The Privilege of History
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
And she said, “Which one of your ancestors were slaves?” Baffled by my liberal cousin’s ignorance, I sat there tuning out the sounds of the rowdy Irish pub, her British accent, the sound of my heart beating, and in this stillness: my heart sank.
But let’s go back in time to the not-so-special year of 1998. On September 13th of that year, The New York Times wrote an announcement about my parent’s wedding. Unfortunately, The Gossip Girl and Revenge dramatic Hampton wedding did not take place, so seemingly, my middle-class parents wouldn’t be written about in THE New York Times. But in 1998, it was apparently still titillating that a Black woman would marry a white man even though interracial marriage became legal in 1967, 31 years before their union. What makes them so exceptional? What makes them newsworthy? Well, NYT knew they were going to have me and needed to commemorate the upcoming occasion…unfortunately, I am not that special. The NYT website says couples qualify based on “an interesting job, a unique meeting story, a surprising coupling.” My parents do not have particularly interesting jobs or unusual stories, but are they a surprising couple? A Black woman educated on the Upper East Side and a tall white man with a British accent having a Hamptons fairytale wedding apparently is worthy of an esteemed announcement.
But my family origins don’t stop there. I have two living grandmothers, Abby and Nanny Lucy. And as I have spent the past 21 years sitting, eating, and occasionally sleeping next to Abby, I know the names of four of our relatives. Grandpa Manuel died before I was born. They married and divorced twice. They had two kids together, and he had countless nameless other families. Uncle Raymond––for those of you who know my father, please do not confuse the two; they are different Raymonds. Uncle Raymond also died before I was born, but he was devilishly handsome, had great taste in button-downs and sweaters––which I inherited––and spent money like water slipping through his fingers. My Great-grandma Justina or Josephina (I’m not sure) raised Abby, but I don’t know why or what happened to her daughter, Abby’s mother. And lastly, a sister…that I forget the name of. And now, family, friends, and netizens, you know all the Black ancestors I know of and all the facts I know.
This news article explains why my Great-Granddad William Duggan moved from Galway to Kildare.
Compared to my dad’s side of the family, I have met countless of my Granddad Henry’s 10 siblings, their kids, and theirs––I even met his mother more than I met him. I met 4/5 of Nanny Lucy’s siblings, their kids, and their kids’ kids. (This summer, I learned that the Irish respawn young and like bunnies, but that’s a story for another day.) The history and family I can meet is a white privilege often unacknowledged. And if the Duggan clan tried and scoured all the information we had, we could put together a family tree spanning 5 to 6 generations of my Nanny’s or Granddad’s family ancestry. Or we could research our familial names through tax and estate records, birth certificates, and other governmental documents to fill the gaps or extend our tree. But my mom, Odette, and I wouldn’t be able to. These research techniques aren’t equally applicable to Black families, as Black people weren’t seen as human. To find my ancestors, I would have to read slave schedules and wills, looking for who inherited which slaves. But even if this was plausible, I don’t know enough about our family history to begin this research. Until recently, I was lied to about how Grandpa Manuel and Uncle Raymond died; Abby is nowhere near ready to open up. And who would blame her? 150 years ago, our ancestors were not considered people. And that time shrinks considerably when considering that Abby was born 66 years after slavery ended. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database reports that between 1525 and 1866, European colonizers hauled roughly 12.5 million across the oceans. This kidnapping stripped 12.5 million Africans of their names, heritage, and identity as if they were meaningless cargo rather than people.
But back to that pub in Waterford. As I sit next to my 60-year-old cousin, let’s call her Karyn (the ~Irish~ version of Karen), and we discuss ignorance in the US, Karyn explains how she doesn’t understand racism and questions why anyone would care about race. She grew up around “Pakistani, Black, Jewish kids,” which was no bother to her. She then asked me how I racially identified; I was so excited. I thought I was having one of my first discussions of race and racism with my white relatives, who almost acknowledged my fundamental differences from the rest of my mash-potato-white family. This was especially important because I always knew I didn’t look like them, but it felt taboo to bring up. But, boy, was I bamboozled. I explained that I am Afro-Caribbean and Irish. She responded, why? Confused at Karyn’s question, I said that Abby was born and raised in the Caribbean, and we are not white Caribbeans; we are Black. She said yes, you are Black, but not afro; you are not from Africa.
I tried explaining this little thing called slavery, but Karyn said, “Wait, Faith, which one of your ancestors were slaves?” As I struggled with how to handle this situation, she doubled down, invalidating not only my identity and history but those of my ancestors. Karyn also unintentionally (I hope) tried to erase the significance of the Black slave trade, stating that “Irish people were slaves too.” (The Irish Slave trade argument has ties to Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists. There is no proof of “racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery.” Extremists spin indentured and penal servitude as equal to the Black Slave trade.) Karyn was clearly signaling that I should include “daughter of Irish and Black Slaves” in my racial identity. Or Karyn believed that the primary focus around my systematic oppression should consist of my formerly oppressed Irish side. Despite my Black-Latina side being brutally attacked to this day, whether by the laws and system devised to work against me or my faux-liberal cousin Karyn.
What Karyn doesn’t know is that my direct ancestors were either dragged across the Atlantic Ocean to be slaves or were “safely” at home somewhere on the continent of Africa. But they were considered and treated as less than human in both places. In North America and Africa, they were still spat at, whipped, beaten, tortured, raped, and killed for centuries.
What Karyn doesn’t understand is that Slavery was abolished in the US merely 156 years ago, and while that seems like ancient history, the systems and structures that were set up to obstruct Black people from attaining human rights still stand strong. And these laws deny us countless opportunities from healthcare to education.
What Karyn doesn’t realize is that now that the US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, it has fundamentally weakened the 14th amendment, which specifies that, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Nevertheless, this decision allows interracial marriage to be questioned and possibly overturned, as it is currently protected by the 14th amendment. So, in the coming years, my parents could either celebrate their 25th anniversary, or their marriage could be federally nullified.
These are my roots, and now due to new science, we understand that generational trauma is encoded in our DNA. In addition to the emotional trauma Abby undoubtedly suffered, her familial history of racial trauma is etched in her DNA. And that same trauma-riddled DNA has been passed down to me and will continue trickling down the Cabrera line. These implications are rooted in my lifestyle; how I think, react, and breathe: I don’t know where the repercussion of trauma ends and where my own unscathed, or non-generational-scathing, behavior begins. Even so, Abby brightens everyone’s day. Whether Abby’s busting a dance move despite having no rhythm (yes, I have videos of my 90-year-old grandma twerking), cooking for friends and family, or virtually taking tequila shots with my roommates and me at 4 pm (we were in Italy, and she was in NYC), no matter what, she floods the room with love and authenticity. So, while I might not know the names and faces of my ancestors, I know my roots. And at the end of the day, Abby raised Uncle Raymond, Odette, my sister, and myself, putting us first, pouring love into every lecture, fight, and countless spoonfuls of rice. To my cousin, you told me that it was my legacy to discover my history, to learn about my ancestors. Well, that’s not the privilege I have or need. I know who my family is, and it starts with La Reina, Diana “Abby” Cabrera, and our ancestry can begin with her.