Reconciling Contradictions in Ancestral Inspiration

As a history educator, one of my biggest goals is to inspire young people to find value in the past. I want my students to feel amazed, and sometimes humbled, by the events and processes that have created our present society. I want them to feel sympathy and empathy for people of the past, and to study their struggles and choices so they can use those lessons as guidance for their own lives.

In pursuing those goals, I’ve been especially drawn to the idea of encouraging students to think about their ancestors in order to make these connections with the past: In many cases it may be easier to identify with someone who we have a direct familial link to. After all, it was our ancestors’ decisions and lives that most directly and undeniably led to our existence. It can also feel uniquely empowering to envision our current lives as the culmination of thousands of peoples’ lives through history.

However, as much as I am attracted to presenting this line of thinking to my students, I need to acknowledge its limitations. Acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a striking warning in his book Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son about the experiences of Black men in America:

The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be.

Between the World and Me offers touching and valuable insights from beginning to end. This passage in particular, though, was the one that hit me most forcefully. Our ancestors were not “bricks in our road,” and to think of them solely as a means to the end-that-is-us is to deny their full value as individuals. Our ancestors’ pains, struggles, successes, and defeats were just that — pain, struggle, success, and defeat — regardless of whether we as their descendants happen to have better lives than they did.

People are hopelessly drawn to telling stories, and the narrative that we are riding a wave progress propelled by past generations is a powerful one. As powerful a story as it is, though, that doesn’t make it necessarily true.

It makes sense that many Black Americans would wish to see their lives as “redemption” for the trials and suffering of their forebears. The same is true for many Indigenous people, and that urge is likely even more prevalent, given the deep value of honoring one’s ancestors present in many Indigenous cultures. I see related ideas expressed by Native people in social media posts all the time, and here’s one funny example:

A meme with two images and a GIF: 1. How I think I sound speaking my language, 2. How I actually sound, and 3. My ancestors proud tho watching me struggle through saying the cat is blue.

I strongly agree that it should feel empowering and special to learn and speak the language that your ancestors spoke, even if you’re just saying “the cat is blue.” (“Katten är blå,” is what some of my ancestors would have said.) However, just as Ta-Nehisi Coates warned, there are dangers here in ascribing intent and purpose to our ancestors that may not actually reflect their lived experiences and genuine beliefs: Would all of your ancestors really smile down on you learning their ancestral language?

For many people, (including both Indigenous people and the descendants of immigrants), their ancestors gave up speaking their native languages in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. Many of them were able to survive or even thrive in society because of that choice to assimilate, and if we could travel back in time and meet them, they might have believed very strongly that their choice to assimilate and stop speaking their ancestral language was the right one. For example, two of my great-grandparents spoke Swedish but never spoke it to their children throughout their whole adult lives. I don’t know for sure what their beliefs were on the matter and why they made that choice, but if they could watch me learning Swedish now, would they really support the effort? I’m not sure they would.

Now, I should distinguish that immigrants like my great-grandparents actively chose to move to new countries and assimilate into settler societies like Canada and the United States, while many Indigenous people were forced to assimilate through abusive colonial systems. Those events are not equivalent at all. Nevertheless, it holds true for all of us, regardless of who we are and where we live, that our ancestors’ experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and priorities were almost certainly quite different than our own.

Here is one post with a more serious message that I believe successfully uses ancestral inspiration in a broader, more truthful way:

Image from Latinx Parenting: “As you focus on clearing your generational trauma, do not forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than just wounds.”

It’s a great point to make that as scientific research further establishes the existence of intergenerational trauma, it should be just as valid and important to discuss the existence of intergenerational strength. And, although the phrasing of the post treats our ancestors as agents who “gave” us both wounds and strengths, it does not imply that our ancestors were “chapters in [our] redemptive history,” as Coates put it, or that our ancestors would necessarily be smiling down on us or approving of our choices if they saw us now.

Here’s the bottom line: Not all of my ancestors would like me or approve of me if they came back from the dead and visited me tomorrow. The further back in time they came from, the less likely we would be to share many beliefs or even the same frame of reference. Conversely, it’s also inevitable that I would not like all of my ancestors, that I would judge that many of them did bad things in their lives, and that I might even consider some of them bad people.

Nevertheless, it remains true for every one of us that our ancestors did have many strengths, that they survived and lived through suffering, struggle, and success, and that all of those experiences are the reason we are here now. I hope that reflection will continue to aspire children and adults alike to think about their place in history, not so they think they are the great culmination of some magnificent line of progress, but so they realize they are one important link in a chain of ongoing changes.

Our lives are precious, and so were the lives of those who came before us, as will be those who come after us. Let’s use our ancestors’ lessons and strengths to help make the best world we can for future generations.

Please leave a comment if you have your own experiences and reflections to share!

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton