Every family has secrets and mine is not an exception. My dad’s affair, my cousin’s adoption, with my mom sworn to secrecy — these are my family’s most prominent ones, in my immediate family, that is. However, during this week, celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded of the secrets kept by the world’s family, secrets that hurt us, whether or not we’re aware of it.
These can be divided in various ways; I’ll work with two major categories, native Americans and people of color. The earlier secret, no longer a secret, though not yet openly acknowledged by everyone, is that we are all on land taken from native Americans. The land on which my particular home sits was taken from the Naumkeag and Pawtucket tribes. Yet, I leave it and reenter it every day, rarely giving it a thought, in fact, mostly accepting that my husband and I own it, that it’s ours.
As with many secrets, once it’s found out, what do we do with it? With my father’s affair, we ignored it. It was decades after it ended that I learned about it. He had remained with my mother, so what good would be accomplished by spreading news of it among others? With my cousin’s adoption, it was kept a secret by my mom at my aunt’s request, finally shared with me at my cousin’s wedding, when my aunt was terrified that her secret would be revealed. It was finally shared with my cousin, herself, years later when my sister, angry at our mother for an unrelated issue, called our cousin to break the news to her.
I spoke with my cousin shortly after and learned of her relief. She described to me her familiar feeling that she didn’t really belong in our family. So, hearing the truth was simply reassuring of her instinct. Interestingly, she was the only one in our family interested in genealogy. In fact, she had done considerable research searching for evidence that our lineage would allow us to be recognized as Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR); our fraternal grandmother was an Adams. The unanswered question was, was she a direct descendant of one of the President Adams?
So, back to our larger family’s secret: what do we do with knowing that our homes were built on stolen land? Most of us would not intentionally steal a bicycle, never mind a piece of land. Additionally, we presumably paid for our land, if only with the purchase of our house. The value of the land is denoted specifically on the tax bill from my city, whose City Hall is similarly built on land taken from the Naumkeag and Pawtucket tribes. My property tax bill itemizes the value of the land, differentiated from the value of the house. I pay those taxes faithfully every year.
The problem? That money did not go to those who lived on this land centuries ago and who believed that no part of the earth – land – could be owned. When we bought this house and the land beneath it, the money we paid for it went to the previous owners and realtors. None of it went to the Naumkeag or Pawtucket tribes. Neither would they have accepted it, because they did not think of the earth as for sale.
According to Native American poet, Layla Long Soldier, President Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans in 2009. (Whereas, p. 57, 2017) Was that enough to compensate for the brutal crimes of our ancestors? Moreover, are we responsible for the immoral actions of our ancestors? I’m not going to attempt answers; however, I must raise the questions. I believe that we must each consider possible answers, not because the answers are easy, but because within each of us is a moral center, whether or not we pay it heed.
Now, back to my starting point, what this week’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to my mind: the family secrets revealed by CRT, critical race theory. Do we want to display our more recent crimes against humanity that our closer relatives have committed? I’m not necessarily referring to our siblings or cousins, but to friends and relatives within several recent generations who legalized segregation, penalized integration, and punished, even killed, people for the color of their skin.
I propose that it’s not enough to apologize, to say we’re sorry. How do we begin to make up for the lynchings, the slavery, the redlining, the legalization and promotion of separation, whose after effects continue to cause harm? I don’t have the answers, but I know that we must ask the questions. These family secrets cannot remain secrets any longer.
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