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Friday, March 21, 2008

Not Always the Dreams of Our Fathers: The ancestry and their influences on America's race issue

Two days ago, Barack Obama made a historic speech involving his close relationship to controversial Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright and more importantly, the subject of race and American history. He spoke in a straightforward language of how this country, and even his upbringing, has been one of divisive words, feelings and actions by those closest to him, and how, he did not agree with their ideas or thoughts on race, yet still loved them. (His “white” grandmother, for example in a passage below.)

Telling Excerpts: "I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed...

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love"

Some, like Amy Holmes – an African-American woman and CNN Political Analyst – made the faulty leap of logic that he is now just the “racial candidate.” Far from it.

A Republican insider, Ari Fleischer, former White house press secretary under G.W. Bush, uses this as a political platform to inflame white conservatives (“Reagan Democrats” too) by drawing on Wright’s words as being a “Ku Klux Kan” speech while ignoring the point of Barack’s recent statements and lucid speech. Again, far-fetched, and out of historical context.

Wolf “Donner” Blitzer kept repeating “the fall out” after the speech. To make it sound disastrous. (CNN, 8PM, March 19, 2008.)

Barack’s speech was meant (and did) clarify an all-ready hot button issue: race and the rhetoric espoused in heated moments by other people. The mere idea that the color of man’s skin, his upbringing and his values are somehow distilled down to one Sunday service or several conversations with a pastor is laughable. (Complex humans beings, who live upwards of 90+ years, being boiled down to a few hours of life. Absurd.)
This brings me to my own inherently complex past and where I should or will go in the future.

In late 2004, I contacted my father for the last time, likely in my life. In that phone call, which was somewhat conciliatory on my part, I learnt more about myself, or rather, the connections to certain aspects of American history, without any real prompting on my part.

My father majored in History, and likely could have become a professor, if he had not fallen into disarray in his own life. His outlooks became tied to stringent attitudes; fundamentalist religious beliefs; and the idea that his family does not obey him, going back at least 25 years. As a result, I’ve seen him only once in those 25 years, with a few scattered phone calls and letters in between. He spent time in Ft. Leavenworth, like Barack's grandmother, but for different reasons.

In our final conversation, he told me about some genealogical research he had done recently, even offering to share the write-up of this analysis.

Two names of significant importance came to the forefront of this research. Better news first.

Samuel Houston (1793-1863) was a hero at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Mexico’s Santa Anna surrendered to Houston-led forces, thus winning the war for Texas’s independence. A large and imposing figure, 6'2"+, Sam Houston was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, but grew up in Tennessee as a teenager. He ran away from home at 15, and lived for nearly three years with the Cherokee Indians in eastern Tennessee, where he took the name Black Raven and learned the native language, skills, and customs.

After he left their stead, Houston soon enlisted in army, led by General Andrew Jackson, that would fight the Creek Indians (close cousins to the Cherokee) and also in the War of 1812. After his military service, where he reached the rank of Major General, he studied law and practiced in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1817, Houston became a U.S. subagent assigned to manage the removal of the Cherokee from Tennessee to a reservation in the Arkansas Territory. (A prequel to the 1830’s Trail of Tears forced removal.)

Sam Houston returned to Nashville to practice law and from 1823 to 1827 served as a U.S. congressman. He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1827. After a brief, unsuccessful marriage to Eliza Allen in 1829, he resigned his public office; he again sought refuge among the Cherokee and was formally adopted into the tribe and began a bout of heavy drinking – though it is likely he was always fond of the bottle. He also remarried a Cherokee woman, Tiana Rodgers who he met at a dance.

He twice went to Washington, D.C., to expose frauds practiced upon the Indians by government agents and in 1832 was sent by Pres. Andrew Jackson to Texas, then a Mexican province, to negotiate Indian treaties for the protection of U.S. border traders. (Meanwhile, President Jackson was at the forefront of removing the Cherokees from land granted to them in Georgia by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision. Jackson usurped the authority of the highest court. The “Trail of Tears” saga was born.)
It can also be said that Sam Houston had quite a temper and engaged in several duels in the course of his lifetime, once wounding a general, General William A. White, in a duel fought 6 miles south of Franklin, Kentucky in September 1826. After one such battle, in which he beat U.S. Representative William Stanberry of Ohio with a cane, he would hire Francis Scott Key as his attorney.

He would be sent to Texas to do negotiations on behalf of Andrew Jackson in regards to Indian relations, communicating via dispatch.

From there, Houston’s personal travails are uniquely tied to Texas independence; his nomination as 1st President of the Republic of Texas; 1st U.S. Senator of Texas (1846-1859); and later, last governor of the great state of Texas on the cusp of the U.S. Civil War. He fought against secession of the state – which led to his removal as governor by the Confederacy in 1861 – and much of his final years were spent trying to resolve the inequality battle in America between the races. Houston died in Huntsville, Texas in 1863.
(Print Sources: Britannica 2005, World Book 2002)
Quote of Sam Houston on Education: "It is a matter of great satisfaction to me to hope that my children will be in circumstances to receive a good education. Mine was defective and I feel the inconvenience, if not the misfortune of not receiving a classical education. Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge."
On the opposite side of that coin, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) first became well-known as the only buck private-to-major general in the Confederate army, saying “Get there first with the most men,” a mantra of the Civil War, but later came into post-war power as the 1st Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest was self-taught, with no formal education, born in Bedford County, Tennessee. As a self-taught man, Forrest bought and sold farm animals and slaves before acquiring considerable wealth as a cotton planter in Hernando, Mississippi. He was also a very tall man, exceeding 6'2" in height in some reports, and also prone to violence, outside of war.

In 1841 (age 20), he went into business with his uncle in Hernando, Mississippi. His uncle was killed there during an argument with the Matlock brothers. Forrest shot and killed two of them with his two-shot pistol and wounded two others with a knife thrown to him. Ironically, one of the wounded men survived and served under Forrest during the Civil War.[4]

At the outbreak of The Civil War, he raised a cavalry unit (financing it, in part, with a personal fortune estimated a $1,500,000) and, as a then-lieutenant colonel, took part in the defense of Ft. Donelson, Tennessee.

He would be credited for using unique, daring and brilliant cavalry tactics, with his battle at Brice’s Cross Roads, Mississippi, in June 1864, becoming a military model for the mounted U.S. Army for decades.

Though a uniquely competent general, he also engaged in atrocities in ordering his troops to “take no more Negro prisoners” when they assaulted and captured Ft. Pillow. Yet a Congressional investigation committee verified the slaughter of more than 300 black men, women, and children within the fort. (Yet no charges were ever brought by the United States against Forrest.) A list of Forrest's military campaigns.

After the Southern defeat, and the fierce animosity born inside many White Southerners, a “social club” was formed: The Ku Klux Klan.

The 19th-century Klan was originally organized as a social club by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., in 1866. They apparently derived the name from the Greek word kyklos, from which comes the English “circle”; “Klan” was added for the sake of alliteration and Ku Klux Klan emerged. The organization quickly became a vehicle for Southern white underground resistance to Radical Reconstruction.

Klan members sought the restoration of white supremacy through intimidation and violence aimed at the newly enfranchised black freedmen, who were now represented in this short-lived new political landscape by U.S. Senator Hiram R. Revels, U.S. Representative Benjamin S. Turner and U.S. Representative Joseph H. Rainey (pictured left), with 19 others elected to the Congress.

In the summer of 1867, the Klan was structured into the “Invisible Empire of the South” at a convention in Nashville, Tennessee, attended by delegates from former Confederate states. The group was presided over by a grand wizard (Forrest) and a descending hierarchy of grand dragons, grand titans, and grand cyclopses. Dressed in robes and sheets designed to frighten superstitious blacks and to prevent identification by the occupying federal troops, Klansmen whipped and killed freedmen and their white supporters in nighttime raids.

Later, Forrest would publicly reject the Klan, ordering it disbanded due to “excessive violence.” Though it is likely he only denounce them after the objectives, white control of Southern assets and political processes returned to “status quo”, were met. (Print Sources: Britannica 2005, World Book 2002, History of the United States by Douglas Brinkley)

These so happen to be some of my roots in my life. That they makeup a part of where and what my family has been does not portend the direction of where and how I will go. (Post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore, because of this”), in which something is assumed to be the cause of something else merely because it was antecedent in time.)

Because of my forefathers, including my very own father, that I am assumed or concluded to be lacking of understanding, sensitivity or empathy to the plights of men and women of all races, creeds and proclivities is "wrong-headed."

It is often said, when we are alive, that: “we live in dangerous times.” Each generation has faced particular and peculiar battles – some that are still ongoing, generation to generation, century to century, millennium to millennium – while in the passing down of particular ideas from father-to-son to next son is suppose to be sacrosanct, I tend to believe each person has to decide on his own what is right.

Even our close mentors, a father figure, such as general-turned-President Andrew Jackson was to young and precocious Sam Houston, can fail us in some respects. (Houston could not later be completely agreeable to rounding up of the Cherokee people. He had a lifelong bond to them. It was broken. Yet, he carried forth his marching orders to Texas and defended and respected Jackson.)

I don’t doubt Barack Obama was taken aback by his pastor’s comments. Nearly all of us, has said something (or heard it from a close friend) that could be considered horribly misplaced, unpatriotic or apathetic to the plights of others.

I have. (In a one-to-one context where I made Wright-like proclamations about God Almighty in the context of a horrible rant against a particular person.)
And I was punished for my comments in ways that, given a thorough understanding of the legal process, could be considered a violation of Freedom of Speech. (That does not excuse those words; just a context of what our rights are to be. And sometimes what they are asked to uphold – a greater ideal – over what they might represent to a people, or a person.)
Or as Benjamin Franklin once said, “those that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety.” Franklin who would disowned his own son, William, royal governor of New Jersey, for his Tory leanings during the Revolution.)
(And Even now, Barack Obama's Rights to Privacy have been violated.)

But more to the point, we likely all are an amalgamation of differing religious ideals, belief systems and skin tones.
We are who we are; but not solely that at all.

From my mother’s side, my grandmother was of German stock. My grandfather of English descent, possibly a relative of the Clark family that fought in Revolutionary War era battles against various Indians in Indiana.

From my father’s side, my grandmother was half-Cherokee and Englishwith Houston’s heritage ensconced in that line. My grandfather was of Irish-Dutch-French ancestry yet carried an English “Powers” surname – with some inherent connection to Forrest.

Yet not all of that defines me. It is just a history – fractured sometimes by decisions made, and people destroyed in their plights for rights and right – and it should only go to how far we need to come from defining ourselves by such random instances of blood and brethren.
Or as Barack reminded us of William Faulkner's famous words: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." (But we are nevertheless left to the ultimate defining of history by the victorious historians, who, don’t always get it right in painting the past.) (Faulker is a favorite author of mine.)

With that said, hopefully, Barack Obama can define his purpose better, or someone else will do it for him. And leaving that, to others, in “their defining,” is a path to oblivion.

He thwarted that, in my opinion, in his speech. Others will forget that.

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