In ongoing debates over slavery reparations, we are beginning to collectively address the extent to which we can justly claim or bear responsibility for the legacies of our ancestors. Just recently, Georgetown University announced a reparations program to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold by the university. The plan both grants legacy status to the descendants and establishes an annual fund for their benefit.
Beyond the question of reparations for black people as a whole, the push to aid people based on specific familial connections presents a more uncertain understanding of the heritability of trauma. Even presuming that those who descended from enslaved people are owed some restitution, it is tenuous that direct familial connections going back centuries should entitle some among that group to institutional aid not offered to others whose families were held in bondage by less illustrious slaveholders.
This speaks more broadly to a general discomfort that I have long had with the importance that people give to blood ties. There is bound to be an inherent disunity in any society that places such an emphasis on birthright and arbitrary conceptions of collective and individual identity. If we still believe in an ideal world being one in which things like race are no longer determinative attributes, we should reevaluate the ways in which kinship continues to define us.
This past summer, my family took part in the 25th anniversary of the Getting Word project at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. Since the 1990s, the Getting Word project has brought together descendants of the slave families that lived on Jefferson’s plantation in an effort to affirm the legacy of the African-American community that made all of Jefferson’s achievements possible. In another sense, the gathering of descendants that I attended was an incredibly rare sort of family reunion. For me, the gathering was both inspiring and bitterly uncomfortable.
I understood the immense historical value of the project and I was moved by the solemnity with which the organizers were handling this reevaluation of Jefferson’s legacy. But past the new exhibits to recognize Sally Hemmings and the oral history component, there was something about the reunion that made me uneasy.
We enjoyed dinner on the lawn, a special tour of the house and slave quarters, and some chose to spend the night on the property. In conversations with the other attendees, I tried to understand the argument that in holding this reunion, we were laying claim to something that our descendants built; providing a sense of ownership that had been denied for so many years. But in revisiting this site, that for many represents the epitome of the American Enlightenment, in this strange context, I began to question the importance that was being given to a random family connection. By attending, I felt like I was giving power to the notion that what you inherit from your ancestors is not just biological.
I have never paid much attention to who my ancestors were past those who were alive in my lifetime. I have tended to roll my eyes whenever people talk proudly of their family history from centuries ago. Of all the unearned benefits or curses that we fall into at birth, that of lineage seems to be the most generally accepted. But isn’t there a danger in seeking empowerment through an inherently poisonous idea? In the grand scheme of things the efforts by Monticello and Georgetown may be harmless, but the longer we celebrate the specialness of blood ties, the harder it will be to excise the inequalities that it perpetuates.