Category Archives: Genealogy

An American on Stolen Lands

Back in May I started writing a bit on the complicated cultural inheritance of having a diverse ancestry as an American. There is a lot more I want to explore about this topic, so I initially had some hesitance with posting this first draft. But earlier this month I presented on a panel about being a mixed race information professional, and that was the right nudge to make me go back, revise a bit, and release this out into the blog world. I don’t have a lot of answers yet, but I think part of what this is about, is being reflective with a means toward reconciling intergenerational cultural and social inheritances with my own identity in the present.

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The only time I can remember feeling Japanese as a kid was the first time I read about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps in World War II. I learned that Americans who were as much as 1/16th Japanese were taken away and placed in camps. This was shocking to me. My Grandma was Japanese, so I am 1/4 Japanese. I could be put in an internment camp? I wasn’t raised with a sense of being anything other than an American, so the idea that the early 1940s American government would view me as an enemy of the state seemed completely ludicrous.

While I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, many of my friends were first generation Americans. It was normal to hear my friends call their parents and speak in a multitude of languages. Going out for pho or boba was a normal high school hang activity and when we hung out at a friend’s house I was well trained to always take my shoes off. My friends clearly identified with and lived a life that was an echo of their parents’ upbringing outside of the U.S. I felt culturally lacking in light of all these parallel American experiences with strong recent cultural ties to places other than the United States. While my friends were Americans plus, I felt only culturally American. I couldn’t call my Dad and talk to him in Japanese. At home we mostly ate food that reflected an inheritance of a mid-20th century American culinary tradition of things that came prepared in boxes and were heated in boxes of the microwave or oven variety.

As a teenager my friends and I loved to take BART from the East Bay to San Francisco. Chinatown was a great place to go out for food, but Japantown felt like little more than a Japan themed shopping center. The only Japanese kid I knew was a child of recent immigrants like the rest of my friends. My Japanese Grandma Machiko passed away in 1994, when I was still in the single digits age range. Even when she was alive we lived far apart. My limited memories of her are only fragments and I often wonder if these are constructed from stories told to me. Not only does my Japanese identity feel false, but so too does my shaky connection to my heritage.

I was given little nudges to be interested in my Japanese background. I had a book about Japan, but none of it resonated with me and it remained a remote curiosity. I might as well have read a book about the Philippines. A couple times my Grandma’s sister and a few cousins came out to visit us in California. They brought gifts, including origami paper. It was a cultural symbol, but I couldn’t connect on an intimate level with little squares of beautifully patterned, colorful paper. I had little squares of Japanese culture, but these were pieces of a mostly impersonal version of the very personally resonating concept of culture.

Sure, I’m Japanese by blood and descent, but how can I be Japanese without the culture?

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There’s no doubt that part of my interest in genealogy is due to an early exposure to rich and diverse cultures. I didn’t grow up where either of my parents grew up, and I had friends with such strong traditions and identities. It made me wonder what the pieces were of my own heritage, when I didn’t fit into any of the frames of reference I saw with my friends.

In addition to being Japanese, I also have a strong 1/4 thread of Eastern European from my other Grandma. I can’t say that I feel particularly allied with that history either, but at least I have living relatives in other states that can easily answer questions about our family. I’ve eaten a poticia and know about Polish Easter breakfast. I’ve heard stories about my Catholic great grandpa carrying around rosary beads and shifting his observed birthday to the birthday of the saint he shared his name with. That left only the other half of my identity, a grab bag of Western European heritage, as a mystery.

Thankfully I had a head start on the third quarter of my heritage, as my European-American Grandpa got really into genealogy in the 1970s and plotted out an impressive array of British, German, and French ancestors. That left my final mystery quarter from the other side of my family as a detective case for me to tackle. It turns out that I have pretty deep roots in early Tennessee. Learning that I descend from those who owned other humans in Tennessee, and earlier in Virginia and North Carolina, was shocking. I had always assumed that my southern rooted family was financially broke and not morally broken. Yet, the Holts of Tennessee, and the families that married into the Holts, enslaved humans over several generations.

I can’t immediately perceive anything about my life and culture that has come down to me through this heritage. What am I suppose to do to reconcile this legacy guilt? How can I make reparations in the present for being a descendant of a culture that I find repulsive and have no desire to connect with? As much as I long to connect with being Japanese, I also want to distance myself from the horrors perpetrated by my Tennessee ancestors. Yet I feel a guilty desire to know more, to try to understand – who were these people and why were they complicit in this system? In what ways have I been quietly shaped by this hushed inheritance? And can being loud about it be productive?

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I moved to Los Angeles ten years ago, and living in Los Angeles led me to feel a renewed pull and interest in any latent Japanese-ness through meeting others who were also partials. I’ve also met several descendants of those that were interned by the United States government in World War II, simply for having Japanese ancestry. I’ve been asked several times about my own family’s internment experience, which always gives me a sense of mild embarrassment. No, no, my ancestors actually were the enemy, as they were still in Japan during WWII. Then that moment of connection with other Japanese descendants becomes a little tarnished. Do we really have a shared history and heritage?

There’s an initial disarming comfort about meeting Japanese-Americans with deep Los Angeles roots, but ultimately Japanese-American history in Los Angeles does not feel like my history. My Grandma was the only one from her family to immigrate to the U.S. and she didn’t really settle down here until the early 1960s. Here wasn’t even the West Coast – she spent the rest of her post-Japan life in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio.

The only place I’ve really “seen” my Grandma is in the documentary Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight. The documentarians seek to bring out the stories of Japanese war brides who “disappeared into America.” The idea of disappearing into America hurts my heart and is maybe part of my motivation to find a way to be more Japanese-American in my own way. This documentary also reaffirms my belief in the importance of being able to see yourself in stories about what it is to be a human. Seeing yourself or your ancestry depicted in the media and in archives is an affirmation of legitimacy.

At the same time, there can be a very fine line between appropriation and cultural pride. Can I be an appropriator of my own culture? Reclaiming ancestral culture that’s been stripped or watered down, without feeling that it is performative – can this be done?

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Somehow it feels far easier to claim a heritage that is an assault against humanity. It is strangely somehow easier to feel guilt above other emotions when it comes to cultural background. I can claim the enslaving ancestors because I have no pride in it. From this inheritance I only have my privilege of mostly being perceived as white, made doubly guilty by society’s denial of my Asian-ness. I am a descendant of enslavers, and it is dirty, I have shame, but it is my inherited shame. Yet I don’t feel ownership over my Japanese-ness. Why is this?

Killing or dispossessing another human of their freedom is a pretty timelessly evil thing to do. Some try to absolve past crimes through the historical context argument – weren’t Franklin D. Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson “great men”? Yet there were also plenty of contemporaries to these so-called “great men” that saw the human destruction through the layer of societal complacency.

I carry this legacy guilt with me and I can’t travel back in time to change the past. Being cognizant of the damage my ancestors caused, and being thoughtful when framing their actions is a step one. There is no absolution or glorification of their actions and choices. Their purported kindness or generosity to those they enslaved does not change the fact that they were part of a system that held people captive and stole their lives. Being careful to refer to those they enslaved as humans that were enslaved, rather than “slaves,” is a minor language item that restores a modicum of dignity to those they gravely wronged. I grew up taking history classes that referred to people as “slaves.” In adulthood, I learned to start using the term enslaved instead, and it is pretty incredible how much a terminology shift can be a humanity restoring mind flip.

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I’ve often felt like my body and culture are held hostage by the judgment of outside forces. When I think about the heritage/identity boxes I can place myself in, maybe the answer is that I really am none of the above. That maybe there was some lesson in the frustration I felt every time I had to fill out a form that required me to be “other,” or forced me to choose to ally myself with only one part of my identity. That I have to create something new that is fused from parts both known and acknowledged; unknown and to be explored. The little tendrils drilled down into DNA and words that I hadn’t even realized existed, coupled with the grooved paths I have to create on my own through repetition.

Walk this new path, walk this new path, walk this new path. And one day there will be no more grass on that ground. No more walking through overgrown weeds. It will exist as path alone.

This is the challenge and inheritance of being an American on stolen lands.

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Faces to go with Names.

Here is a portrait of James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923), my great, great grandparents referenced in the last obituary post.

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James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923)

Remembrance in the 1920s Newspaper.

While my mind is still musing on the modern-day obits section of the newspaper, here are two obituaries from my Ohio side of the family. James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923) are my great, great grandparents. They lived in Adams County, Ohio at the end of both of their lives.

The obits are actually pretty diverse. James’ spends a good deal of time detailing his last day of life, while Allie’s focuses primarily on her virtuousness. Could it be gender at play, or diversity in obit author styles?

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Obituaries for James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923)

How Not to Write An Obituary.

I use to read the obituaries every week in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. I’d look for the oldest person to die and then read their obit for inspiration. Where did they come from? What did they do with all that time they had? And, there was also a tinier voice asking, “How do I get to where they were? How can I absorb so much of life too?”

Then there were always the sad obits. They were of people of my own age, my parents’ ages, friends’ ages. There were the little annual memorials to kids lost far too early; reminders that the memory of them continued to age, though they did not. It was these obits that started to bring me down. I started to identify a little too closely to some stories, some timeframes. In the older obits any form of identification was a bonus, but with these young departed it was too real a reminder of what obituaries signify: someone has left the building.

2016 has been a rough year for death, and particularly for music fans, as several well-known and loved lumnaries of the profession have passed on. On Thursday I found out that my Great Uncle Jerry moved on. He’d been sick for years, in a slow, slow decline that gradually robbed him of the ability to do many of the things the able-bodied take for granted. He wasn’t a musician, but I did learn very recently that he enjoyed photography.

It was almost a funny thing to learn that he liked photography. I knew he worked as a truck driver for years, as he’d tell stories from the road. In all non-obit-like honesty, Jerry presented himself as a tough trucker guy from rural Oklahoma. He’d sit around the house, smoking away, and puffing out homophobic, sexist, and racist things in a loud voice (when he still had a volume dial to turn up on his vocal cords). I never knew anything about him acting on any of his words, but the words were still tough to hear sometimes.

Is this speaking ill of the dead? It is at least speaking truth. I don’t aim to rob him of his humanity by glossing over the way that he presented himself. At the same time I don’t aim to portray him negatively either. I don’t aim to portray him in any other way than the very way he portrayed himself.

I think where this becomes complicated, is that the public presentation of self is often conflated with things that reside outside the self, or roles we are trying to play in society. Depending on the person it can be easy to be consumed by the reflection you’d like to see, rather than drawing on an internal well. It’s tough.

I think there are lovely things about Jerry that I never knew. There was something in him that my Great Aunt saw, and I adore her. He had a good wit, though it was often misdirected to social baggage better left behind in the 20th century. I don’t know enough about where he grew up and what formed him in his early years. I want to know more, I want to better understand.

In the meantime I will remember Jerry. I can’t bring myself to honor the dead by distorting the past, but I can respect the context in which people lived, and strive to better understand all angles of humanity. And sometimes I still sneak a peek at the obits page, and sometimes there is still beauty and inspiration in death.

Momday

Always thirsty - for knowledge, for beverages.

Always thirsty for knowledge.

From an early age my Mom instilled in me the idea that “haters gonna hate.” In grade school she put a little laminated clipping in my lunchbox with a picture of Albert Einstein and his quote, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Kids can be really mean to each other, but my Mom made sure I had perspective and understood that things other people say about you or to you explain a lot more about them than you. I think this is one of the most valuable things my Mom taught me. That it’s ok to be your weird self. That being quirky and creative is a value, even if others react to it negatively.

Now I surround myself with a bunch of openminded wonderful people or “great spirits” and mostly only encounter mediocre mind attitudes on the internet. There’s a lot of ugly out there in the world, and I don’t ignore it, but I feel like you need to be secure in yourself first. Like the airplane safety instructions that tell you, “You must secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else.” Then it’s easier to have compassion and perspective because your own negative feelings aren’t getting tangled up in your reactions. Often easier said than done, but not impossible.

One lesson of many, thanks Mom!

Application for a Date with a Seabee

While working with 20th century archival materials I think a lot about the privacy of the individuals represented in archives that have no idea some physical detritus of their earlier years is preserved for others to access. Access is one of the primary intentions of preserving anything in an archives, and even temporary restrictions are best avoided, but sometimes you have to look out for people.

There aren’t too many things in my family papers that need restriction before being launched online, but I felt compelled to be a little extra cautious with this Application for a Date with a Seabee from the 1950s. It’s tucked into my grandpa Donald Hickman’s scrapbook (the one that served in the Navy, including a tour in the Philippines). I doubt this individual (it’s not my Grandma) still lives in the same house in Oklahoma, and you wouldn’t get too far with a four digit phone number these days, but just in case.

There’s a blank form and a filled out version in my grandpa’s papers, but the filled out one is way more fun! I don’t know the form’s origin story, but it’s fun to think about really serious questions like: do you think the french kiss will replace the toothbrush?

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Grade E in Sandy Springs, Ohio.

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My great grandma Edith Graham wasn’t too into school, at least during the 1901-1902 year. What came before the “F” for fail grade? An E!

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My recreational life, with some exceptions, is mostly described as “school” these days. I’m so used to the A-B-C-D-F system, that it’s funny to think about past alternatives.

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I’m okay not leaving footprints, though I do want to examine the impressions that are already out there in the sands of time. It feels a little mean to post a bad report card on the internet, but she kept it and it made it to 2015, so it must’ve not been all that terrible a memory!