I do not know much about my mothers family history. When my father married her she was a white South African in Port Elizabeth. Her mother died a few years later, and her family disinherited her because she "married an American". Last year the airline she was working for gave her a free trip back, and from what she has said since, I learned that she was born and grew up in Pochestrom, part of the Transvaal region.
My fathers story I know a bit more about. I want to begin by telling you what my grandparents told me about my family history. There is not much, because I did not spend much time with them. My parents lives meant that we had to live far from them, so visits were short and rare. Another reason (especially when I got into my teenage years) was that I did not give them the attention they deserved, especially my Grandfather.
When I was somewhere in the five to eight year old category, they showed me the family bible, with my name and when I was born written in on the line after my parents marriage. I don't remember much about it, except that it was an old and ornate book, with dates that went back into the 1800's.
When I was a teenie bopper, I visited them again. I spent a week with them. Sometime fairly early in the visit, my Grandfather showed me some pictures from the civil war days, and the bible that my Great-Great Grandfather carried off to the civil war (as a member of the Indiana militia), where he was killed in action. It was small (vest pocket size, with metal covers). He said "There are many more family treasures, and when you marry we will give them to you, because you are the oldest son of an only son, so they will be rightfully yours."
He also said something to the effect that to learn about my family history, I should "look for the name Harter on Battlefield monuments." I am truly glad that there are only five on the Viet Nam War Memorial, because my parents were glad that I was too young to go. I never heard of any of them personally. I wonder where the list of people that had their lives ruined by taking on Macnamara's war is, and how many of us are on that. I never heard any stories about any of them either. My Father, brother and Grandfather are the only members of the family I ever knew that could have gotten on that type of list.
That's all. I think he would have been glad to show me more, and/or tell me more, but at the time I was really into science fiction (I had just discovered R.A. Heinlein, and the book store my Grandparents had taken me to had 6 of his books I hadn't read, and we had bought them. I was reading one a day.) I didn't really get that this was an exciting story that he was trying to get me interested in. He was a proud man, and he couldn't be bothered to talk about this stuff with me if I was not interested.
I think a couple of days later he yelled at me that I was letting my life go by reading books, and that I should learn how to respect my elders, but I wasn't listening. I was too busy reading books, and was not paying attention to my elders.
I cannot say what other stuff he was talking about, because I have never married, so they never gave any of it to me. They died when their natural lifespan passed, and since I didn't have a wife to give it all to, my opportunity passed. As I think about this now, I feel the pain of questions that I cannot answer, and I grieve for opportunities missed. I wish that I had been a better grandson.
My Grandparents are dead now. My Grandfathers grave marker says "Ralph E. Harter, U.S. Army". My Grandmothers says "Grace S. Harter, beloved mother and schoolteacher". My grandmother lived about a decade longer than my grandfather, but she did not remarry. She wanted to lie next to him with matching gravestones. They were proud people, and they were willing to die rather then tell stories* and give gifts before the proper time came. I think of them from time to time, and on Memorial Day I visit if I can. I put a flag on my Grandfathers grave, and some flowers on my Grandmothers. I know that is what she would want me to do.
Now let me tell you what additional information I have been able to get from my parents. There is not that much, because when my grandmother started to work on getting to know my mother, she started on the wrong foot. My mother decided quickly she wanted nothing further to do with this cloying, manipulative little prune from the plains of Texas. As a result of this, my parents never heard those stories, and they didn't take their turn holding the family stuff.
However, my father does have one story to add. "Some guy got elected Mayor of Canyon, Texas on a promise to get a blacksmith. Your great-grandfather was the guy that he talked into coming to Texas."
My mother can add this "Your grandmother told me the blacksmith married an Indian". I talked to her a lot about what else she knew, but that was it. She hadn't taken the time to listen to anything else. I guess at that point she got disturbed. As a white South African, she probably didn't want to hear any more. She didn't learn that she was responsible for the family treasures, so she wasn't trusted with them.
I only went to Canyon, Texas once. It was my Grandmothers last trip back to talk to her old friends before her life was over. While we were there, she got a history of Randall County Texas, that had been written by a friend of hers. It had brief sketches of the stories of many of the original settlers that came to the area. I leafed through it a bit, looking up the name Harter, stuff like that. It confirmed that he was a blacksmith. Many of the original settlers came from Illinois and Indiana, in the mid to late 1800s. I thought no more about it.
Last week, I happened to find this definition of Illinois in the dictionary: "A confederacy of Native American peoples formerly inhabiting southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and parts of eastern Iowa and Missouri, with present-day descendants mostly in Oklahoma." After that I found seven of the tribes, and the "current descendants" were listed as being in areas from Kansas to Texas. Suddenly I had many more questions for my grandparents, but they were not there to be asked. I don't know where that book went when my Grandmother died.
I think that when the Native Americans got to Oklahoma and Texas after being pushed out of the upper Midwest, some of them made a more or less conscious decision to stop being an ethnic group. They set up towns like the ones they left, and invited people that would be assets to the community to join them, and they wrote down their stories without mentioning their ethnic group. And when people like my mother marry into a family and don't want to carry on the family story, it dies.
All around Canyon there are ghost towns. In the dust bowl days, when the water table dropped to the point where a windmill driven well could not supply a farm anymore, and people became too poor to stay, many of them headed to California as Okies. Canyon survives because it is on a river, and also because the city fathers early decided to diversify the economy by building a College (West Texas State).
Education was very important to these people. I visited the ghost town where my grandmother started her teaching career, as a teenager that needed a job. The only nice, brick building in the whole town was the school. Everything else (except the highway repair facility, which is still operational), was a small cheap shack of wood that is now falling down. My Grandparents did not go to California until the 40's because as a teacher, she was welcome to stay.
I'm not at all brown. I have slightly yellow skin, brown hair and eyes, and more or less European features. When forms ask me my ethnic group I check the white box. When people ask me a question like "What kind of a name is Tian?" I say "creative parent". When they press for more information, I say "My Fathers Name is John, and when he went to college, he had four room mates, and three of them were Johns, so he swore that I would have a different fate." When they press for further genealogical detail I tell them that my father was born and raised in Texas, and my mother is from South Africa. At that point I have to stop, because until last week, that's all I knew. I never thought of myself as anything other than just another normal guy in the melting pot of American society.
My eyes were opened by going to see "Once Were Warriors", and by participating in the public debate about affirmative action that is currently going on. If you haven't seen that movie, you should see it. The character I identify with the most is the one that lived in the car under the bridge. I know his story. I am unquestionably my mothers brownest child. Just as kissing the damsel in distress seemed to cause strange things to happen for him, so sometimes it has seemed to me that the reaction to what I have done was inappropriate in scale. On the way out of the theater, I said to my companion "My mothers people disowned her just the way the mother in the movie was disowned." "The big difference is that I had a very good father, and he did what he could for us."
It's strange how these things work. I think that my mother did not get to know my grandmother until she had been married long enough to have already had me. She was committed, and she took that seriously. Sometimes when I was young and I would go to her room to ask her something she would look at me and say "I married your father because I didn't want to have my children die in race riots." Sometimes she would add a comment about how it was important to not be prejudiced in your own behavior. I accepted her comment as face value, because apartheid was in the news, and I knew that her father was Africaans. But I spent as little time as I possibly could in her house, because there was a tension there that I found really unpleasant.
Prejudice happens at a level where the person doing it is often unaware of it. It is just another one of the subconscious factors that goes into making every decision. When a company has to lay off half of the engineering force, I have often been in the batch that had to go. Once I felt that the decision was based on personal malice. I enjoy my work, and I am good at it, but it is possible to have bad luck with management. Once, I got a new manager that seemed to have a particular dislike for me for some reason that I did not understand. He laid me off, and about six months later my ex co-workers managed to get him fired. I think that they were lead by Dave, the gay guy that had hired me there in the first place. I feel a debt of appreciation to Ellis, the Jewish guy from the companies marketing department that helped me find another job six months later.
The politics of dating are too hard for me to figure out. I got involved with politics because I couldn't figure out a strategy for finding someone I liked that liked me. Working from the assumption that what my mother put my father through was the normal course of events, I did not enter dating age with any desire to get married. Accordingly, I decided to treat women the way they treated me. No better, and no worse. I never went out of my way to treat them any differently from the way I treated the other computer nerds in my general career track. This basically means that I have had a few dating episodes that lasted months, one that lasted a few years, but nothing that had any commitment in it. At this point it has been years since I was in a relationship, and it bothers me, but not enough that I can enjoy hanging out in a bar or a church. My feeling is, if you can't meet good people doing community service in the political system, then why bother to reproduce?
My mother visited me for a few days when she got back to the U.S. after visiting South Africa last fall. She talked about how race relations in the Transvaal are really tense now. After the Blacks got democracy, they thought that electricity, water, and phone service would automatically show up, and they wouldn't have to pay for them. The utility companies are trying to hook them up as fast as they can, but there is great resistance to paying the electricity bill. As she told this story I thought about all the trouble I have had explaining to Californians about the way the energy issue works. I told her "the people that understand the problem basically have to launch themselves in the direction of a public education campaign." "That is the only way the conversation can develop in a healthy direction." I still believe that explaining the issue to the leaders is not enough when there are major issues such as differences between the lifestyles of one class and another. Unless everyone understands the role of technology, the value of the services rendered by all, and the costs of lifestyle, and what the electric bill represents, they just look at it as a race and class issue. The tensions among the have-nots there were still building then.
Mom's trip was good for our relationship. Sometimes when I call my Dad to talk she picks up the phone now. On Earth Day we talked for half an hour, and I never did talk to my father. She still says "I married your father because I didn't want my kids to die in race riots", but now she sounds happy about it.
Postscript: After I wrote this, I spent most of a year in my parents world, and I got to know them a lot better. My mom was a very warm person, and I am glad I got to know them then. In 2000 she helped get Ralph Nader on the ballot in Virginia, which was a huge gift to me.
* It wasn't until I read Daniel Patrick Moynehan's book Secrecy that I realized the story that they didn't want to tell us was that we were German-Americans. Aparently during the time my Grandfather was young, the U.S. Government methodically destroyed that community as part of the war effort that started during WWI and continued during WWII. Sometimes I wonder if knowing that would have made a difference.