Dismantling the Myths of My Family History

Being trained as an historian of American religion has provided me certain skills and methodologies to look at myth making and understanding its role in identity, and practice. Myths are made sometimes to legitimize, and other times to explain the unknown. As scholars, we are expected to get underneath or behind these myths, to look at their origins, their function, and their impact. But I wonder how often we use these skills to look at ourselves or our families, to get behind or underneath the myths that circulate at family reunions, and are passed down, generation-to-generation.

Over the last couple of months, I have been researching my genealogy, mine and my family’s history. In some cases I have been very successful, in others, less so. For instance, through my maternal grandfather, I have found that I am related to the Beebe’s of Northampton, Great Britain, and that this line relocated from England to America when John Beebe and his family migrated from Broughton, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England to the American colonies in 1650. Unfortunately he died during the trip on May 18 aboard the SS Speedwell. His family, however completed the migration and became established in Connecticut, and then later New York. Descendants of his fought in the Revolutionary War and helped found new towns in both Connecticut and New York. Much of this is documented in Monograph of the descent of the family of Beebe compiled by Clarence Beebe and published around 1904.

Another interesting discovery has been why my paternal grandmother, Imogene Brothers, was orphaned. Using a variety of records, including various newspapers, I discovered that Imogene’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her and her sisters in the care of their father, Marvin Brothers. Subsequently, Marvin was killed when he was hit by a truck. The orphaning of the five girls has had significant repercussions throughout the family history, one that is still present in the lives of relatives today.

JamesDavid-and-AltaAlva

James David Crow and Alta Alva Crow (Hamlin)

While I have found the connection to the Beebes interesting, and the explanation of the Brothers sisters helpful, it has been the direct descent of the name Crow that has been my primary focus. Up until this round of research I could not get farther back in my direct descent line than James David Crow, my paternal great great grandfather, born in Stoddard, Missouri in 1874. I attributed this to the belief that he was, at least in part, Native American—from the Crow tribe—as has always been the assertion in my family. As being Native was a liability in the 19th century, many individuals with this background often ignored that of their heritage. Moreover, record keeping within tribes was inconsistent. As a result I believed this was the main reason I was stumped. I was supported in this belief too. My father lived his life believing he was descended from Native Americans as have my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Yet, I wanted to confirm this and so I kept digging, kept looking. During this round of research, however, I was able to find some connections and they revealed a whole different story.

It now appears that I am not descended from the Crow tribe, and that my Crow related heritage goes back to Europe. I have traced my Crow lineage to James Crow born between 1771 and 1774 in South Carolina. What is significant about this is that there were no Crow Native Americans in the colonies during the eighteenth century. So while I don’t know if the Crow name is coming from Great Britain or Germany, or somewhere else in Europe, I know it is not native. Moreover, I have found that there are seventeen unrelated (in modern times) Crow DNA family groups. They are named after colors. The green Crow DNA group is the oldest going back to Sir William Crow, born 1547 on the Isle of Man. James Crow is in the gold Crow DNA group. For Christmas I received a DNA testing kit as a present. I will be confirming my placement with in the Crow DNA project. (To any of my relatives reading this, I would encourage you to participate in the project too.)

In a strange way, I feel a loss by discovering I do not have a Native American connection through the Crow name. It has been such a foundational myth within my paternal family. To learn it is false has, in a way, stripped us of an important identity marker. I have always looked at my own body, the DNA that composed me, as a living testament to the complexity of the American story. How colonizer and colonized came to terms with the realities of the situation, going so far as to create families together, and spawn a new nation of new, Native-European hybrid people. While this story is still true, it seems it is no longer my story. My story is one of various Europeans coming together, and shedding their continental identity, in favor of one emerging from de Crèvecœur’s melting pot. One thing that was confirmed by this research is that my family’s heritage is one of agriculture. My distant kin were all farmers. From central Texas, to the Dakotas, from California, to Connecticut, one thing consistent, they were directly connected to the land, or at least until the early twentieth century. The Beebes became wealthy land owners, with numerous holdings. The Brothers were itinerant farmers, renting farm property by the season. To learn who they are and how they lived their lives is the least I can do to honor them since their lives are what have made mine possible. Yet, in doing so I must dismantle myths and rebuild based on fact. It is a stronger foundation to stand on, but it is not without its costs.

Jess Zimmerman Has an Opinion We Should Consider and Take Seriously

Words matter. Opinions matter. Not all words are equal. Not all opinions are equal. But they have consequences and implications. Some opinions are as trivial as choosing Coke or Pepsi. But other opinions have real impact, real meaning. So do the words that express them. We see this prominently right now in Jess Zimmerman’s recently published opinion in The Guardian. I walked away from it feeling ambivalent. Part of me wants to say, look Zimmerman, this kind of piece is what fuels anti-feminists who claim that all feminists are man-hating bitches. It gives fuel to feminist-dismissing men like the ones in this Facebook group whose tagline is, “Because math is logical. Feminism is not.” But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit, she’s justified in her opinion. Moreover, instead of being reactionary, I would hope men take some time to really think about what she’s saying.

As a whole, American culture is extremely violent, in both word and action. While running errands this afternoon, I heard something on the radio that made Zimmerman’s words all the more true. I heard an interview with Steve Almond, author of Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto. The gist of Almond’s book is that football is irreparably harming its participates, including causing brain damage in over 1/3 of the players, and at is deplorable that our society should encourage such violence. In the interview, Almond read some of the hate mail and insults he received. They all, basically, equated him to a woman, and in one case, a woman with a large vagina. That was the insult, being a woman. What does that say to half the world’s population? Your very being is an insult.

The response to this was not a condemnation by the host, or pointing out how anti-woman the insults were. Instead, he made jokes. His jokes could have poked fun at the respondents, but instead he continued the anti-woman rhetoric, continued to joke about Almond’s gender status, and then added that male-to-female transgendered men have foolishly sought transition surgery when all they really needed to do was question football to be considered a woman. I understand that his jokes were light-hearted and contextual, but the whole interchange was predicated upon a foundation of misogyny.

Talking about the violence, Almond made one other relevant point. He said that America is a nation that worships at the altar of violence and it is through violence that it renews itself. This, he claims, is why we pay vast amounts of money to watch men abuse each other for four quarters. I think he’s right. But I would add the renewal of violence is also against women. It is why I think we all should take a serious look at what she is pointing to and take time to really think about it. She is pointing to some very uncomfortable truths that need to be acknowledge

The Bodily Torment of Hell

This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.
From “Hell” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers

This morning in the shower I found myself singing the song “Hell” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It’s a catchy tune from mid-1990s that I heard on Spotify recently. What stood out to me, however, is how the song described the bodily torment in hell. Fire is applied to the body, teeth are extracted, ouch!, and bones are ground up. Sounds quite gruesome. But, then I thought, this is odd, in typical depictions of hell you don’t have a body…

hellI started thinking more about it, and almost all depictions of hellish suffering are based on body metaphors. Niflheim, the hellish world of Norse religion is described as a cold, frozen wasteland located next to the Shore of Corpses. In this case it’s not fire applied to the body, it’s ice. In Greek myths, those judged negatively found themselves in Tartaros, a deep black dungeon full of torture and suffering. This is where Sisyphus eternally labored, Tantalus suffered hunger and thirst, surrounded by food and water he could not consume, and Ixion was strapped to a spinning, burning wheel. Combining both the fire and the ice, the Buddhist Naraka realm has both hot and cold hells. Descriptions include molten substances poured down throats, or freezing and then one’s body bursting into millions of bits, only to be reassembled and burst again. Other hell torments include being boiled in oil or the skin freezes off exposing the internal organs to the cold causing great pain. In all these cases, the body is the central metaphor for expressing the kind of suffering experienced.

I can only think of one other description of hell that was very different. But even it has a bodily metaphor to describe it. In the movie, The Prophecy, Christopher Walken plays the angel Gabriel. At one point he says, “Do you know what hell really is, Thomas?  It’s not lakes of burning oil or chains of ice. It’s being removed from God’s sight, having His Word taken from you.” Seeing and hearing are the metaphors of God’s presence, and absence. The senses are still central, but the suffering is the loss of presence.

The use of the senses to express the kind of mental torment one could experience in a hell realm is not surprising. The body is the center of all experience in the world and how we come to terms with our surroundings. Hell is used as a deterrent to particular behaviors or beliefs. To make the threat concrete in the minds of people, the concrete experiences of the body are appealed to, making the potential threat imaginable, and undesirable.

I am constantly amazed at how often the body emerges as the central metaphor. It is the means by which religion is practiced, experienced, and where thinking and believing take place. However, since it is so central and omnipresent, it is frequently forgotten. When applied to hell, especially in a Christian context, how often do people think about the contradiction of describing the torments of the soul by using body metaphors? Perhaps the question is, if we don’t use the body, what else would we use?