I’ve always found it easy to identify with my Irish roots. That branch of the family values keeping in touch and has the perks of quirky characters and good story-telling.
That some of my ancestors were Americans and once had connections and land never really interested me. Apart from an NHL player or two, there weren’t many black sheep or other interesting characters spoken about in the family. Hearing about people known for following the rules and not getting into trouble over it is as fascinating as you would expect.
Which is maybe why I didn’t find out that these same ancestors were slave owners until now.
I was always perplexed by people on that side of the family who would defend slavery.
“Slavery wasn’t always so bad” I would hear. “It all depended on who owned them.”
“If the slave owners were true Christians, they would treat the slaves so well that the slaves would prefer to stay with them than have their freedom.”
Now I finally understand where this naive slavery apology stems from. It was my ancestors whose slaves, after being freed by law, asked if they could stay and continue working for them.
I hardly think it was the Christian conduct of the slave owners that accounted for this but the systemic racism that limited their opportunities and ballooned into a storm of violence against the recently freed peoples in the broader community. Lynchings after slavery was abolished became endemic and served not only to punish African-Americans for being free, but to keep the entire communities in check lest they demand fair wages or even the assurance they would be paid for their work. The white poor, such as Irish immigrants, had at one time seen themselves as allied with the African-Americans and the Aboriginals. However, they came to identify more and more with the white elite who also mistreated and extorted them but slightly less than their darker-skinned compatriots. The white poor began to see the black people as dangerous (and less human) competition in the game of survival and reacted accordingly.
A decent farm with a safe community would seem appealing in those circumstances.
Could the desire to justify one’s ancestors account for the notion that a Christian theocracy could be the best form of government? Or the authoritarian ideal of benevolent dictatorship cause people to justify slavery?
Can I have compassion or at least understanding towards those who owned or participated willingly in the slave trade without apologizing for such a horrendous disaster?
I think it is necessary to humanize the oppressors. Not to say that what they did was not so bad, but to remind us that most humans have the capacity to harm. That we can’t take refuge in our ideals or motives. To allow space for condemning an action without alienating the one who has the ability to change their own behaviour.
Much easier to continue to identify as Irish Canadian and punch people metaphorically when they justify slavery.