My great-great-grandfather Garrett McEachron was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in upstate New York in the 1920s.

By all accounts, he wasn’t a particularly cruel or bigoted or violent man. He joined for social reasons – lots of business guys in town were in the KKK, so he figured it would be a good move to join as well. Since rural upstate New York was, and is, largely white, the Klan cells, or “klaverns,” up there spent most of their time and energy hating immigrants and Catholics (and, of course, Catholic immigrants). I don’t know if he committed any atrocities. But regardless of what Great-Great-Grandpa Garrett did, he was a cog in a terrorist organization that spent generations violently subjugating anyone who didn’t fit a very narrow, WASPy definition of American.

The branch of my family tree that grew in the beautiful rolling hills of upstate New York – specifically, clustered around the town of Argyle – was planted in the 1640s by a man named Archibald McEachron, who emigrated to the Colonies from Scotland (in case you couldn’t guess).

If you were to believe the old stories, colonists like him boldly settled the virgin wilderness to carve out a simple life for themselves. Generations of white American children were brought up on this myth. Like any myth, there’s a shaky base of truth.

Archibald and his descendants did carve out a simple life for themselves. I’m fairly certain that, like most people, those settler ancestors were only doing what they thought was best for them and their family. But of course the land they settled wasn’t empty. Colonial governments and power structures violently removed the Indigenous peoples of the area to make way for people like my ancestors. I don’t know if my ancestors directly participated in any atrocities. But they definitely occupied stolen Haudenosaunee land.

The choices they made that were best for their families were devastating to other families; they were an active part of the system of settler colonialism that stole resources from Native Americans and labor from Black people to build up and hoard wealth in white European – and, later, American – communities.

Within my family’s living memory is my great-grandfather Calvin Spencer, known as “Popo” to his many grandchildren, who included my mother. Calvin Spencer was a kind and loving man, a good husband and father. All my mom’s memories of him are wrapped in a warm honey-fuzz of love and nostalgia.

But Popo Spencer was born and raised in Alabama (home of another family tree branch). He was a strict segregationist, until a combination of the civil rights movement and his own deep Christian belief led him to the realization that he should treat everyone, including Black people, the way Jesus would.

Still, when his son (my grandfather) joined the military, which was integrated, he worried about his son sharing barracks with Black men. My mom’s Popo grew up in a system that forced Black Americans into second-class citizenship, and regardless of his personal behavior (which was usually kind and loving), he never did anything to challenge that system.

Maine is 95 percent white. That didn’t happen by accident. Our ethnic demographics were the result of deliberate choices acted out over generations. White Americans may not have blood on our hands, but we do have bones under our feet.

It’s uncomfortable to sit with these facts. I suspect that’s why so many white people have been freaking out lately about the way history is being taught in school. Knowing that you have a good life today because of the deliberately caused suffering of other people isn’t a pleasant feeling. It’s easier to stick to simple stories: “My ancestors came to America, worked hard and built a life for themselves.” Well, sure they did. But they didn’t do it alone, and they almost certainly did it at the expense of someone else.

I don’t feel guilt for what my distant relatives did, not exactly. I’m not responsible for their actions. But I’m certainly responsible for mine. So what do we do from here, fellow white people? We can’t ignore the sins of the past (and the present). We definitely can’t forbid the teaching of nuanced history. In order to move forward, we have to look the past in the face.

Supporting the movement to return Native lands to tribal control (commonly known as “land back”) and reparations are two good ways to start. I, for one, would like to leave America better than I found it. I don’t want my great-great-granddaughter to have to write embarrassing newspaper columns about me.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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