Will Finding Our Roots Change Us?

“Finding Your Roots” is a PBS series hosted by Harvard historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In each episode, Gates interviews celebrities while he presents to them always-revealing information about their families. Somewhere in every interview, after a new reveal, Gates asks: “How does knowing this change how you understand yourself?”

This is exactly the question the nation needs to be asking as more and more is revealed about the fullness of who and what this nation has been and, therefore, who and what we are and might yet be.

Gates’ team of researchers does fabulous work. They dig into dusty archives, flaking record books, microfilmed newspapers and manifests. In addition, they do DNA analysis. Surprises for the guests include: who their enslaved ancestors were or that their ancestors enslaved others; family names were changed to escape revengeful person from the Old World; their ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust; they have living relatives of another color because, somewhere in their family history, persons of different races had babies.

Nearly everyone finds they are descended from people who went through a terrible ordeal, who were oppressed—but who were also resilient. Sometimes there is a scandal revealed by DNA: Dad is not one’s biological father, or great-great grandpa had two families at the same time.

As the celebrities turn page after page of the book Gates’ team assembled to reveal the guest’s roots, the guests express a range of emotions: joy, deep sorrow, anger and rage, gratitude. Seeing pictures and names of people, sometimes going back centuries, about which one knew nothing prior to the show—wow! Coming to understand the pain that one always knew was part of the family’s history but which one did not understand until now—oh, my.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t remember anyone saying on camera, “I wish I did not know this,” no matter how painful the revelation. Sometimes, though, it is clear the guest musters up their courage before turning a page at Dr. Gates’ invitation. Bringing one’s family history from darkness into light can be scary.

I so wish we U.S. Americans would collectively muster up the courage to turn the page on our collective history, learn what the next page reveals, and ask, “How does this information change how we understand ourselves?” Too often, in too many states, houses of worship, schools, and homes, the page is not turned. In places such as Oklahoma, the dominant political party is trying to legislatively excise the fuller story—or so the smell test of people I respect indicates. The older, seriously misshapen, truncated story rules understanding.

I am not a fan of the term “white fragility” (for several reasons), but darn, I think the term applies.

Why can’t we, the American people, pair 1619 with the English importation of enslaved people, with the Declaration of Independence and write a story that includes both? Why can’t we both admire the courage of Lincoln in producing the Emancipation Proclamation and deal with his widely-shared prejudice against free White and free Black people living together? Why can’t we tell the stories of both our off-and-on openness to immigration and our sometimes mean-spirited rejection and isolationism?

What if we could both boast of being the most multi-religious nation on earth while also reckoning with white evangelical Christianity’s predominance and, in nearly every generation, its quest for dominance? What if we could weave a “from many, one” narrative not by reducing the multiplicity of ethnicities and cultures into the equivalent of a monoculture McDonalds (same look nearly everywhere), but by both celebrating the cultures AND sitting with their generational traumas?

What if we could embrace the facts regarding both the generosity of many Americans and the nation’s relative stinginess when it comes to foreign aid? In our assessment of religion, why can’t we both recognize the enormous good religious institutions have contributed (e.g., health care, education, feeding the hungry and sheltering the unsheltered) as well as the violence (spiritual-emotional-physical) with which some expression of religion is allied—or which is caused by religion?

Any political or religious community which tells only the story of America as going from the quest for religious freedom, to being God’s New Israel, to being God’s exodus people, to being God’s manifest destiny people, to being God’s chosen people into the 21st century is bearing false witness. We must also include, embrace, and understand as our stories slavery, genocide, land and wealth theft, exploitation of immigrant labor, racism, greed, imperial wars, Jim Crow, and a moral order established to provide freedom for some and suspicion—and sometimes rejection—of the value of equality.

There are legions of excellent histories which give all of us—us religious people, us Americans—the opportunity to turn a new page and learn something we did not previous know about ourselves, including who is included in “ourselves.” We can learn to tell a new story which includes all the relatives we did not know we had, and all their stories of from where they came and what their experience of America has been. But, now that we know them, the American people is being asked repeatedly today, “How does knowing this change how we understand ourselves?”

Right now, the nation, and many religious congregations, are stuck in a vicious spiral of pursuing and suppressing this question.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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