Our Imaginary Past



Barbara Kingsolver ancestry

Barbara Kingsolver ancestry


As someone who tries to be a reasonably humble human being, I much prefer writing a social critique when it applies to an idea rather than a person.  When a person in the public eye shares an idea or notion, and that idea or notion is inaccurate or downright wrong, it is important to try and decipher why that person is making this view a matter of public record.

When a person has a track record for dishonesty or wilful ignorance, or is of demonstrably low character, the gloves can come off.  If their motives are benign, it is tricky trying to criticise their ideas or beliefs without appearing to attack the person.

Barbara Kingsolver is not only a writer of rare ability; in interviews she comes across as a person possessed of humility, thoughtfulness, and empathy.

So when this leader from The Irish Times popped-up in my social media feed this morning, I was surprised.

Surprised and disheartened, because I didn’t expect someone like Ms. Kingsolver, whose subject matter often includes Appalachians, to be repeating the same old “white essentialist” take on Southern Appalachian culture, i.e., “We are Scots-Irish in Appalachia”.

Who is this “we”?  Does she mean her own family?  Does she mean her wider community?  As a respected writer with a huge audience, Kingsolver’s utterances carry real weight.

And this is how real history is erased – a thing is repeated like a mantra so often and for so long in public forums that it becomes accepted folk history or “received wisdom”.  Whether the mantra is repeated by people of good or bad faith does not change the final outcome, which is false history.

Some might well ask “What does it really matter if our ancestors were from this group or that group?”.

It matters because untruths and foundational myths are used by certain people all over the world, yesterday and today, to justify the pre-eminence of some groups, and to downplay (and even disappear) the stories of other groups.

Some of us do not want our stories to disappear.

Of her sixteen second-great grandparents, Ms. Kingsolver has only one single ancestor who on balance might be said to descend from Ulster folk (highlighted in green in pedigree).

The rest of her ancestry appears to consist of the descendants of people from the British Isles (including England, Scotland, and probably Wales), people from either Flanders or The Netherlands, and people from France and Germany.

I say “appears” because of course many Appalachian people carry surnames which have been “borrowed” due to non-paternal events, adoptions, and the assimilation of indigenous people (and other outsider groups) into the main coloniser community.

At least half of her ancestral lines were slaveholding families, so where no explicit wills, land documents, or Bible entries provide documentary cross-referencing, we must entertain the possibility that some descendants may in fact be what I call “sparks” – the offspring of slaveholders and enslaved people.

Ms. Kingsolver’s very surname is an enigma.  Appearing out of the blue in colonial South Carolina first as “Consolver”, many believe this surname might be a corruption of the Portuguese/Portuguese Jewish surname “Gonçalves“.  Interestingly, her direct Kingsolver ancestry includes households which included free people of color.

Kingsolver’s actual ancestry would be irrelevant, if she had clearly been raised within a culture clearly derived from an earlier “Scots-Irish” culture.  Our identity, after all, derives far more from our cultural envoronment, than from our inherited DNA.

But an overweening “Scots-Irish Appalachian culture” is an entirely American confection.  The “Scots-Irish” are just one small part of the mosaic which is Southern Appalachia.

It is all too easy, when we feel an affinity for a place, to imagine some sort of cultural continuum (or even “genetic memory”) connecting our feelings to something more tangible or historical.

More often than not, we are simply projecting our own romantic desires onto the world around us – our imagined history having no basis in reality.

This can lead to some dark places when people less well-intentioned than Barbara Kingsolver start to “project”…

#barbarakingsolver #beforewewerewhite

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