July 24th, Pioneer Day

In 1833 William Beebe joined the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in upstate New York. At this time, the church was just 3 years old. Louisa Newton married William and joined the church in 1835. They were living in Nauvoo Illinois when the United States expelled the church, and while sheltering in Council Bluffs Iowa, they had a daughter, Ruth. The family waited 2 years for Ruth to grow, then walked to the Salt Lake Valley in 1852.

As a child in Providence Rhode Island, Leprelet Hopkins skipped school and stowed away on a ship. He stayed aboard six years and was eventually washed ashore after a shipwreck in New Orleans. When Johnston’s Army marched to Salt Lake, to occupy the Mormon territory, Leprelet followed them working as a mule skinner. When the army left Utah, he stayed behind- and married Ruth.

Jesse Hobson was baptized a Latter-Day Saint in 1834. When the church began preparing to move west, he and his wife Catherine were assigned by Brigham Young to homestead along the trail to act as a sort of liaison with the Pawnee. While there they had a child, Henry. They finally moved to Utah in 1852. Henry grew up and married Emily, the daughter Leprelet and Ruth.

Joseph Field was baptized in 1844, in Yorkshire England. By 1857 he was living in the Utah Territory where he married a widow, also an English immigrant, Sarah Brook. There they had a son, Joseph.

Louisa Kent was born in Calcutta, the daughter of an English officer and an Indian woman. She married Charles Booth, whose English family had been living in India for generations. The two of them joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and left India in 1855, traveling by ship to San Francisco. They settled in San Bernardino, till Johnston’s Army was marching to Utah and Brigham Young called all the members from San Bernardino to move to Utah. Louisa and Charles moved. In Utah they had a daughter, Mary Louisa.

Marry, married Joseph.

This story continues a few more generations till my mother is born and then of course came me.

I was raised in Utah where every 24th of July the state celebrates the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. There are parades and fireworks. We celebrate those people, the things they endured, and the things they built; which was cities, institutions, and families. Many take great pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. We go to great lengths to always remember and never forget.

Except for the parts we don’t talk about or have already forgotten.

Just this year, 175 after the Latter-Day Saints began settling that valley, a monument to the Black people who were part of that exodus was erected. 3 men, who were held as slaves by members of the church were in the vanguard of that first wagon train. This part of the story was not really remembered, or celebrated, till after a sustained and lengthy campaign carried on by Black people and other allies.

The lore I was taught growing up was that the Salt Lake Valley was unpopulated when the church arrived. Of course that wasn’t entirely true. It was especially not true for the valleys up and down the Wasatch Front where Shoshone and Timpanogos people were forcibly displaced either by armed violence or by the destruction of their preexisting eco system.

We barely remember any of the instances or ways in which our ancestors might have been wrong, yet we insist that there must be a remembrance, and of course what we believe should be celebrated, is only the good. Which is fine. But it all depends on who “we” define as “us.”

Just today, in church, the congregation listened to the family story of a very good person whose story included, as a side note, the one time some Native Americans invaded their ancestor’s home, but that luckily the Natives had not come to kill, but to simply steal food.

There was no discussion or remembrance, of the experience of that Native person. That person was an example of one of the trials “our” ancestors endured, a story which could never be comfortably retold if one of that Native person’s descendants would have been sitting in the congregation.

We would tell it differently if we really considered Native people part of “us”.

I have only learned this lesson myself because I sit next to a Black person in those pews every Sunday. It has helped me think a little bit more about the stories we tell and the perspective from which we view them- especially when it comes to how we remember the 1850’s in North America.

When I look at my family tree and lore, then look at where and who I am now, there is an obvious throughline. I am who and where I am now, because of who they were and what they did. But I don’t know the whole story. I only know our own retelling. I don’t know who my ancestors might have hurt, or how, or why, and many might question why anyone would want to know such things.

And to such I would say, because there is no value in remembering the past at all, unless that memory is full of truth.

If we remember a walk on the moon, but erase all traces of physics or science, we will likely get the story all wrong. What then is the value of remembering? Perhaps there would still be some, but it would be trivial, which would be shame as that event was more than trivia. We can learn from it. It helped form the world we live in now, but without knowing the science there is little practical use to that tale.

So we should be careful in how we remember, and be even more careful if we are telling “others” to forget.

If we are looking to take credit, then we must also accept blame. If we want to celebrate or glorify the past, then we must have a full understanding of what that was, or who that was, because these celebrations aren’t just a communication of who we are, but who we hope to be.

If we have to ignore or erase groups of people from the past in order to celebrate today, then we must continue to ignore and erase those same people moving forward.

What Are We Building?

We all came from somewhere and someone. This is true for all of us. Our past is just that, we can appreciate it or not, but we should understand this truth especially when we consider that whether we are intentional about it or not, we are all creating what comes next for others.

Actively, passively, it doesn’t strictly matter since time is inevitable and as no one was created in a vacuum, we have all played a role in someone else’s story. Once you begin a story, then start the clock running, a plot has begun and the player in the tale cannot undo it.

So what are you doing with yours? What story, or setting, are you creating?

I was recently able to spend some time with extended family including my parents and together we spent time with my children. I enjoyed it and I enjoy them. I appreciate those who gave so much of themselves to create what and who I am, and I appreciate- though in a different way- that the things I choose to do now and into the future have an effect on those with whom I began.

My grandmother, the one I don’t remember, taught ballet. By all accounts her love and appreciation for ballet outpaced her own skills at dancing, enough-so, that what she passed on to her daughters was a critical and nuanced love for the art more than a participatory aspiration. I am the son of that grandmother’s son, and as this inheritance was apparently maternal, I wasn’t gifted that. Not completely.

I haven’t been raising my children in the same place that I was raised, nor where my parents grew up, and from this new environment my daughter somehow got infected by pointe shoes and tutus. She got it from a “there” (Philadelphia) and not from a “who” (her parents) as we had no ballet appreciation to gift her. But just this past weekend, watching my aunt, watch my daughter dance the Spanish role in the Nutcracker, I saw directly how what I am doing now, ripples out and touches others in all directions- those in my past as well as those who are “now” but may be way off to the side. Because we are swimming in the same body of water. My aunt loved both the dance and the dancer in a way that even her parents couldn’t completely match. I loved that.

And all of this that has happened and is happening now, will matter and help determine what my children do or become when they move out and move on and start their own new things.

We should all look at ourselves and all of our ripples, and consider what it is we are trying to create for tomorrow. We can love who we are and where we come from and still work to do better. We can work to create good things that have never been, or like my family and ballet, skip back to something that was good before but lost along the way.

Because while we all have some sort of genesis that goes in to what we are, none of us are completely bound by it. I may feel limited in my abilities through either or both genetics and socio-economics, but at the end of the day I am my own, and I have will, and what are we all going to do with that?

If things aren’t what they should be now, let us acknowledge that “we” created our “now” and with our volition we can and must do something about it. This means that both you and I and they are all responsible for my very own now, and we all will create what comes next. We all have played a role and no matter what we choose, we will continue to play one moving forward. You did this to me, and I am doing it to you now. We cannot escape the we- nor the I.

If things are good, let us appreciate that and realize how it got that way and determine what should be done with that good going forward. We have to. We are obligated because we all came from somewhere and someone, which means that everything we do is creating those things (someones and somewheres) for new people who are to come- we are connected.

Black (Family) History Month

I can trace my paternal family line back to a pair of brothers who left Ireland for America in the 1730’s. Our surname goes back past the Battle of Hastings to a Roman who settled in Normandy. I can follow my mother’s line back to the Mayflower.

A year ago my wife could only trace her line back to her great grandmother who was alive in the 1980’s.img_4337

Family history is hard for many black people in more ways than some might expect. First it is hard because there is a dearth of records, which is a lesson in and of itself, but it is also hard because so often there is stuff in there that can be hard to deal with. Sometimes digging up graves only exposes more questions than answers.

My wife and I are okay with questions. Asking questions is a good thing. Unfortunately we don’t have Skip Gates at our disposal so digging up those questions is largely up to us. We started with DNA.img_1105

It is pretty easy. You order a kit online, then they ship you a tube that you spit in and send back. About a month later they send you an email.

There were no Earth shattering revelations, but there were some small surprises. For instance my wife has often been stopped on the street by expatriated Ethiopians who were excited to see one of their countrymen. Not knowing of any roots past New Orleans in the 80’s, Ethiopia sounded pretty cool. DNA killed that idea. Nope. No Ethiopia. The test results came back showing her lineage to be 61% West Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mali. The other 38% was white people. 10% Ireland and dribs and drabs of everywhere else, Italy, Spain, etc. This wasn’t really surprising. Most African Americans know there are white people back in the chain somewhere but it isn’t usually celebrated. In fact, quite often, as Skip Gates has illustrated time and again, these white folks get paved over in family legend by the myth of American Indians. Such was the case with her family. Both sides swore there were Cherokee or somebody like that in there somewhere. Her Dad was adamant that his grandfather was full blooded Indian. Her DNA said zero.img_2337-2

To understand why anyone’s whiteness would be something to cover, we should understand that most African American’s European lineage didn’t get there in some interracial romantic way. Not at all. I remember learning about the horrors of slavery in high school but said horrors were mostly whips, chains, and bondage. I don’t recall rape being mentioned. I suppose the idea of rape is something salacious enough that many teachers prefer to gloss it over, but I have since learned that cases of rape weren’t really outlier events. In slavery rape was normal. It makes sense that many would rather claim to be Seminole.

DNA gives data but only hints at stories. Knowing that there are more pieces to the puzzle we have begun looking for more. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Mormon volunteers, the entire Freedman’s Bank records have been digitized and made available online- the same with census records. There is now more promise of finding out who was who then we would have thought possible 50 years ago. Now begins the work of connecting broken links of a chain. It is a work of in-home black history.

Happy Black History Month.

Also… I am 9% Asian.img_4328