Depending on your background, this week you could be celebrating All Souls Day or Día de Muertos, or Halloween on the eve of All Hallows’ Day. The now-obscure idea is to honor the souls of dead family members and loved ones, so benefits will accrue to the departed, the living, or both.
The catch? Mere months of family history research have made it obvious that some or even most of my ancestors were dishonorable. Their obvious motives for migrating to the North American colonies in the 1600s were to obtain cheap land by displacing indigenous people, to be permitted to own enslaved human beings, and to practice new religions that authorized and encouraged all of the plunder and called it manifest destiny.
Let’s not forget the witch burnings inspired by the sweeping frenzy of self-righteousness. In Connecticut in 1653, one of my tenth great-grandfathers was a clergyman present during the hanging of an accused witch. His influence in the community could have spared her life, but maintaining an illusion of moral superiority must have been far more important to him.
Forget honoring their souls. What should I do to redeem the souls of horribly misguided dead people I’ve discovered?
Those of my ancestors who were foolish, selfish, and ignorant—the majority, I suppose—were enticed into wrongdoing by the propaganda they swallowed. Propaganda was spread by their church leaders, by government officials who underwrote the conquest of the new world, and by the colonial era’s version of greedy multinational business owners and real estate developers. If my ancestors weren’t searching for Eldorado, then they were gauging what crops could bring the highest prices, learning how to grab cropland for next to nothing, and going to battle to ensure they could own their farm laborers rather than paying wages. They were misguided, certainly, but that doesn’t explain their fundamental immorality.
Some of the departed souls achieved wealth, for a generation or two. That’s the crucial takeaway. Wealth acquired at such a high cost to other human beings does not last. A generation or two after the Civil War, plantation owners’ offspring were living in poverty. Why would the wealthy hoarders care? They were dead.
Many of my ancestors also belonged to what ought to be called the warrior caste. Until the 20th century, at least they were compensated, albeit with stolen land. Today’s military personnel are lucky if they end their careers of service feeling their sacrifices were worthwhile. Some walk away with a deflating sense of having been used and discarded.
Simultaneously, my ancestors were predators and they were prey. Many of them couldn’t read or write, and it didn’t stop them from believing they could be rich or, failing that, superior.
Should I assume the propaganda swallowers couldn’t have known better? Many were illiterate, after all. They were dead by the time their accumulated wealth was gone. The lessons couldn’t be learned in real time. History was whitewashed. Is it fair to place blame? Do you worry about fake news, even though we’ve always had fake history? The market demand for lies is insatiable, because people are desperate to believe in their own superiority.
For All Souls Day, I have a lot to learn. I don’t want my descendants to remember me the way I’m thinking of many of my ancestors this week.