THE QUESTION OF THE WEEK (February 8, 2015):
In what ways has race played a role in your experience as a member of the Cartwright extended family? The population of Scott County has never had a lot of African-Americans, but that doesn’t mean that race wasn’t a factor in the world that Eliza and her children encountered in the 1870s. (As I noted in my post about the Waldron War, one of the most notorious incidents in the 1870s was when a Negro man named Sam was murdered for no discernible reason.) The recent conflicts in Ferguson, Missouri and New York are vivid reminders that in matters of race, conflicts continues in places near and far. And I suspect I am not the only Cartwright cousin whose branch of the family has experienced “white flight” and/or “fright flight” over the past half-century.
THE MONTHLY MYSTERY (February 2015):
Does anyone know when folks in the Cartwright family began to claim that the family lineage includes Native Americans? If you have read some parts of Billy’s memoir about Jess, you may have noticed that he identifies Grandma Millie as a Choctaw Indian (apparently through her father’s family), but from what I have gathered there is no stable documentation to prove that is the case. There is no listing in “the Dawes rolls” that demonstrates this. My brother Paul Cartwright and my cousin Karen Snyder Smith have uncovered some additional references that suggest that this claim may go back beyond Millie’s generation, but to the best of my knowledge there is no documentation that ties this down. What we find, however, is persistent storytelling about ancestors who are believed to have been “Indians.”
THE $64,000 QUESTION:
What kinds of “silences” have been passed down in our extended family?
In remarkable book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, the Australian journalist Christine Kenneally devotes an entire chapter to the role played by silence. She discusses some fascinating examples, some of which she takes from the early history of Australia, which was a place where England sent convicts. Many of these people reinvented themselves, and having turned their lives around, were quite deliberate about not passing on their previous histories.
Kenneally writes, “It used to be that people could expect their illicit pasts would die with them, but the personal computer and the internet revolution have changed all that. . . .The easy availability of all records means it will be harder and harder to invent your own past. For good and bad, the new historical transparency brings new responsibilities with it too.” Some of those responsibilities are personal. Some are public. Kenneally describes the painful circumstance in which her father gathered her and her siblings to tell them that he had recently discovered that “The man who had raised him, who we thought was our long-dead grandfather, was actually our dad’s long-dead grandfather.” Her father felt a responsibility to tell the children about this instance of incest in their family history because he thought it might have implications for each of them, but he found it too painful to talk about beyond that.
There are all kinds of silences. Not all silences are for reasons of shame. For years, I have joked with my brother Paul that I am reasonably confident that if we look long enough, we are likely to find a horse thief (instead of a connection to royalty) in our family’s past. The question is what do you do with such knowledge when you discover it? The answer, I take it, isn’t straightforward for us or for those who come after us. Some things that we used to think of as “private” are going to be harder and harder to keep from becoming “public” and in the process the significance of the silences will shift as well.
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