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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Here are three examples of silences that have been passed down that are associated with Uncle M.C. and Aunt Bea.
Sometimes, silences appear to be permanent. I grew up hearing that there was a period of time when “no one knew where MC was” after he had left home and before he turned up in California living with Virginia in the mid-to-late 50s Some members of the family speculated that M.C. may have gone overseas. My mother knew a little bit about his marriage to his first wife Rosena Hester, but I understand that M.C. didn’t have a strong relationship with his sons Gary and Kevin, both of whom I believe still live in California. A few years before he died, I asked M.C. if he had any stories about that period of his life that he wanted to share with me. He made it clear that he didn’t want to remember “the old days.” And I did not press the issue. I respected his desire not to go down memory lane. Even so, I wonder if anyone knows what happened to M.C. during those years when he seems to have disappeared.
Sometimes, silences are temporary. I knew that Aunt Bea’s (Lebanese-American) family was from the Milwaukee area, but I did not know that she worked on the Manhattan Project. A few years before she died, a newspaper in eastern Oklahoma did an article about Bea’s experience. My mother sent me an article along with a copy of an official commendation that Aunt Bernice received from the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stinson, that was dated August 6, 1945. The certificate indicates that while serving as an employee of Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company “Bernice Herro . . . has participated in work essential to the production of the Atomic Bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II. This certificate is awarded in appreciation of effective service.” Apparently, Aunt Bea was part of a work team that was coordinated by the War Department’s Army Service Forces — Corps of Engineers for the “Manhattan District.”
I don’t recall having any conversations with Aunt Bea about this matter, but it did serve as a reminder that there are not as many degrees of separation between members of our family and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as we sometimes prefer to think.
Sometimes silences are simply circumstantial. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to us to talk about things until we discover that we have a reason to do so. About fifteen years ago, I was doing some work with the Mar Elias Educational Institution in the Galilee region of Israel. Turned out that Aunt Bea was raised in the Melkite Catholic Church (Greek in ritual and Latin in affiliation) and her family came from Southern Lebanon. The day in May 2000 that I worshiped with an Arab-speaking Melkite congregation near Nazareth was not only an occasion in which I worshiped with one of the oldest congregations of Christians in the Middle East, it also turned out to be a time when I worshiped in a way that would have been familiar to my the Arab-speaking family of my aunt by marriage, Bernice Herro Torrence Cartwright, whose native people [Herro] claim to being part of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.