Saturday, July 26, 2014

Honoring My Ancestors

A few brief generations ago, some of my ancestors watched their relatives starve to death in Ireland. They ate grass until their lips turned green and watched nourishment travel along country roads, guarded by soldiers, in route to England. There was no hope for them on that island, none at all.

So, the most ambitious and ingenious of my ancestors envisioned a better life and refused to accept the idea that their children had no future. The crowded onto hellish ships and came to the United States. For all I know, my ancestors may have been some of the Irish who smuggled themselves into the country illegally. It would hardly surprise me if that was the case.

Life wasn’t easy here. Prejudice against Irish immigrants abounded. According to a number of sources, the Chicago Post wrote: "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country." My relatives ended up living as sharecroppers in Texas to achieve some sense of independence and freedom. It was hardly a life I, in my suburban comfort, would consider independent and free. And yet it paved the way for me to enjoy all I have today.

Long before my Irish ancestors came to the United States, some of my other ancestors were quite comfortably ensconced on this continent and had been here since (it seemed) time began. As the Europeans arrived, my Cherokee ancestors stood out among Native Americans by doing their best to adapt to the New World thrust upon them. Many adopted European-style clothing and Sequoyah even created (or documented, depending upon your point of view) the Cherokee alphabet. I see these ancestors as flexible and intelligent as they tried their very best to survive in this foreign culture that was suddenly in their backyards.
My great-great grandmother

In the end, all their efforts to assimilate failed (their skin, after all, was dark and they couldn’t hide who they really were). Members of my family were part of the Trail of Tears and, as the story goes, my great-great grandmother was the sole survivor of her immediate family. She was a child or young teen at the time, she found a white husband (of the McCourt clan, whose family were refugees from Ireland) and began to build a life as a white woman.

I know very little about my ancestors other than the stories passed down to me, but I know they had courage and strength as they faced prejudice and tried to create a good life for their children in a world that was often harsh and disdainful towards them. I’m proud of my heritage and I refuse to bring dishonor to my ancestors by failing to empathize with people who are following in the footsteps of my family.

Immigrants continue to see our country as a land of hope and many know that their children will only have a future if they risk everything to start a new life. Wouldn't we all do the same for our own children?


Suzii Parsons said...

Yes, Jenn--Yes!

Megan Willome said...

This is really powerful, Jenn. You need to write more about your ancestors.

And I thought of you yesterday when the second collection at church was for the tens of thousands of migrant children. Our priest reminded us that he is an immigrant (from Ireland), and thanked us for welcoming him to this country, his adopted home.