Are We Allowed to Have Pride in our Ancestors (No Matter Who They May Have Been)?

I’ve been thinking about A Birthday Cake For George Washington “written, illustrated, and edited by a diverse group of people of color, including editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is black and a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.” The book was pulled by Scholastic in 2016 because “(a)lmost as soon as the book was released, it received withering criticism for whitewashing the history of slavery.”

One of the people who work at the Jefferson Library at Monticello is descended from five of the enslaved families of Monticello. He is proud of his heritage and is active in tracking down the oral history of those families.

A recent 60 Minutes featured a story about Fred Miller, a 56-year-old Air Force vet. He bought the Sharswood Plantation in Pittsylvania County, Virginia to host gatherings for his extended family in the area, only to discover that his great, great grandparents Violet and David Miller had been enslaved people on that plantation. “Buying this home has opened a window into the Miller family’s past that was not discussed within their family, and that many African American families struggle to obtain.”

To me, these three examples show that despite how reprehensible slavery was, people still managed to accomplish extraordinary things that their descendants are proud of. Should we denigrate or ignore those accomplishments because they were achieved by enslaved people? Is sharing that heritage to be dismissed as “Woke” because it does not follow the traditional narrative?

27 thoughts on “Are We Allowed to Have Pride in our Ancestors (No Matter Who They May Have Been)?”

  1. These are great questions. I don’t want to denigrate or dismiss any of it. White and Black people need to talk about the uncomfortable pieces of our history (as well as dismantle and recreate certain systems) if we are to make progress on neutralizing racism in this country.
    The pendulum of guilt goes both ways. Do you ever watch Finding Your Roots with Henry Lewis Gates on PBS? He chooses 2 celebrities for each show and does their genealogy. This season he has featured more BIPOC than any other season and it’s been really interesting and enlightening. I learned tonight that Georgetown University in DC was started by Jesuits who had slaves working tobacco crops to earn money to get the school started. Yimminy! Very disturbing. My mom was following along enough to say, “It makes me embarrassed to be a Catholic.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Love your thoughtful response, JM. I have seen that show a couple of times. Harvard is going through something similar to Georgetown. We do need to discuss difficult race issues–in the 60 minutes episode last Sunday, the Black family that bought the plantation house said that slavery was never discussed in their family until Roots came on tv in the 1970s. I think that people should be recognized for what they are capable of accomplishing even in harrowing circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I personally think it is many Americans’ desire to keep our country whitewashed that is causing some of the problems (not that these problems are new or the US is the only country to have them.)

      Liked by 2 people

        1. True, Derrick. I just wanted to be careful to differentiate my point of view from being THE point of view. I can not speak for anybody but myself. Other people will certainly have different opinions; many of them may believe that their opinion is the only right opinion. I am disturbed by the growing number of hate crimes, that are spread across many groups and religions: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims. Many of the killers travel for several hours to target the source of their hatred.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. The short answer to your question is history is history regardless of when or what it was. It happened and it can’t be changed. A fuller answer to the question is much more complex. It’s easy to look back in time and make judgements from how we see the world today and it goes without saying that there are lots of things that our predecessors did that were wrong (even then), but it’s not the whole story by a long way. For example, slavery still goes on today, albeit in a different form and very often by a different kind of people. We can’t undo what has already been done, but perhaps we should be looking at what is going on around us today to stop it happening right here right now.

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  3. One of my pet peeves about the rush to judgement of some of our founding fathers is judging 18th century people by 21st century standards. As you point out it was wrong even then but the norm in both the Americas and Europe.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t “get” the question. Why wouldn’t we have pride in ancestors who were slaves? Merely surviving the institution and the injustices of reconstruction, Jim Crow, KKK terrorism, and the acceptance of those and other insults and injuries by the rest of the population is something to be proud of.

    Saying we judge by current standards lets people off the hook for behavior they knew (or should have known) was wrong. Jefferson and many others in America and Europe knew that things like slavery, treatment of Native Americans and colonialism was wrong even when they participated in those things. The notion that slavery, racism and plundering the resources of less technologically advanced countries is wrong wasn’t invented in the 21st century.

    I’m not very religious but some believe we will be judged. The bible was written long ago. How would theologians answer the question, and are they even right?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One can be proud of one’s own ancestry–but there seem to be others that would like to lump it into a big category as all good or all bad, with no nuances. You do bring other ideas to the discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Intriguing question. I think generally speaking, the solution is not cancelling or banning, but the sharing, reading, and listening to more stories and more perspectives. Banning, cancelling, pulling off the shelf – regardless of who does it and why, all that serves to do is tell people what they’re allowed to read/think/hear. Encouraging people to read/listen to more, and to learn more about the context behind it, is what actually gets people to learn.

    (I also think pulling a book written/illustrated/edited by minority writers/artists/editors is a short-sighted stupid move)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, JYP. I have trouble with book banning even in school libraries. I think it should not happen in public libraries and am appalled that one conservative is now wanting to ban a LGTBQ book at Barnes and Noble. A parent has the right to monitor their children’s reading material, but should have no right to censure other people’s reading, keeping the safety of minors (eg child porn) as the exception.


  7. Excellent post. Personally I believe that history is not ours to rewrite. And that we will be judged by tommorows eyes and we need not kid it will along the liens of we were shining examples. I have to say having done my family history, which includes an assassin and a sword for hire mercenary, I have a sneaking pride in the lot who were robber barons, the scourge of the county who were frequently in court for and I quote, ‘causing illegal distress to their neighbours….’ and who thought nothing of taking on and out various officers of the law sent to bring them in.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ANd while we might want to take issue with our ancestors, it is also vital to remember, we are here because of everything they survived, wars, plagues, famines…. We are survivors because they were. Without the luxury of navel gazing either.

    Liked by 1 person

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