Engaging with Our Ancestors

This month I spent so much time deciding how to write a particular column for May that I missed the deadline. There are an infinite number of subjects to write about, but a writer has to zone in at some point and just write the damned thing. But I couldn’t decide how to write it. Which brings me, of course, to the simple subject of humanity.

What you missed last month (unless you didn’t) is the play “Admissions,” put on by Silverthorne Theater in Greenfield. The plot: In 2015 a small liberal prep school in New England is struggling to “diversify” the student body. When the admissions for the year breaks the 20% diversification mark, champaign is uncorked. I won’t review this excellent production, I just want to say how entertaining was to watch on stage a (mostly) white, liberal school with well-meaning administrators struggle to pop their bubble of isolation. By entertaining I mean heart-wrenching, funny, angering, and thoughtful for a person as white as I am. 

Which brings me, of course, to Baptist minister Robyn Henderson-Espinoza*, a transqueer Latinx theologian, who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum…and is from Texas. The description of Henderson-Espinoza is as mind-boggling as the description of any human being should be. What makes it mind-boggling for me is not who Robyn is, but who I think I am and that I think of myself as normal. Well, slightly-off normal. How slightly-off normal depends on who’s asking. Follow?

Think about how the term “gay” has expanded to “LGBTQ2S+.” So the exception to normality is lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, queer, 2 spirit, and/or plus [plus what?]. Which includes about everybody except heterosexuals. Wouldn’t it be easier to just identify straight people?  Likewise, if our fictional prep school wanted to be representative of humanity, the student body would be overwhelmingly Han Chinese. “Diversity” would be a white school.

Which brings me to the article I couldn’t figure out how to write.

I am part of “Sacred Ground,” an 11-part exploration of racial justice from a faith perspective. I began thinking about how slavery has touched our local history. Robert H Romer compiled a list of the names of slaved people who lived in Deerfield in the eighteenth century, including the names of their enslavers. Historic Deerfield has done research into the history of the people who originally lived on the land, and into the history of slavery there.

My original idea was to use the headline: “Who, Lord, Was My Ancestor?” Then I would just list the names of our neighboring town’s enslaved and enslaving citizens. But is calling African-American slaves my ancestors appropriating black history? Or is it embracing our common history? Acknowledging all our fore-bearers? Irish people of the time were generally indentured workers and servants, an in-between status. My ancestors are not the enslaved… exactly, and not the enslavers… exactly. In the meantime, I wish to print those names for all of us to see. So I will in a following month. I’ll decide on a headline later.

All this is to state the obvious, that “humanity” is not a thing. It is a morphing system of identities, recognitions, bubbles that solidify and are forced to burst open. Humanity is more like ocean waters than like a bunch of individuals bumping into one another. And we will never, ever be able to totally comprehend these oceans, least of all in a column in May. 

Keep swimming. The oceans are deep and dangerous and wondrous.

  • Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation, by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Note: As I am writing this the day after deadline, my personal editor has not been able to clarify any confusion in this column…which is especially unfortunate for this one.