Tag Archives: Holt

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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Ancestors, childhood, and abortion.

When researching genealogy, documenting siblings of direct ancestors and the siblings’ children has proven very helpful in finding clues to the whereabouts of my direct ancestors. Though researching the many siblings in large ancestral family groups is also often an old timey reality check. My modern self starts all enthusiastic about tracking down the husbands, wives, and children, only to realize that my ancestor’s sibling died at 10 or 8 or 15 or 1. One of the saddest things is realizing that some families lost half of their children before those kids even had a shot at adulthood.

As a history person the news isn’t surprising. I know that people died young of all sorts of diseases and accidents and general tough living, but seeing it in your own family, giving names and lives to these individuals, makes the statistics people. It makes me realize how lucky we are in the U.S. in 2013. Yeah, people die of curable things because our healthcare system isn’t, erm, optimally run (totally different topic), but when I think of all the families I know with living children – well, this sure isn’t rural Tennessee in 1798!

It is a rarer tragedy when children get sick, and the families I know haven’t lost half their brood to disease or other causes. This makes me think about how our attitudes toward childhood and children are shaped by the expectation that children will make it to adulthood, and how this might inform modern day attitudes toward abortion.

I recently watched a couple documentaries on abortion. The fervent anti-abortion protestors standing outside clinics were most often portrayed as religiously motivated. I have no doubt that religion plays a major role in many individual attitudes on the subject, but the religious fixation of the anti-abortion protestors made me wonder less about biblical rationales and more about other cultural factors that play into American attitudes toward abortion. You don’t have to be super religious or non-religious to have an opinion on the subject. Separate from religious views, how might a modern day American’s worldview impact their attitudes on abortion?  Is it possible to separate religion from the issue?

Retrospect is often shrouded in a glowy halo. Not everyone I know loved childhood, but I think the general American cultural attitude privileges childhood as some sort of sacred phase. When you privilege the phase of life known as “childhood” as something special, memorable, and innocent, it seems worse to deny this phase to any cell with potential to become a human being.

So though vocal anti-abortion advocates cry foul in the name of religion, could more mild opinions be shaped by the value we place on childhood and optimistic beliefs that our modern medicine can solve the woes of childhood disease and award everyone the opportunity to grow to a fulfilling adulthood? Is it harder for modern Americans to accept that sometimes a fetus that doesn’t develop properly or is impeded by incurable disease has no fighting chance?

And this is not to say that the death of children in any time period is ever an easy thing (my great great great grandparents Thomas Crutcher and Nancy Holt each wrote a mourning poem when their son died in 1865), but I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to accept and mourn death with our overly optimistic rosy lenses – visions of cute children playing in the pages of Toys ‘R’ Us ads and in new clothes for the first day of school override images of infants hooked up on life support systems in the few months before they pass or (in abortions based on choice and not on medical conditions) children put in the adoption/foster system or children kept and not given the developmental support of their peers due to poor financial or emotional environments?

The history of American childhood, abortion, and death and mourning are not my specialties, so I could probably use some more reading before coming to any sort of real conclusions, but I do know enough to at least ask questions and wonder.

(As an aside, I’ll also note that I’m super impressed how old some of my ancestors got – 70s, 80s, even 90s!)

Oklahoma and prohibition

I’ve been a little fixated on my ancestor Andrew Holt lately, mostly because it’s been relatively easy to find a couple newspaper articles on his death.  Since I posted the last article I came across more newspaper bits that relate to him.  On one hand I’d like to pick a more obscure relative to research, but obscurity often doesn’t leave a very obvious paper trail, so for now pardon my obsession with the bootlegging/Prohibition related relative.  I’ll do my best not to glorify or harangue any of the participants too much.

My great grandma Julia Holt Hickman's oldest brother in the papers.  Oklahoma Weekly Leader, 1922 January 19.

My great grandma Julia Holt Hickman’s oldest brother in the papers. Oklahoma Weekly Leader, 1922 January 19.

I picked up a book on Prohibition in Oklahoma called Born Sober: Prohibition in Oklahoma, 1907-59 by Jimmie Lewis Franklin, published in 1971.  Before big “P” federal Prohibition was passed and went into effect in 1920, Oklahoma had little “p” prohibition.  Before statehood Oklahoma was divided between Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory.  Indian Territory was always dry, and when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 (uniting the two territories), it too went dry.

Born Sober mentions a saloonkeeper in Ponca City, who reacted to statewide prohibition by posting this statement above his business, “Hush little saloon, don’t you cry; you’ll be a drug store, by and by.” (Franklin 24)  I wish the book had more tasty tidbits like that.  It’s a great statewide overview, but leans more toward political machinations than cultural history.  I also think there is something to be said about race and alcohol prohibition, but maybe someone else wrote that book between 1971 and the present day.  I haven’t done any research on that yet.

I do give the author props for at least touching on the role of religion in the prohibition debate.  Catholics (often more recent immigrants) were sacramental wine users, while Protestants (who made up the majority of Oklahomans at the time) didn’t need booze to satisfy the rituals of their religious practice, and were more likely to be vehemently anti-booze.  For the record, my Oklahoma relatives were somewhere in the Methodist-Episcopal-Baptist range.  Andrew Holt’s grandpa was itinerant minister Thomas Crutcher Holt.  T.C. Holt  is an entire series of posts on his own, so I’ll leave that there for now.

Anywhoo, statewide prohibition was difficult to enforce (hey, just like federal Prohibition a decade or so later).  Local sentiment played a big role in whether or not enforcement was feasible in particular regions.  It was also expensive to enforce and difficult to control liquor coming over the border from wet states. (Franklin 37-40).  Despite enforcement difficulties and attempts to amend or do away with prohibition of alcohol in Oklahoma, the statewide ban remained.

There are some nitty gritty details on the particulars of alcohol prohibition – things like adjustments in the enforcement of the law, restrictions, and the exception that allowed individuals to get a prescription for alcohol from their doctor.  There is also a lot to be said about the background of the whites who moved to Oklahoma before and after statehood, and how that came into play in terms of the political power dynamics.  And, even after federal Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, Oklahoma still had another form of state alcohol prohibition.

For family history purposes in this particular case study I’m going to stick to the 1900-1933 period and keep it general unless it directly pertains to my family in Love County.  I’m mostly interested in better understanding the context of the 1922 shooting of my relative Andrew Holt in Marietta, OK, and any other info is bonus material.

I really hope someone has a picture of him somewhere.  I’d love to put a face with a name.  I do have several pictures of his youngest sister, my great grandma Julia Holt Hickman.  She died when I was young, but I did get to meet her on several occasions.  My Mom was really close to her and has told me a lot of very nice things about her, so I’ll have to do a post on her sometime.

(Researching alcohol prohibition has been a nice build up to the Boardwalk Empire premiere in September!  I can’t wait.  It’s like a birthday present to me – sensationalized history with some of the best costuming and set design.  And the music!  Only place on modern TV to have 1920s dance tunes show up that I can sing along to.  I’m still ecstatic “Barney Google” was at the end of last season……”with the goo goo googly eyes….”  So cool.)

Legacy Guilt.

Today I went to the Western History Workshop on Dr. Alice Echols’ work in progress project on her grandfather’s involvement with a Building and Loan Bank scandal in Colorado Springs in the Great Depression.  At the beginning of her presentation she brought up the problematic nature of mining family history for history narratives.  Past lives, like present lives, are riddled with tragedy as much as they are stories of success and triumph.

In my own personal genealogy research I semi-recently learned that my great great great great grandpa was a slave owner in Tennessee.  Most of his sons moved to Texas as young adults and remained there until their deaths.  The sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, while their slave owning father actually sided with the Union.

Thomas Crutcher Holt, one of the sons (and my ancestor) worked as an itinerant Methodist and Baptist preacher in the South.  His son Edgar Eugene Holt moved to southern Oklahoma.  And it was there in southern Oklahoma that Edgar’s son Andrew Holt, my great grandma’s oldest brother, ran whiskey during Prohibition in the 1920s and was shot down by a sheriff (and family oral history also says a U.S. Marshall) in a nighttime raid.

The Morning Tulsa daily world. (Tulsa, Okla.), 21 Jan. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The Morning Tulsa daily world. (Tulsa, Okla.), 21 Jan. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042345/1922-01-21/ed-1/seq-5/

I don’t feel bad at all about having a Prohibition violating ancestor, though I do feel a little bad about having a slave owning gggg grandfather.  I’ve decided to call this legacy guilt.  It’s a non-monetary inheritance that you can’t really do anything about.  The longer I’ve known about it the easier it has been to reconcile that what an ancestor did is very much in the past, and what you do as an individual in the present is far more important than the actions of any one of the hundreds of ancestors that rotated around the sun before you.

Their actions had far reaching implications and greatly impacted the lives around them, but there is no remedy for that when you are nothing but an agent of the present.

If anything, learning more about the potentially negatives aspects of my family’s past illuminates a general history narrative that often feels generic and impersonal.  I’ve been pursuing information on the cultural context of my slaveowning ancestor in Tennessee and his sons’ move to Texas.  It’s been an exciting journey so far to try to understand the push and pull factors of their choices through the contexts of their lives.