Hard truths from a not so distant past
Since the dawn of their nation the mass of Americans who bunch up in the middle of our country’s liberty bell-shaped curve have remained fairly ruthless re-inventors. We may pass down an heirloom or two, refer to ourselves occasionally in terms of ancestral lands we’ve never so much as visited (“I’m English-German-Swiss, I think”), but overall we suffer from cultural amnesia. We live in the Great Melting Pot, after all, where heritage is nothing more than a hint of flavor in a greater stew. We celebrate the March of Progress, which razed ancient trees to make way for farms that were paved over for factories that were gutted and turned into overpriced condos and coffee shops that market sustainable practices. Manifest Destiny, because no matter who or what was here before, this land is my land from California to the New York island.
Ask most middle-Americans about their ancestry and you’ll find that they can’t tell you much beyond those relatives whom they know personally and perhaps one or two with some familial claim to fame–“I’m a distant cousin of Mark Twain,” or “My great-great-great (this can go on for many “greats,” as we have little sense of generations) fought in Washington’s army.”
I’m no exception. Ask me about my family beyond my grandparents and I’m reduced to names, legends, opinions, and anecdotes. There’s Milton, my crazy great-grandfather who chased his wife with a kitchen knife, an episode that earned him a round of shock treatments. His wife was Bertha, a joyous, rotund woman who died the same year that I was born. My great-grandfather August apparently was a mean son of a bitch, which may partially have come about when he lost his wife, Zora, during the birth of their last child. Then there’s great-grandpa Rufus–the Mississippian whose tuberculosis took him west with his wife, who allegedly still used the word “pickaninny” well into her dotage. Finally there’s Oscar, whose claim to fame was that he was Denver, Colorado’s first paid fire chief.
Rufus, Milton, August, Zora–such colorful names these ancestors bore, names much more vivid than the flat, monochromatic descriptions that substitute for real people. But now and then a new piece of information adds dimension to those profiles. Milton turned a good bit of his Depression-era corn into moonshine, for example, and he dedicated a little acreage to marijuana, too. Bertha collected novelty salt and pepper shakers. Imagine those two out on a Saturday night.
According to one family member Oscar was a “cocksman who couldn’t keep his fire hose in his pants,” and was so hard on his only son–my grandfather–that he ruined the boy. Other relatives remember him as a kind, loving grandfather or as not much of anything at all. It’s equally likely that either all or none of these impressions are true–real people aren’t faded black and white photos, after all.
Sometimes new information comes with documentation: the certificate that ends conjecture about cause of death; the military record that fixes an ancestor in space and time; a long forgotten Ku Klux Klan ledger….
Learning that Denver fire chief and great-grandfather Oscar was a Klansman wasn’t exactly a startling revelation. I knew from a documentary about the Colorado Klan that the organization controlled civic life across that state in the 1920s. One clearly couldn’t rise to a salaried position in the Denver fire department without cutting a couple of eye holes in the family linens, and while we shouldn’t judge books by their covers the few photos I’ve seen of old Oscar depict a man whom I wouldn’t care to meet in a dark alley. He may have been the nicest man in the world, but his portraits tell a different story. That’s not unusual, though: Mine do, too.
Finding out one has a Klansman in his ancestral woodpile hardly equates to “distant cousin of famous person” or “descendant of war hero.” This revelation doesn’t come with bragging rights, but rather an urge to stuff those damning ledger pages back into whatever drawer they were buried in. What point is there in dredging up the past? Those were different times, and besides–we don’t know that he was an active member. We have no evidence that Oscar committed any crimes, after all. I bet at that time in that place the Klan was more of a social club than a hate group. If we can rationalize paving paradise to put up a parking lot then paving over an uncomfortable fact shouldn’t be too difficult.
Guilt may find its way into the equation, a lineal bloodstain smeared across the generations. I recently met a descendant of Erwin Rommel, “That Nazi freak” as his great-great (great great great…) grandson described him. My new friend couldn’t be a more decent human, yet he couldn’t help but conversationally shoulder the burden of the Desert Fox’s awful legacy. Similarly, I winced a bit when I learned the news about Oscar. Focus that microscope correctly and you’ll find the old man’s genetic material taking a ride on the twirly slide of my DNA, after all.
Inevitably, though, the news isn’t much more than another data point about a man I never knew, a sort of historical marker erected in front of a shiny new strip mall: On this site in 1920 a thing happened that you can’t really imagine while staring at “20% Off For Dads and Grads” window posters. It makes no more difference that great-grandpa Oscar was a Klansman than it does that your great (great great great…) cousin was Mark Twain.
What does matter is the conversations that such a revelation might inspire. We might celebrate how far we’ve come over the last century, or we may see systemic parallels in our current local or federal governments. Perhaps we’ll talk about how racism was (and is) not a problem unique to the southern states. It’s possible that we’ll just share dark secrets from our family woodpiles, or wonder how the digital world will inevitably rat us out to our descendants.
I don’t know whether Oscar was a good man, a bad man, both, or neither. He was whomever those who knew him believed he was, for better or worse.
All I know for certain is that great-grandpa Milton must’ve been awfully fun to party with.