Embracing Rootedness and Radical Genealogy

The legacy of relationships can be a blunt instrument for change

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Raícism—from raíces or roots—is the practice of rooting ourselves in the real, concrete histories of our people: our families, our local communities, our ethnic communities. It is radical genealogy, history made personal. It is a keeping of accounts. Its intent is to pierce the immense, mind-deadening denial that permeates daily life, that drowns our deepest grief and horror about the founding and ongoing atrocities of racism, class, and patriarchy in endless chatter about trivialities. Oppression buries the actual lives of real and contradictory people in the crude generalizations of bigotry and punishes us for not matching the caricature, refusing all evidence of who we actually are in defiance of its tidy categories. It is a blunt instrument, used for bashing not only our dangerous complexities, but also the ancient and permanent fact of our involvement with each other.

Raícism, or rootedness, is the choice to bear witness to our specific, contradictory historical identities in relationship to one another. It is an accounting of the debts and assets we have inherited, and acknowledging the precise nature of that inheritance is an act of spiritual and political integrity.

I grew up on stories of my mother's barrio childhood in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, of near starvation in the early years of the Depression, of my grandmother's single dress. It was not until I went to the small Puerto Rican town of Toa Alta and examined the parish registers that I discovered five generations of slave-holding ancestors among the petty landed gentry of northeast Puerto Rico. A handful of families held political and economic power, married their children to each other, and consolidated their wealth with the purchase of enslaved human beings. I remember the feelings, as this reality dawned on me, of shame, but also of excitement. Over the years I had found peasants, small farmers, revolutionaries in my family tree. This was the thing I had not wanted to find. If I could figure out how to face it and consciously carry it, how to transform shame and denial into wholeness, perhaps I could find a way out of the numbness of privilege, not only for myself, but also for the people I worked with in classes and workshops who came asking to learn.

So that day I wrote down the name of each and every slave held by my ancestors. I have used my own family history to break silence: to acknowledge publicly and repeatedly my family debt to their coerced labor, to expose and reject family mythology about our "kind" treatment of slaves as a step in challenging the generalized myth of kind slavery in Puerto Rico, and to decide that although none of these people had chosen me as a descendant, I owed them the respect one gives to ancestors because their labor had made it possible for my forebears to grow up and thrive. I have also made it my responsibility to make African people visible in every discussion of Puerto Rican history in which I participate.

Taking full responsibility for this legacy of relationships is empowering and radical. Guilt and denial and the defensive pull to avoid blame require immense amounts of energy and are profoundly immobilizing. Giving them up can be a great relief. Deciding that we are in fact accountable frees us to act. Acknowledging our ancestors' participation in the oppression of others (and this is ultimately true of everyone if you really dig) and deciding to balance the accounts on their behalf leads to greater integrity and less shame; less self-righteousness and more righteousness, humility, and compassion; and a sense of proportion.

At the same time, uncovering the credit side of the accounts, not the suffering but the solidarity, persistence, love, hard work, creativity, and soul of our forebears, is also an obligation. We are responsible for carrying that forward into our own time and for calling on our kin to do likewise. For people committed to liberation to claim descent from the perpetrators is a renewal of faith in human beings. If slavers, invaders, committers of genocide, inquisitors can beget abolitionists, resistance fighters, healers, community builders, then anyone can transform an inheritance of privilege or of victimization into something more fertile than either.

One of the rewards of discovering exactly who our people have been—and how and with whom they have lived—is the possibility of unimagined kinship. My Jewish ancestors were settled in the Ukraine as a buffer against Turkish invasion, alongside German Mennonites brought in to teach formerly landless Jews about farming. At a talk in Wichita, Kansas, I was able to thank their descendants and claim a relationship between us, as Eastern European Jew and German Christian, other than that of genocidal anti-Semitism.

Mapping the specificity of our ethnicity also reveals hidden relationships. European Americans in this country need to find out in relationship to whom they became white. The answers will be very different for the descendants of a Scot from Iowa, an Irishwoman from Alabama, a New York Pole, a Louisiana French-Spanish Creole, a Texan with roots in 17th-century England and 19th-century Austria, and a Romanian Jew who settled in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Questions about our place within the megastructures of racism become intimate and carry personality. It becomes possible to see the choices we make right now as extensions of those inherited ones, and to choose more courageously as a result.

From  Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity (South End Press, 1998).