Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Complicity

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Luke 18:13

My father had surgery, several years ago, for a congenital hand malformation — he can correct me on this, but I think the disorder is called Dupuytren's contracture. It causes the hand to bend in upon itself, and surgery is the only real remedy for advanced cases. My father recovered well enough to go back to sea afterward.

Dupuytren’s contracture is not terribly common, but it’s not that rare, either. My father’s doctor told him that it was called the Viking disease, because it appears almost entirely in people of Viking descent.

Dad and I have both had our DNA analyzed by 23 and Me, and we don’t have that much Scandinavian blood, according to the ancestry report (although we do share ancestry with Niall of the Nine Hostages, so maybe we actually were kings of Ireland once). But Ireland was a land of shipwrecks and invasions, and the Vikings were all over the island, so at some point, some Viking took an Irish girl as his willing or unwilling partner.

I think about that a lot, as I think about my earliest maternal ancestor, a member of the relatively rare H13 haplogroup. Most living members of that haplogroup still live in a small pocket of the Caucasus Mountains, or around the Caspian Sea. But thousands of years ago, a girl child wandered — or was taken, or sold — west, and her descendants kept going.

Somewhere along the way, someone in my ancestry was forced into something that she did not want to do. And someone else in my ancestry did the forcing.

My mother’s family was from Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents met and married there in the 1930s, when my grandfather was a public defender and my grandmother wrote for the News & Courier. They were both Catholics of Irish descent, but my grandmother’s father, Henry Molony, had been a wealthy man, wiped out by the Depression.

Henry Molony was born in the U.S. in 1858. His father, John Molony, had come to Charleston from County Clare in 1845, and had kept a shop in Charleston until the war. John Molony owned no slaves. When the war came, he moved his store to Sumter, SC, and raised seven children. From what I can tell, he was not a Confederate. But one of his daughters married a Confederate veteran, and at least one of his sons — my great-grandfather, Henry — prospered in part by allying himself with the Democratic Party, which was not the Democratic Party as we know it today.

Henry Molony was an official of St. John’s Cathedral, a donor to many worthy causes, a founder of hospitals and a man of honor — but he was also, without a doubt, a man who apologized for the causes of the Confederacy and conspired to keep its memory bright. He left ten children, who have gone on to have hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own — my mother didn’t know all her cousins.

And every one of us — the hundreds, or even thousands — is a beneficiary of Henry Molony’s complicity.

Colonization was America’s original sin, but slavery was the foundational sin, and its repercussions still echo, 150 years after it was outlawed.

We’re not good at atonement, humans. We don’t like to admit we’ve done wrong. Adam and Eve, confronted with their first wrongdoing, lied about it. Lying is what distinguishes humans from other animals; it keeps us separate from God, separate from each other, separate from the real.

So here’s my point, at last: Charlottesville gives us all an opportunity to tell the truth. White Americans, and southerners in particular, are all complicit in some way. It doesn’t matter that we never held slaves ourselves. It doesn’t matter that our parents didn’t. It doesn’t even matter if our grandparents were public defenders (and I’ll say again, mine was). We had — and have — opportunities because somewhere along the way, somebody else suffered.

If we inherited the benefits, we inherited the obligations, too. It doesn’t matter if we’re not racists now. We can still do more. We can still make things better. 

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