Monkey learned quickly. He became well trained—adept at spanking his own butt and throwing himself out of the window. As far as I know, he never learned to stop peeing inside the house.
Sarah is my great-great-great-grandmother, or the great-grandmother of my own grandma. Her story is one among hundreds that my grandparents have compiled through the years, a genealogy filled with names, dates, and places older than the United States itself. My family history, full of stories like Sarah's, often makes me smile and laugh.
But sometimes, my heritage also seems more complicated and disturbing. My grandmother once showed me a will, triumphantly announcing, "Look, our ancestor freed his slaves 30 years before the Civil War even started!" It took me a minute to understand what she celebrated. I was still grappling with the fact that, in my family history, someone had owned slaves. How had he treated them? How did they feel when they were freed? Who alive today could benefit from this same document to tell their own family story? These sorts of questions can make me feel disquieted by my heritage and concerned about the effects of its legacy.
I've learned to feel troubled by the past, educated about mistakes made and atrocities committed. I remember when I was 15, learning about systematic lynching in America. I felt viscerally haunted by history for weeks, dismayed, disgusted, and confused by what enabled that racial violence. The legacy still looms over me when I hear about struggles with violence and racial tension today.
Yet, no matter how my family history links to a horrific legacy, I'm also proud of my heritage. My family's past seems too expansive to be reduced to its shameful moments. I'm interested in the incredible stories and bizarre facts of my heritage, as much as I also want to learn about its travesties. There are so many kinds of ancestors and stories that give me insight into the world—Ulster County, Río Yaqui, Canton—from which my grandparents, parents, and I arrived. Focusing on the disturbing aspects of my history matters to me, but I also enjoy hearing about the amusing, beautiful, or inspiring lives that I never imagined possible.
The number of stories that I can tell about my heritage seems endless. I can share a little about firefighting in China, trading Indian turquoise in California, resisting the French occupation in Mexico, building a prairie sod house, and shooting out America's last cowboys at the O.K. Corral. I could talk about the earliest known Allen ancestor to arrive here in the 1730s, or about my mother's immigration to America. She would throw garbage away in blue postal office mailboxes because they looked like Hong Kong's trash cans. The diversity of my family's experiences, fascinating or funny, makes me feel lucky for the connection that I have to the past.
But my extensive heritage has its limits, particularly when applied to my individual story. I don't possess a straightforward relationship with my family's history wherein I can claim the same languages and traditions as my relatives and ancestors. I don't feel compelled to identify with most people on my family tree. The words like Welsh and Blackfoot that describe some of my ancestors sound foreign to me, and are not words that I want to use to describe myself.
Words that describe my more immediate heritage don't work well for me either. I usually stick with phrases like "Asian American," because the words, though imprecise, sound familiar and efficient. I consider myself in those terms, the same terms that apply to my pó?po. But how can I call myself Asian American, when she and I can barely communicate in the same languages? I then feel anxious about my claim to my pó?po's history because I believe that our heritages should seem more alike. But, of course, not every part of my grandmother's story is for me to claim.
In fact, my family's various heritages don't always allow me to make sufficient claims about who I am. There are too many other histories that have shaped me, ones that don't necessarily relate to my family. They involve a history with asthma, memories of Brightwood Elementary, abandoned music lessons, and former friendships. More recently, they've been about moving to New York, Columbia's basketball team, friends from Ukraine and Israel, and my new favorite books in class. There are parts of my story that even a broad inherited past cannot tell.
But when my heritage cannot back me up, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Without heritage, how do I express who I am? Without the words that heritage provides, how do I convey something succinct about who I have been? How can I share a story with someone if I can't comprehend its relationship to the past? I become anxious for a complete picture, fully explained and validated by history.
But I've learned to abandon that anxiety and embrace what I can't articulate or understand. The unfinished stories are my favorite parts of history, in which the significances are yet to be determined. I like when I don't have familiar, efficient phrases for who I am because then I can pursue the question and find further possibilities. The heritages that are unclear and uncertain are the ones that I enjoy sharing the most.
How I should relate my heritage to Sarah Ekey Dean is not always clear to me. I sometimes feel disconnected from her, alien to the world in which she lived. The words that described her can limit my own story. But sometimes, when my heritage starts to limit my story, I feel most free to tell the story myself.
Laura Allen is a Barnard senior majoring in English. She is a former associate copy editor for Spectator and the president of the Barnard Outdoor Adventure Team. Laurem Ipsum runs alternate Thursdays.
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