Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pilgrim's Pride

            Every year, Americans remind themselves of the Pilgrims. Children in school don black costumes, buckled hats and shoes, or wampum and feathers to reenact that most national of American holidays. Yet, the rosy glow that once surrounded the telling of our first Thanksgiving has clouded as the legacy of these Puritan founders has been blamed for some of the worst in America’s history: our brutal treatment of the natives, the shortcomings of the Protestant work ethic, even America’s hypocritical attitudes towards sexuality (the latter a flaw more attributable to the Victorians than to 17th century Elizabethans).
My life changed dramatically when I discovered that my father’s family were descended from the Puritans who left England for religious reasons to settle in Massachusetts. As a Californian, I knew nothing of my father’s deeper ancestry or of anything that linked me to New England, so I was surprised to learn -- through a chance meeting with a 10th cousin -- that my ancestor was a Yorkshire shoemaker who left his native land along with his entire congregation in 1638. Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots and the genealogical work of African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, I began to study “my” people more seriously and unwittingly became one of their staunchest defenders.
“Puritan” was originally a derisive term aimed at a group of reformers who wanted England’s church and society to further purify itself of idolatry and corruption subsequent to Henry VIII’s break-up with the Vatican. As the Puritans met resistance and scorn, they formed their own sects. Their charismatic preachers were hounded and tossed in jail and congregations took to hiding in secret. They were radicals. They wanted changes in how their church and government treated them. They were innately anti-authoritarian, communal, and visionary when many of their Old World countrymen just wanted calm after decades of strife and war. Only strong beliefs in their ability to recreate themselves and their society could have sustained them through subsequent years.
Their life-transforming mission, undertaken in devout seriousness, drew on principles of self-determination and resilience. Their sermons, letters, journals and poems attest to rigorous self-examination and an inherent optimism in their ability to create change. They came to America between 1620 and 1640 in order to establish ideal communities that would encourage every soul to bloom. But they encountered what it means to be both human and angel, flesh, blood and soul. It is an awesome thing to set high standards for oneself and one’s community.
In some ways, they were America’s first great failures – their experiment in New England only lasted 50 to 70 years. Intense fractures over theological interpretation and how to create “godly” communities resulted in heresies and expulsions; innocents were tried as “witches” and tensions between commercial, political, and religious interests led to further splintering and spiritual exhaustion. By the late 18th century, the Puritan movement survived mostly as a vestige in remnant churches and homesteads though many of their values continued to underpin a nascent American culture.  
            Perhaps it is only because I discovered my connection to these people that I came to be their rally girl. These were not the rugged individualists of America’s later frontier stories. These all-in founders insisted on civic participation, education, and strong local government; they were not above challenging their leaders. They believed in interdependence, cooperation, a relatively advanced egalitarianism, and resourcefulness. Marilyn Robinson, author of a study on Puritan thought in The Death of Adam, notes it was not in the aristocratic, deist culture of the South where the abolitionist movement first took root, but rather in the north where citizens felt an urgency of purpose about shaping society.
A key emblem of our shared American success story has been the triumph over adversity, persecution, loss, and sorrow -- whether it takes the form of slave narratives, the pioneer burned out of his log cabin, or even the successful revival of Native languages. In the Pilgrims’ model of cooperative and local government, in their willingness to grasp hardship and shape it into something salvageable, we have a beacon for going forward. My Pilgrim’s Pride may not have established their shining City on the Hill, but their courage to conduct deep personal inventories and willingness to reinvent themselves could be key to renewing a somewhat jaded American soul.

Friday, September 13, 2013

George Shannon on the Frontier

Nostalgia is a tricky thing.

It is natural enough to have a longing for what has gone before, what has been left behind, the people and the places we have lost. Too often nostalgia is the enterprise of those who find something repugnant, alien, or decaying in the present as they tend to over-sentimentalize the past.

The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was a good example of this happening on a grand social scale in Europe and America. Looking around, those inclined toward romanticizing the past were most disturbed at how cavalierly industrial capitalism was churning up nature into railroad tracks and smokestacks, contributing to a widescale displacement of people, and dedicated to a more rigid scheduling of human life punctuated by stop watches and bells.

America was to claim itself a continent during this Romantic period, when -- on the one hand, the imagination was going the way of steam power, turbines, machine guns and photography, and on the other hand -- simultaneously seeking wide open paces and abundant wilderness. It is not an accident that the idea of a "hike" and of public parks arrived around this time when land (and people's lives) were ever more constricted. The 19th century saw one of the largest migrations of peoples from farm to factory, rural outposts to urban jobs and services.

At the crack of the 19th century, that Romantic at the heart of America's fantasies of individuality and freedom, Thomas Jefferson, made one of the greatest decisions to impact our history when he bought the Louisiana Purchase from the French (they needed to pay off war debts). Not knowing for certain what he had bought exactly -- and not having yet informed the Native peoples living in these areas  -- Jefferson, the dreamer/scientist, created the Corps of Discovery with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the command of an essentially military and exploratory expedition. Their goal was to map, describe, chronicle, and sample anything unique and of significance to that topography west of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. My fifth great-grandfather, George Shannon, was among the last --and the youngest-- man invited onto the mission.

A frontiersman from birth, George Shannon was born in the late 18th century on a farm in western Pennsylvania, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants who had homesteaded in this northern Appalachian/Allegheny hill country. Private Shannon signed up for the Corps in Wheeling (in what became West Virginia at the start of the Civil War). He was chosen for his scouting abilities and facility with Native languages and was both literate and familiar with the Indians; eventually he was assigned the task of helping to write up the journals of Lewis & Clark.

During the expedition, Shannon was notable for getting frequently lost and for having an excellent tenor voice. Representations of him show a youth dressed in buckskin holding rifle and shot. Shannon was also the one assigned to escort the Chief of the Mandan tribe back to Washington D.C. to meet the "Great White Father" who now "owned" their land;  Jefferson did not want to antagonize the Indians but wanted to assure them that he was a good and caring father, willing to cooperate as whites moved into western settlement. On the return trip, Shannon and the Mandans were ambushed by hostile Arikaras. As a result George Shannon lost his leg. Henceforth, he was called Peg Leg Shannon.

It took many years and legal filings for Shannon to ultimately receive the military pension from the U.S. government promised to members of the Corps. He became a lawyer and settled in Missouri, where there is a county named for him. He also acquired several slaves and I sometimes fantasize about having half-black distant cousins descended from his line (if, in fact, he mated with one of his female servants).

My point in recounting all of this is to illuminate something of the complexity in our desire or interest in reconnecting to the past. I romanticize the freedom and excitement of my ancestor's life, but I understand the larger picture of his involvement in a manifest destiny that denuded the prairie of Indians and contributed -- quite directly -- to the enslavement of an African minority.

I see, too, that my ancestor was a victim of America's greatest expansionist act. Shannon lost his leg while battling hostile Indians wanting to kill friendly Indians, and he had to fight his own government to gain his fair due as a veteran. How well the other surviving members of the Corps fared, I am uncertain, though one of them went on to discover Yellowstone and one of the leaders committed suicide.

The 19th century was a decade full of sentimental literature and the early Westerns that romanticized the movement west and the adventurers who made it possible. This period so shaped what is most strange in the American psyche: our mixed feelings that we have about race, gender and class which stand side-by-side with our nearly constant craving for heroes and beautiful celebrities which we worship with generous and voluntary tithings.

In so many ways, we seem incapable of saying the truth of who we are without getting choked up in cliches about loving freedom and forging our own identities while often leaving out the parts which embarrass us.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Back to the Auld Countree

Nearby Avondale.
In August 2012, my husband's one-man show about Robert and Elizabeth Browning was taken to Edinburgh, Scotland, for its fabulous Fringe Festival of performing arts. I tagged along to assist and to do more research on my family history, the Scots side which are all from mum's family tree.

I had located a farm where my ancestors married before they emigrated to the United States in the late 18th century. It's a place called Dykehead Farm in Lanarkshire, east of Glasgow. The farm is occupied by a lovely family who still raise sheep and cattle there. I had written to them in advance of the Scotland trip to see if we might drop by and take a few photographs. We were invited for supper and able to spend a few hours in the exact location where my great-great-great-great grandparents were married.

This is the original barn on the property. The government has designated the farm as a historic treasure, though it is still very much an active dairy farm occupied by a lovely family.
This is part of the original 18th century barn, a byre where new calves are placed.
The pasture and view of surrounding Lanarkshire.    

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Roots Rock

By the time my mother’s Scots-Irish ancestors emigrated to America in the late 18th-century and were slowly making their way across the continent, my father’s ascendencias had long been settled in New England.  It was a great surprise when I learned that my ancestral line reached back to the 17th-century emigration of Protestant separatists from England, the Pilgrims. My discovery was serendipitous.
      It had begun, oddly enough, with my strong interest in (and identification with) the mill girls of New England, for like them, I too had been  a poor “country” girl who left rural and agricultural roots to came to the big city for better wages, freedom, and a chance to immerse myself in the cultural and bohemian delights of  romantic San Francisco.
    My love of folk music led to being curious about textile mill workers’ songs, a tradition I traced back from the South to New England, then further back to Scotland, Ireland, and England. My imagination was captured by Yankee farm girls recruited by textile mill agents to work in the newly industrializing corporate towns of eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The agents roamed the New England countryside in wagons they called “slavers” to scoop up the daughters of fine upstanding but eternally poor farmers to come work in the new mill towns. For a brief period--as long as the factory workers were mostly of Anglo descent, the factory system in America was a model work environment--in relative terms--and it drew the likes of Europeans like Charles Dickens who wanted to see what all the fuss was about: factory towns that included libraries, atheneums (places of adult education), and commercial interests that appealed to the new economy were unheard of in Europe where, instead, factories spelled the demise of a girl‘s morals and left families living in squalor. By contrast, these young American girls were such models of cleanliness and morality that the companies where they worked used their images as promotional icons. Like Dickens, I too wanted to see first-hand the birthplaces of American industrialization: Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Lowell, Lawrence, and Waltham, Massachusetts; and Amoskeag, New Hampshire, among others.
Around this time, a friend introduced me to a work colleague who had queried her about my last name (Dresser). He turned out to be a 10th cousin! Dave's mother had done a lot of research on her family tree: Dressers. She traced the Dresser family line back to medieval England and possibly to earlier Viking invasions. I had always had an interest in family history but now I was generously presented with a stack of papers that had been excavated and photocopied showing the Dressers of England and New England. News to me. As far as I and my family knew, the Dressers were mid-Atlantic Americans with no New England roots. I was intrigued to learn that my father's line went back to the Pilgrims. So, armed with this new knowledge, I expanded my research on a trip to study New England textile history.
    Within a one-week period, I dropped into a Twilight Zone where mis asendencias seemed to fervently call on me. Even my husband who is anything but inclined to the supernatural, thought the one-week series of “concidences” were strange. The first came as we visited the pioneer cemetery in Rowley, Massachusetts. The first Dressers  lived here: John and Mary were members of a Yorkshire Puritan congregation who emigrated with their minister, the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers in 1638. I was looking for their tombstones or the graves of other distant relatives, half on a lark, half just needing an excuse to roam a quaint New England town.

    The car alarm screamed at us as we prepared to leave the cemetery. It was my mother-in-law‘s vehicle and we didn‘t know how to turn off the wailing warning system. We had finished our stroll up and down the rows of graves, finally finding a large DRESSER tombstone. The older pioneer markers were illegible and I had been somewhat disappointed to not find the stones markers for John and Mary. I joked about “my ancestors not being willing to let me go after I’d finally come to visit them." But over the next few days, I encountered numerous pieces of evidence of Dresser ancestors who had lived and been buried in New England. Wandering into a gift shop in Gloucester, I spotted a chapbook written by a Thomas Dresser about “Dogtown,“ a haunted village in that part of Massachusetts. On a private tour of the Antiquarian Library in Worcester where I had hoped to find materials related to industrial history, the librarian asked my name; when I told her it was Dresser, she quickly asked, “Oh, are you related to the Dressers of Worcester?“ This was news to me. “Are they blue-eyed and alcoholic?,“ I quipped. “No,“ she told me. In fact, the family had a good reputation, were known to be a very old family in the area, and were philanthropists. In fact, one worker in the library was friends with a Richard Dresser who was a playwright in Manhattan.
    At the cemetery in Cambridge where I wanted to visit the grave of America’s first commercially successful poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had married into a textile mill owning family, I stumbled across a large patch of Dresser headstones. Again, I had not known of any Dressers of New England before my trip. When I returned from this adventure, I was purchasing tickets for a folk music concert in Berkeley, had written out my check and handed it to the clerk; she looked at my name, and asked, “Oh, are you related to the Dressers of Massachusetts?” This was the first and last time I have been asked about my family name’s connection to that state: it stunned me to happen on the heels of this trip east.
     It’s a strange thing to see one’s name on a grave stone, especially if your family name is slightly unusual and you grew up far from the graves of your father's family. We all know we are going to die but the stark reality of your own name etched into rock has a particular effect. My search for my father's father's people had begun in earnest.
   Dad never cared for the West; he complained about hot dry desert heat; when he was drunk, he raged about being besieged by my mother’s numerous family members. Walter Dresser, Jr., or “Kiddo,” my dad, was from Dares Beach, a small Chesapeake Bay community that his dad, a builder, had tried to develop into a resort town. My father had no any inkling that he represented the 11th generation of Dressers who had pulled up stakes in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to find religious freedom in Rowley, Massachusetts. What has surprised me in learning about his family, is that they have almost always been sea people, living along the Atlantic coast, from Massachusetts up to Maine. Prior to coming to America, the Dressers spent generations near the North Sea and before that, according to the genealogical records, which may or may not be myth, they arrived from Gotland, an island off the southern tip of Sweden. It would not be far-fetched to imagine the ascendencias as members of invading Vikings who built many villages in the eastern areas of the British Isles, and unlike the Romans, the Vikings readily intermarried with the native Celt and Anglo-Saxon populations. For at least twenty generations, then, my patrilineal line were sea-people, builders of ships and sailors, who crossed seas and oceans to settle other coastlands.
     My great-grandfather Dresser was the first to break that link to the sea, but he did it very briefly, moving inland from Maine to Buffalo, New York, where I understand he was a shipwright. His son, my grandfather left this inland place, however, and restored the family tradition of living by the ocean when he migrated south Dares Beach, Maryland, a steamboat dock on the Chesapeake: the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Mom's Scots-Irish ancestors were willfully migratory by comparison, crossing first an ocean and then a continent to deliver my mother to California‘s great Central Valley, a people possessed by a need to set out and change themselves and others; they were history makers, pioneers, politicians, and preachers. There is an old joke I heard in a pub in Scotland: when people from the British Isles first came to America, the English settled coastal towns, created militias and government; when the Irish came,they established churches and as many pubs; but upon their arrival, the Scots lit out for the west, wanting only to be left alone and free to explore new land, hunt and fish, build simple places to worship, kill Indians, marry Indian maidens, and build whiskey stills and trading posts. They were the original "get government off my back" Tea Partyers.

     The Scots-Irish of my mother‘s side were the explorers while my father’s people seemed content to hunker down not far from the shores where they landed then build up from there. The record shows eleven generations of Dressers in New England (Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine), New York and finally the mid-Atlantic, where my direct relations now live. (My distant cousin's relatives went west toward Michigan, instead.)
    The Dressers were shoemakers, builders, fishermen, lumbermen, and soldiers in the Revolutionary War. The family name is a classic English occupational one that describes the name-bearer as a member of the tanning trade, a dresser tanned and handled leather and/or cloth. In a more modern textile process, a "dresser" is a finisher of cloth in a mill. When I began this project my interest had been solely on the textile industry, not on family history at all, so it was intriguing that on some level I had been "channeling" the ancestors by following my passion for industrial labor history and folk song all along.
    The Baby Boomers may have been the last generation of Americans to be raised on the sweeping and glorious myth of America's "discovery" by Christopher Columbus, of the righteous pursuit of life, liberty and happiness that inspired the American Revolution, and  the contented gurgle of the melting pot. My generation was inculcated with the old stories, even as we were taught to "duck and cover" under our school desks during alarm practices for nuclear attack. We grew up in a turbulent, war-torn country, with important liberation movements tearing our citizens and our towns apart. We watched our leaders murdered and political corruption bring down a President. I am a daughter of Watergate and remember "waking up" politically to the shame of that event.
     There was a terrible cognitive dissonance between the stories of the Greatest Generation’s travails during the Depression and World War II and what was happening in our own time of social upheaval. The history books couldn’t keep up, and the teachers, for the most part, didn’t try to. Anti-Communism was the big theme. Castro and the Soviet Union, the ultimate threats.
    But we knew something was not right. My generation rebelled; we started over with communes, back-to-land movements, organic farm ventures, drug experimentation. We were anything but cynics. We believed society could be changed and we set out to change it. While our parents were saying "America, love it or leave it," we were saying, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

      I was about 14 when I read James Michener's rationalizations for the shootings of four students at Kent State College in Ohio by National Guardsmen in our family's literature: The Reader's Digest. I smelled betrayal on the part of the older generation. Neil Young’s "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio," helped me discern which side I was on. But I wasn't a rebel, no one in my family--to my knowledge at the time anyway--had been a social rebel. We were the children of builders and farmers, hard-workers who had built America. We were America, right or wrong, weren’t we?
    From an interest in textile workers' songs to what it means to be an American, I've been going backwarder and backwarder to the places where my ascendencias began. Mine is the story of coming-of-age as a working-class white American girl, of the old school of what it means to be an American, but through cultural change and historical realities, recognizing that what I had been told was only partial truth. American identity is something each of us struggles to articulate. As I identify and place ancestors into their historical settings, I discover the full range of personalities and life plans; they bring pride, they bring shame. Clearest of all is that on both sides of my family, there have been major splits and rifts in response to historical events. White America was and will always have its myths to cling to, but the story is an old one that needs to be both excavated and revised in light of greater truths. That's why "backwards ho" is also about a white girl's adventure in race, racism, class and exile. It's fun, it's exciting. Come along with me, backwards to the future.

Pictures, from top: Pilgrims in New England; Lewis Hine's photograph of young girl millworker; a 17th-century emigrant ship; the port of Hull, England, where my ancestors likely shipped out from; Rowley Common, Massachusetts; my family circa 1954, Fresno, California; American pioneers and their prairie schooners; a Scots-Irish woman of the Lamont clan;  my husband and I standing in extant Oregon Trail ruts in eastern Wyoming.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All For a Day

'To make of the Sabbath a Holy Day unto the Lord' was an utmost practice of those seeking to purify the Church of England of its errancy in the early 1600s. The Church, under both King James I and Charles I, had regressed to an emphasis on ritual and Catholic ostentation with its vestments, iconography, altar magic; some thought the country was slipping. Those who took the English Reformation to its most logical conclusion were called "Puritans," a term of derision. In truth, the Puritans were a diverse population composed of many factions and of many more opinions; they included the Levellers, the Ranters, and the Quakers; what they had in common was a desire for a simpler, cleaner, more literal spirituality, and they sought practice over ritual. They have lost the respect of history as we have come to view them through the lens of the Victorians. But, in many ways, I identify with their need for a more sincere and introspective spirituality, and their complaint that the state and secular society have gone awry with their dismissal of the poor and worship of title, power, and the flash and dash of celebrity culture.

John Dresser emigrated with his wife Mary in England's Great Migration. My 12th great-grandparents were Pilgrims who uprooted--along with an entire congregation--from Rowley in Yorkshire, England and set down in Rowley, Massachusetts. The complexities of their emigration amazes me; American history, as commonly told, began with the landing at Plymouth Rock. But, the "rock" was not a rock but the sandy beaches of Cape Cod, and there had already been many ventures up and down both coasts of the American continent for generations. But the story of America's spiritual founding is what has stuck, and its religious rhetoric still colors American political discourse.

As a daughter of Pilgrims' Pride, I'm fascinated by the true story of the English Great Migration, and how it was motivated as much by economic dislocations and promises as it was by the desire for religious freedom. We know religious freedom in early America had its limitations: for instance, Quakers were not greatly welcomed and were even condemned in the Massachusetts colony.

I visited Rowley, Massachusetts, a few years ago and searched out the plot of land that had likely been allotted to my ancestors. According to the remnants of any records, John Dresser was part of the congregation of Protestant separatists who came with their minister, Ezekiel Rogers, in 1638. John was a cordwainer, a term for a shoemaker; he left shoemaking tools to his descendant in his will. The name Dresser has its roots in its functional role: a 'dresser' was a tanner or finisher of hides or cloth. Shoemakers often became shipbuilders because of their skill with materials, and in Essex County, Massachusetts, there is a shipbuilding museum that notes the role of shoemakers in the country's early shipbuilding activities.

"Coming over" was a 2-3 month sail from the east of England, and families brought as much as they could to a land that lacked any kind of store, tavern, inn, or church. They brought cattle and axes, shoemaker tools and, on the ship that carried my ancestors, the "John," the first printing press to arrive in the New World. They also brought rules about what it was to be a religious person in community, including many restrictive rules about what one could or could not do of a Sunday. What they had in common was the harsh weather of the new land, the Bible and their minister, and a vision for some kind of intentional community. But as dissidents, they also had diverse opinions about how to organize their society, how to get ahead in a new world, and their goals and methods for reaching them did not always correspond. The Pilgrim's enterprise in American history was actually short-lived, yet lingers so profoundly in our nation's identity. Most recently, the story is one that is mentioned mockingly or with scorn, as the Puritans are blamed for everything from America's myth of exceptionalism and our conflicted and often prudish sexuality.

We wish history were simple and bound up in quaint stories. It is not. The truth, so much more complicated, is also so much more interesting. Our DNA is woven from many fibers.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Another link in the chain has moved on: my mother died in July. We have held the grave-side memorial, and Buddhist prayer ceremony hosted by my sisters. I have said the Mourner's Prayer, Kaddish, for her with my congregation, which is what Jewish practice teaches me. Unlike other deaths of loved ones I have experienced, my mother's passing is completed and she does not speak to me from the other side. I believe she was really finished with this realm and do not believe in reincarnation or karmic return. I do not believe in afterlife having anything to do at all with the physical body.
I define faith in the most existential terms, which is to say that it is the opposite of knowing and therefore contains doubt and anxiety. I have faith that my mother's soul has been restored to God and that gives me comfort and peace. But while I do not have belief in any revisiting of the soul in another sentient form, I do believe my ancestors are here in a physical way, in my own blood and DNA, as well as particles of the very stardust that makes the earth. That feels like the truth to me, like enough for me.
I think faith is a beautiful thing, "knowing" is something that is dangerous. Those who know the "truth," who hold their own truth as the truth for all, frighten me with their certainty. All too often their certainty is backed up by their violence.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tartan Day

Throughout the summer, indeed the entire year, Americans of Scottish descent and their guests, head off for a day or two they will spend watching men in kilts throw over-sized objects made of stone or wood; they will observe sheepdog trials and step-dancing (up & down, up & down--don’t you dare move those hips!), sample whiskeys, and try a Scots, ahem, ‘delicacy’: oats and offal wrapped in sheep’s stomach by the name of ‘haggis.’ Finally, they may stand in awe before massive quantities of tartan wool-blends wrapped around supersized Scots-Irish Americans proudly displaying their heritage.

It was Roots by Alex Haley (the book and movie) that launched a thousand hyphenations of the American identity. Before Roots, we were black, red, yellow, brown, and mostly white: Irish and Jews were white. Asians from anywhere west of the Pacific Ocean were yellow, and blacks, well, blacks were really black then--though still frequently called Negroes--(at least to white Americans whose one-drop rule made any form of miscegenation illegal and its progeny black unless light-skinned enough to fool somebody).

But from our nation's beginnings, America was a melting pot of tribes and clans, ethnicities and nationalities. And, from that start, not discounting what was happening between the thousands of tribes and sub-tribes of natives, whites were as ethnically identified and stratified within their own groups as other populations. Polish-American and Italian-American had as little in common as High Yellow and Ebony. Even within the Jewish tribe, there were Litvaks and Galicianers, new arrivals and the older, German-rooted groups, who discounted one another the way the Scots-Irish separated themselves from Irish-Irish (meaning Catholic) arrivals.

Whether it has been mankind’s self-imposed noose or science’s bad call, ethnicity and race have long separated us, even as it bound subgroups into tighter wedgies. Yet hyphens are meant to become new words and, often, interracial/inter-relegion/inter-ethnic marriages have been desparate attempts to escape ethnic provincialism; besides, opposites and differences do attract to one another. And, eventually, as a Newsweek magazine spread showed us a few years ago, we all do sort of blend together.

To attend the Scottish games, is to dip into my own ancestral weave and lore. Some attend these festivals for the sheer lark; it is a day of fun like no other, especially if one enjoys guessing just what is under those kilts. But, I am afraid, there are those who attend the Highland Games to spend a few precious hours with their "kin," code for white folks. To my shame, it was one of the reasons my mother--who barely kept her racism in check--enjoyed the games so much.

In 1998, Senator Trent Lott saw his Senate Resolution 155 passed unanimously into law. This resolution acknowledged the presence and contribution of Americans of Scottish descent. Thus, Tartan Day came into being, although outside of certain enclaves, most have probably never heard of it. I hadn't. Here is the resolution’s text:

Senate Resolution 155

Whereas April 6 has a special significance for all Americans, and especially
those Americans of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the
Scottish Declaration of Independence, was signed on April 6, 1320 and the
American Declaration of Independence was modeled on that inspirational document;

Whereas this resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in
the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of
the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of
the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans
successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this
Nation through its most troubled times;

Whereas this resolution recognizes the monumental achievements and invaluable
contributions made by Scottish Americans that have led to America's preeminence
in the fields of science, technology, medicine, government, politics, economics,
architecture, literature, media, and visual and performing arts;

Whereas this resolution commends the more than 200 organizations throughout the
United States that honor Scottish heritage, tradition, and culture, representing
the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Scottish descent, residing in every
State, who already have made the observance of Tartan Day on April 6 a success;

Whereas these numerous individuals, clans, societies, clubs, and fraternal
organizations do not let the great contributions of the Scottish people go

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates April 6 of each year
as "National Tartan Day."

I am all for celebrating heritages but I get more than a little uncomfortable with the enthusiasm some pursue their Anglo-Celtic roots, even as I am myself deeply involved with this very excavation. For too long, we have been taught that America was founded on purely European heritages and as a Christian nation; the pictures we were shown of our founding fathers were all white. As some try to create an “English only” America and hurl horrible epithets about “immigrants,” I cringe in my liberal white skin. But, most importantly, I have the knowledge that these myths are not true and they limit our vision of America.

My mother’s mother was a Brown with ancestry from pioneering stock, from those who crossed the wide prairies of Kansas and Nebraska from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. They eventually settled in California’s great Central Valley. Across this mostly inhospitable land, they launched Presbyterian churches, fought in wars, and ranched. My research on the Browns shows them coming originally from Scotland, likely the Highlands. They were probably of the Lamont clan; another clan with a tragic history, the Lamonts were torn asunder by rivalries, and religious and imperial wars which outlawed Highland culture, including tartans, bagpipes, the sept system for organizing families around obeisance to a clan chieftain.

When the Lamont clan was finally shattered by assault (there was a great massacre upon them by the Campbells, killing over 200, including women and children) and law, they split into separate groups and emigrated, many to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Some families took the names of colors: Black, White, and Brown (not the Greens, however), in order to identify one another should they meet again in some foreign land. This is the legend I was told by Duncan Brown in Bettyhill, in Scotland at the Crofter Museum; clan representatives of the Lamonts at the Scottish games in Pleasanton, California, echoed the legend as one they also knew.

Brown is one of the most popular surnames in America and one of the most popular taken by African-Americans when they were freed. Some likely chose the name to describe themselves, the very way the name may originally have described the Scots of the outer isles: brown is related to the Gallic word "doon," from which we get "dun." It means dark, or brown. Other newly freed slaves may have chosen the name to honor the abolitionist leader John Brown.

My Scottish Browns were violently forced from their lands between the 18th and 19th centuries to be replaced by sheep and wealthy lairds who co-opted with the conquering chieftains and English soldiers. It’s not such a radically different history from that of my African-American, immigrant, and Native American brethren: most of us were forced off lands we might have once tended and loved.

Plaids come in thousands of colors.