Dear Ann Cannon • I recently learned that one of the most beloved ancestors in my family was heavily involved in the Ku Klux Klan. He is a legend in my family because of a number of truly incredible things he accomplished in his life. The stories we have told about him are heroic and good, so this new information is a shock. His membership in the KKK horrifies me. How do I proceed from here?
Dear Appalled • This is a tough journey.
OK. Remember that Ancestry.com TV commercial that starts off with a guy saying he used to think he was German? How German was this guy? He was so German he did German slap dances. He was so German he wore lederhosen.
After taking a DNA test, this German discovered he’s a Scot. So now he’s rocking a kilt — and looks pretty darn happy while doing it.
Oh, if only things always worked out so neatly. In my experience, people are often much less sanguine when new information changes an established family narrative. My husband’s extended family on his mother’s side, for example, has always taken great pride in their Danish ancestry. But recent DNA testing suggests my husband’s family is a whole lot less Danish than they thought they were. And the news has not been well received.
Meanwhile, I grew up hearing that a great-grandmother of mine was a member of the Wyandot Indian tribe, which I thought was AWESOME! I bragged about it whenever I got the chance in grade school. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this great-grandmother of mine was actually a great-aunt. By marriage. Turns out I am not American Indian at all.
Your situation is even more challenging. You’re talking about an ancestor who’s been a hero to your family for generations now. This new information certainly casts him in a different, even sinister light. In some ways you’re experiencing on a personal level what certain regions in our country are currently experiencing on a public level, right? I’m thinking about the national conversation surrounding Confederate monuments: Should they stay or should they go?
I was interested in historian Eric Foner’s response in the wake of Charlottesville. Foner, a celebrated historian specializing in the Reconstruction period, points out that many Confederate monuments were actually erected much later than the Civil War with the goal of keeping African Americans in their place. As such, they’re memorials to the Jim Crow era more than they are to the Antebellum South.
His solution? “My feeling is that it is not necessary to take down all these statues,” he wrote in The Nation. “Instead, I would like to see them erect other statues. Instead of taking down Lee, let’s put up a statue right near him — of, let us say, John M. Langston, a black member of Congress from Virginia in the 1880s, right after the end of Reconstruction. You don’t see very many statues to black leaders of the Reconstruction or post-Reconstruction South in Virginia or anywhere else. So if we’re going to talk about statues, I say let’s have the statuary be fully representative of Southern history.”
In other words, he says, don’t erase a narrative. Broaden it and learn from it, even if the lessons are painful.
So. Back to your specific situation. What can you do? Here are some options.
1. Decide the stories about your ancestor’s involvement in the KKK probably aren’t true and carry on as though nothing has changed.
2. Proceed with the first option while actively demonizing the person(s) who brought those new, unsettling stories to your family’s attention.
Or you can take things in the opposite direction.
3. Decide your ancestor is now dead to you. In more ways than one! Never utter his name again.
4. Decide it’s now your duty to actively disparage this ancestor, as well as the family members who perpetuate the myths surrounding him.
Or maybe you can follow Foner’s suggestion and broaden the narrative. Tell the stories. All your stories. You’ll never look at your ancestor in the same way again, of course. But these new stories will give you and other family members an important and ultimately positive opportunity to compare, contrast, condemn and express what your values are today.
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