Family History for People of Color
The following guest post is by Michelle Franzoni Thorley. You can follow her extraordinary work about family history, race, generational trauma, and art at @flora_familiar on Instagram.
For many years members of my church would invite or sometimes guilt people into participating in family history. Because family history is rewarding and really you have nothing to lose, right? Well, family history for POC and mixed race people can be very difficult. There are layers of generational trauma and oppression to deal with.
Before I get into this, let me share an experience with you. I am an _Anne of Green Gables_ super-fan. I adore the series and I have actually read everything written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I know Lucy struggled with depression and I felt I understood many of the complex emotions expressed in Anne. We were “kindred spirits.” That was until I read “Tannis of the Flats.” This short story about a young mixed race woman named Tannis. Here is a direct quote from the book:
“Old Auguste was black and ugly and notoriously bad-tempered…Tannis’ great-grandmother had been a Cree squaw who married a French trapper… Auguste married a woman whose mother was a French half-breed and whose father was a pure-bred Highland Scotchman. The result of this atrocious mixture was its justification.” – Tannis of the Flats
I had to face the fact that Lucy and I were not “kindred spirits” after all. She would not have seen a mixed race person like me as a friend.
While my pretend relationship with a complete stranger was sad for me, my connections and relationships with my ancestors was even more heartbreaking.
I have always had a difficult time connecting to my male ancestors. They made many mistakes that have had lasting generational effects. I have always tried to connect with my female ancestors because they seemed easier. Most of my female ancestors do not have documented histories or journals, but there are a few women that do. In some of these entries I have found racist remarks similar to that of Lucy Montgomery.
How do you think it feels to know that your ancestors would have been ashamed of your very existence? Being mixed race means you are never going to make everyone happy. You are never enough for either side.
You may be thinking that those words came from a different time and culture and that those women didn’t really mean what they wrote. But for me, writing and doing racist things out of a racist culture is still racism. I believe that what you do and what you say is a great reflection of who you are.
Every Dia de Los Muertos, I think about how many of my ancestors on my ofrenda would not be happy about associating with an “Indian” holiday. Maybe they are “rolling over in their graves” at the thought of my mixed race existence. But I remember them anyway. I put them on my ofrenda as a way to give them a chance to change. I take them to the temple so that they can be cleansed from the blood and sins of their racist generation. Family history can be deeply sad for POC. It’s complicated. It’s hard emotional work. For me the hard work has been worth it. I am healing old wounds so my children won’t have to, or at least we can walk through difficult subjects together. I want my children to accept and feel proud of their family story. I am passing on a more loving and accepting family for the future.