Where to begin my story?
Does it begin with my birth? My parents’? Their parents? In this tapestry that is America, that is humanity, where do the stories that walk among us begin and end?
It is May 2020. Covid-19, a literal worldwide pandemic, has kept us isolating in our homes for the past two months. In a failure of federal leadership, some American states have begun re-opening despite medical experts’ predictions that this will lead to more deaths. It is a crisis of unprecedented proportions: a political crisis, a medical crisis, a human crisis that has revealed both the best and the worst of us.
In recent years, I have begun to discover the value of my own voice. I have begun to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my life experiences. Today my voice seems very small. Why begin writing now, when the world as I have known it could be ending? When I could be one cough away from my own mortality?
Perhaps that is the best reason to write. If a million of us are going to die this year, that could be a million stories untold, a million truths unheard.
So here I begin anew. My story. My truth. For what it’s worth to my family, my friends, I will tell what I am as well as I can. If there is indeed power in vulnerability, then let my voice be heard:
His name was William Sweat. My father’s grandmother’s grandfather. Born before America, around 1773 in South Carolina. He was “counted as white” in an 1860 Tennessee census, although ten years before, he and his wife Lucinda were recorded as “mulatto.” His father Benjamin and grandfather (also William) were named in a “Rogue’s List” of “free negroes and mulattoes that infest that county and annoy its inhabitants” in October 1773.
In the late 1700’s, the Sweat family moved from South Carolina to Tennessee. William served as a private in the War of 1812, finally receiving a pension at age 98. William could neither read nor write. He lived to the age of 100. And William Sweat was “one of the biggest land owners and largest slave holder in Campbell Co., Tennessee.”
A person of color who owned slaves? I’ve since learned it wasn’t all that unusual, but my first foray into ancestry.com confirmed what I’ve always known: my family is complicated.
Apparently the racism embedded in our family history comes not just from our Scotch-Irish roots but from our native American ancestors who sought to differentiate themselves from the even more oppressed status of “Negro” in the Jim Crow south. My cousin has traced our American roots into the mid-1600’s (and before, evidently). Our (many-great’s) grandmother was Margaret Cornish, thought to be one of the “twenty and odd” Angolans stolen by privateers from a Portuguese slave ship in 1619. A year before the Mayflower, one of the first Africans brought to (not yet) America, stolen by pirates, sold as an indentured servant at age nine. Our (many-great’s) grandfather was Robert Sweat. I haven’t yet been able to confirm if Robert was an English immigrant to Jamestown or a Native American –the Sweat surname is listed on several tribal registers from that area — but he was a church member. In 1640, when Robert Sweat “hath begotten with Child a negro woman servant (Margaret) belonging unto Lieutenant Sheppard”, Robert was ordered to perform “public penance in the divine service at James City Church”. Margaret was sentenced to be “whipt at the whipping post.” The pregnant black lady was whipped — white supremacy and patriarchy — traditional American values?! If trauma is truly inherited in our genes, I’ve got at least 400 years worth to work through.
Although my ancestors did fight against the British in the American Revolution, we are not blue-bloods. My family is full of “good ole boys” who love Nascar and are roughly divided over God and beer. We are hillbillies, who didn’t emerge from the hills and hollers of Kentucky and Tennessee until my parents’ generation, by which time our nonwhite roots had been purged from bloodlines and most memories. William’s granddaughter was named America Sweat. She bore 14 children, including stillborn triplets named Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego. (I kid you not.) Her husband, if my cryptic uncle is to be believed, displayed some aberrant sexual behavior.
Whispers. Innuendo. I doubt my family history is either better or worse than anyone else’s but I learned early that there are things we do not discuss: Sex. Mental illness. Racism. Our emotions. Finances. Religion. Actually, the list of things we can discuss is much shorter: the weather. Other people’s shortcomings.
I begin this recounting with a caveat: the reminder that this is my story. My perceptions, my emotions, my thoughts. I read once that no two children have the same parents. Our parenting changes with each child, with the relationship between us and within ourselves. My sisters may not agree with my perceptions or conclusions about our family. My cousins may remark that I missed things glaringly obvious to them. That’s okay.
It has taken me a lot of years to accept that subjective truth can be as valid as objective truth. In our early marriage (and okay, yesterday), Michael had to often repeat that my feelings were legitimate just because they were my feelings. My brilliant daughter can draw a straight line from my emotional need to be justified through the Age of Reason back to Ancient Greek dualism and some pretty messed up ideas of Aristotle (like women and slaves having no souls.)
When you live under the idea that right and wrong, good and bad, is an ever-constant judgement in which you fall far short, life can be a discouraging, often desperate, trek. As a sensitive hyper-vigilant child, I could not articulate my particular philosophy of life. But I gathered its parts through what I saw and felt deeply.
A large portion of my adult thought life has been given to re-examining those conclusions I made as a child. In my childish mind, the world was filled with potential dangers, God was an angry judge and people were not trustworthy. As much as I may have wished it so, I did not wake up one morning to discover a beautiful secure space occupied by a loving Creator and people filled with good intentions. This is not to say I have not found these things, only that they did not arrive magically.
When my daughter was not yet a day old, I held this amazing person with all the tenderness and terror a new parent’s hormones can contain. I couldn’t believe the hospital would permit us to just take her home, without some kind of proof-of-competency exam. For my driver’s license, I had to prove I could drive responsibly. How could we be allowed to take sole responsibility for this precious being with her soft skin and old-soul eyes? I prayed that day, fully conscious of my own struggles within my family. I prayed that the generational issues I had noted, from my grandparents to me, would stop with me. Addictive behaviors, insecurity, anger, depression, sexual and self-esteem issues. I prayed that my daughter would be protected.
God has reminded me of my prayer many times over the past thirty years. He has honored that prayer, but not in the manner I intended. I wanted magic. I wanted Him to take it all away. I wanted the problems to not be problems anymore, instantly.
What I’ve received has been healing by inches. Three steps forward, eight steps back. God has allowed me to accompany Him on a journey to discover not only the nature of these issues but sometimes the roots as well. Dropping into the past with present perspective is always a tricky business. I invite you to witness my journey and I promise to share as honestly as I can.