This post goes out to the family member who is subscribed to my blog, but is blocked on social media. When your family of origin is a primary and consistent source of pain, sometimes all you have is boundaries. I’m choosing to address their concerns after having some time to think and cool off from their own fiery aggression.
The final chapter of my book Hard Bones is an essay about neoliberalism written for an audience that does not have the benefit of the education and study necessary to take a long view of what is actually a very short period of time: the last 70 years since the end of World War 2 and the GI Bill, which helped millions of mostly white families own a home for the first time. The history of how this happened is fairly complex and difficult to communicate to the average reader lacking the scaffolding to make sense of it – I should know, I wrote part of my Master’s thesis on the topic and taught an undergrad elective based on it. As often happens on the Left, it is easy to get caught up in the pedantic review of facts and figures, losing the forest for the trees – the forest being a deep and empathic understanding of the role of white supremacy and settler colonialism in determining policy whose implications continue to unfold today in the form of neighborhood segregation (which is worse now than it was at the end of World War 2), vastly diminished Black wealth, increased vulnerability to Covid and other diseases, and a host of other hinderances to full citizenship and thriving in the Black community (extensively documented by researchers in the last 20 years). This is not new to Black, indigenous, and other people of color who have lived with that reality, but it is not part of the worldview of many white people who never had to give much thought to it. How could I make these historical facts come alive and engender empathy and solidarity?
My solution was to tell a story that people could relate to, so I told part of that story using my grandparents as an example. I posted this specific fragment on my blog a few months ago:
…My Pop-pop arrived in the US at the age of four from Kingston, Jamaica aboard the ship Abangarez. He was drafted and was awarded a Silver Star at The Battle of Anzio in 1944. He returned home and got a job at the Bristol Myers Squibb factory, raising three children with my grandmother in the simple row homes near the factory. Both of my grandfathers were union members – a Teamster and a Machinist.
This is of course a vast over-simplification of my Pop-pop’s life, but I didn’t have much to go on beyond Ellis Island’s records and a few family anecdotes. Besides, this story is not about him in particular, but his generation in general. I didn’t really know him or my Mom-mom growing up because my mother declared them “worldly” and only made the hour drive to their modest retirement community a couple times a year, and only for a few hours. They both passed away when I was in high school and the only impressions I had of my Pop-pop were his dollar bill gifts, his temper, and his liberal use of the n-word. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that his Jamaican heritage was not totally that of a settler, however it was scandalous enough to merit being a family secret. One of the family anecdotes is a quote from him to his children, that they should “Tell people you are from Jamaica, Queens, not Jamaica, West Indies,” but it was always treated as an example of his sharp wit and not hard evidence that he “wasn’t fully white”. Ancestry.com would later tell me that 2% of my DNA is connected to “Cameroon, Congo, and Western Bantu Peoples”, but that doesn’t tell me much. I’m still curious about it because the history of racialization, immigration, and identity in the Americas and the Caribbean is interesting, as is the history of “passing” in order to survive racial apartheid in the US.
The family member that this passage enraged is in possession of memories big enough to fill a book about my Pop-pop, but they are hers alone. I can confirm that the row home he purchased through the GI Bill was actually in a mixed-race working class neighborhood and that there was only a few thousand dollars worth of wealth transferred on after all the bills were paid – the granular is always more complex than the macro and if hard Bones is ever published, I will probably just yoink the whole section to avoid the proprietary concerns of my aging relatives. But the rest is an abstraction related to this collection of people I share DNA with, but who decided long ago that I was the family asshole for calling out the abuse, for escaping, for being weird, for being involved in politics, for getting tattoos, for leaving the church, for calling addiction what it is, and for not performing up to their standards of strained normalcy. But for as much therapeutic/spiritual/self-help “work” as I have done over the years to avoid turning into an angry, disassociated, and unstable person, they can rest assured that their poison still haunts me and repeats in my actions before I can even grasp it. I possess the family heirloom and intend to be buried with it alone.