Covert, Nonviolent Resistance or, Why I Brought that Book About Slavery to Christmas at my White In-Law’s House

My in-laws have decided to make genealogy a hobby. They think it is the best thing ever. They are all up in a certain website and absolutely love a certain obnoxious television show. Whenever they come up to The North, my MIL, in particular, absolutely loves to go to different libraries and cemeteries looking for this ancestor or that. She has been able to trace her people back to the great Kings and Queens of the old countries. Oh goody. And, of course, “When you find out you are related to one royal family, you are related to all of them. They all married each other, you know.”

That’s annoying enough. What little black girl wants to listen to a grown ass white woman talk about their wanna-be princess fantasies? But it gets worse.

When I was pregnant with Ursa Major, questions started coming up about my ancestry. “Oh Kay, aren’t you just a little curious?” I was asked. “Did you know that there are a lot of African-Americans out there who are using Ancestry and other sites?” I was asked. “There are a lot of books out there about this. I’d be happyto get a few for you.” I was offered.

I have never been interested in looking into my ancestry. I don’t feel compelled to go on the mystical journey that with result in finding a shopping receipt or  a rapist. I feel little reason to attach my self-esteem to the achievements who are long gone. I receive no benefit from finding out that such and such ancestor is rich or not. If I find out that I’m the 14th cousin of Kate Middleton, do I get some money? Me thinks not. So what’s the point, really?

Outside of the achievements of my parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents, I see no reason to delve too far back into the family historical ether. My present and future are dictated by my actions and achievements. We can get with the bedtime story later.

Oh, but the insistence has continued. Escalated, even! She finds out more and more and talks more and more about it! We’re related to Edward the Confessor! Did you know that my family attended the same church as George Washington? (My husband, sarcastically: “That makes me special.” Me, not sarcastically: “No. That makes you a pew away from being special!” My in-laws: *grumble, grumble*)

Or, there was that one time, right before we told my in-laws that I was pregnant with Ursa Major, and my mother-in-law told me the story, “passed down by the family” about the ancestor who lived in the city during the Fall of Richmond where a “servant” took one of her sick ancestors to a train that was leaving the city. He was able to escape just before the city burned to the ground. Of course, when I made a face (but was otherwise silent and graceful) at the comment of calling a slave a “servant”, my not terribly tactful father-in-law reminded both of us, loudly that my mother-in-law’s family were avid slave owners. “You better watch out, [Kay]!” I was warned with a laugh. My mother-in-law, rightly, turned beet red.

But  Dude, really, I’m trying to be nice, please don’t bother me about this anymore.

So this Christmas, as I was packing my children’s bags in anticipation of travel Below the Mason-Dixon line to my in-law’s house, I decided to bring a special book with me. It’s a book that I have had for a very long time, but never really paid attention to until now. While my Mother-in-law breaks out all the ridiculous distant family traditions, I’m going to bring in some tradition of my own. I brought down with me Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, a book that my grandparents gave me back in 1994. I didn’t get it back in the day when they gave it to me. But I really get it now, and I have enjoyed reading it as a bedtime story to my infant sons (who don’t understand it at all).

When I taught U.S. History to 8th graders, I taught them about slave resistance. We talked about the matrix of different types of resistance: Violent/non-violent, overt/covert. Bringing this book (and leaving it in conspicuous places throughout the house) has been my bit of non-violent resistance all week. No, I’m not a slave. But I think that the insensitivity of certain white people with regards to the ancestry of African-Americans is obnoxious at best, racist at worse. I think that my in-laws fall somewhere in between.

As my precious sons get older, I’ll teach them the real traditions of their slave ancestry. I gave Ursa Major a bit of chittlins this week and he liked them. I roared around the house about the victory of my blood! My husband then reminded me that he likes chittlins too. I was like….oh yeah… Well, it was a victory none-the-less!

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