World’ experience of immigrants to Australia and America differed. For a good long while, immigrants to America remained dependent upon the American population for support. The boundaries between the groups, while never egalitarian, were premised upon necessary negotiation. The older European and African layers in America? It feels like those are en route to being American, even if they aren’t quite American yet. They are inflected toward America the place and the place as it has been lived in for many, many generations by Americans. American Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, makes this clear enough.
Even the ugliest realities of early America were intertwined. To make sense of my many-great uncle’s Indian slave, we have to wander into a slave trade that was an overlapping network of the indigenous American slave trades, the African slave trades, and the European slave trade that joined and inflamed them. It is this network, too, that allows to make sense of Tituba, who was most likely a Caribbean American rather than a Caribbean African.
Magically, as I settle back toward what I can loosely call a folk spiritualist attitude, I find myself discovering this place, this history, again and again, more deeply, more vigorously, more directly.
I’ll let the wandering rest here.
Further Reading: Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem by Elaine Breslaw; Prospero’s America by Walter Woodward; Bonds of Alliance by Brett Rushforth; Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 by John Thornton; The Name of War by Jill Lepore; Black Majority by Peter Wood