June 16, 2011
After writing about a black sheep ancestor, I got to thinking about truth and how much of it we really want to know. I know we all look forward to finding an ancestor who’s famous or was involved in a historic event. But this week I started to ask myself if I’m just as willing to find the ancestors that were bad or bigoted or broken. Am I researching my family for just the nice stories or for the truth? Am I willing to look at the truth when I find it even when it’s ugly?
Take my maternal grandfather, Moses Easley, for example. I remember him, but he died when I was 6 so I never really knew him well. But from my mother, I know he was a bigot. He didn’t like Catholics or Jews or anyone with darker skin than his. When I write my family’s story, am I going to acknowledge that fact? Or will I choose to neglect to mention it, thereby insuring that particular piece of who he was will eventually be lost to history? Should that part belong with the few memories I have of him — picking strawberries with him in his garden, eating honey from his beehives, the pungent smell of the cigar he was always smoking?
It’s funny how much things can change in just one generation. His daughter, my mother, was teaching her children, even before the civil rights movement, that all people should be respected and that the color of their skin didn’t figure into it at all. People were people. In fact, if she heard the term “colored person” used in her presence, she was known to respond, “What color were they?” She was fearless.
So when the neighborhood I grew up in began to change, and my school with it, my conservative Republican parents made the decision to stand on their principles. When their white neighbors were fleeing to the suburbs, my parents not only stayed but stayed involved. My father was on the school board, and my mom was president of the band boosters, among other things. By the time I graduated from high school, the white kids were in the minority. Now, I’m not going to pretend that was always easy. But I got a living lesson in personal integrity from my parents, a good education, and a very unique high school experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
So that’s a nice story about my mom, one I want to pass on to her descendants. But it’s when you know about her father’s prejudices that you realize just how remarkable she was. Her light shines brighter because of his shadow. If we hide the ugliness, we inevitably lose some of the beauty as well.
When we’re children, we think our parents are perfect. By adolescence, we’ve discovered their “feet of clay.” I’ve always told my kids they will never be truly “grown up” until they are able to forgive their parents (uh … that would be me) for their mistakes and limitations and love them for who they are, warts and all. Maybe we should apply that lesson not just to our parents but to their parents and their parents’ parents. Because in reality, human beings are a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, beauty and ugliness. It’s the goodness we want to hang onto, but we need to hang onto the truth as well. Because it really does set us free.
- “Skeletons in the Closet” by Sunny McClellan Morton, from the November 2008 Family Tree Magazine
- Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson
- Tracking ancestors’ run-ins with the law (Plus article)