19 April 2010

Intellectual Ancestors

Rajiv Sethi has another pitch perfect post, this time on the subject of who one claims as one's ancestors. Some highlights:

Rod Dreher, himself a product of the American South, came to the . . . realization while traveling overseas:

"I'd spent several weeks traveling around Europe the summer before my junior year in college, and came to understand after being around all those fellow white people that deep down, we Americans have been deeply shaped by the black experience. . . for a white Southern boy like me to spend six weeks in the Heart of Whiteness was to feel my own Americanness to the marrow for the first time. . . and to surprise myself by recognizing that the main reason I was so different from these people who looked just like me was because I had been raised in a culture profoundly shaped by black Americans."

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to insist that the question of how we claim our ancestors is "more philosophical than biological." And it is entirely appropriate that he began his post with a quotation from Ralph Wiley, who answered Saul Bellow's famous taunt "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" with the brilliant and wise retort "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus -- unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."

It is a concept I've danced around but rarely written about for a long time.

I was thinking about it at a performance of the Cleo Parker Robinson dance troupe last weekend at the historic Shorter A.M.E. Church building in Five Points (incidentally, a dramatically different neighborhood than it was when I came to Denver a decade ago as a result of massive infill development that has changed the character of the neighborhood).

Pre-intermission, the performance had a heavy pan-African component. Post-intermission, it drew much more heavily on the African-American experience in which about three-quarters of the company had their roots.

The dancers in the latter half had a much stronger sense of intention in their movements and were drawing on a shared body language vocabulary. In the first half, you could easily imagine them being painstakingly taught the choreography without understanding at the same level of depth what messages those body movement conveyed. The dancers captured the gross level movements in both cases, but in the more contemporary pieces drawing on their own experience captured the fine details that can't be conveyed with words or by example. But, their very deep understanding of their movement in the second half of the dance showed perfectly an insider's knowledge of the unwritten body language element of the African-American dialet; nuances that an outsider like me can see and know are authentic from experience without having any hope of reproducing them myself.

Your biological ancestry can give you access to the cultural legacy of your ancestors; but that legacy isn't automatic. It must be transmitted.

I've also thought about my own intellectual ancestry claims, the most obvious being that I speak English and have a perspective on my cultural inheritance that results from that language, despite the fact that in 1847, none of my ancestors spoke English. Most of the high culture of my ancestors, I've acquired since going to college or later, although a childhood of church and family reunions filled in some gaps. I am a city boy whose parents made the leap from rural to urban America; from mono-cultures to multi-cultures. They grew up in a world without rock music, pizza, interstate highways, computers, the pill, Chinese restaurants or Jews, and were both first generation college students. They made the transition very gracefully, and as a result, I have very different claims of intellectual ancestry than they did.

This is not to say that they were insular. My grandfather is famous in family lore for insisting that my father receive proper instruction in Latin at his local rural school (his graduating class had about a dozen members), and politics were debated vigorously. All but one of the seven children in their generation went on to be first generation college students, and my father saw the world in the military in a way that I did not.

I thought ahout it again reading recently about the Etruscans, the last non-Indo-European language speaking community in Europe to see their language vanish (the Basque still retain their non-Indo-European language). Their culture of the 9th century BCE onwards is one in continuity with the Villanovan culture before it from about 1150 BCE. But, it shows a huge break with the Terramare culture before it. Religiously, they probably had more in common with the Romans than with the Old European megalith/fertility cult culture we associate with the Minoans, and incorrectly and anachronistically, with the Celts.

While the Etruscans retained their language, they did so by adopting wholesale a whole package of proto-Celtic cultural practices from cremation to iron use to farming practices to the organization of their society. Their language survived because they laid claim to much of the intellectual ancestry carried to them by early Indo-Europeans before the Indo-European cultural package could be used to destroy them. This is why the Etruscans made it into the history books, while the other non-Indo-European cultures of Europe vanished with barely a mention; we know them only by the objects and some of the place names that they left behind.

The Navajo did something similar in the United States; quickly and completely adopting the horse, the gun and sheep herding that were not part of their pre-Columbian tradition, in a way that has allowed their people to survive as a people and their language to remain the most widely used of the pre-Columbian languages of North America. This Na-Dene language family, moreover, has provided the missing linguistic like that connects the Americas to Siberia.

New Zealand's Maori did something similar on first contact with Europeans and also survived with their people and language intact, at the cost of a dramatic transformation of their own culture.

Biology strongly suggests that the Ethiopian Jews acquired their religion by conversion rather than from Jewish ancestors, but does that make them less Jews? Your cultural ancestors are not fully yours to choose, but that does not mean that they are carried by or determined by your biological ancestors.

It takes a humanities expert and a fine taste for cultural detail to sort out precisely from where the ancestry we claim derives, and their is something to be said for learning the answer to that question. There is something delightful, for example, in parsing out the roots of early Christianity in Sumerian myth, a brief episode of Egyptian monotheism, Temple Judaism, Zoroastrian doctrines that pre-Christian Jews were exposed to in Babylon, Platonic philosophy, and Greco-Roman pagan cults of Mithras, Dionysus, and perhaps even the Manicheans. The modern
Christian scripture are derived from writings Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

But, it doesn't take any kind of expertise to actually acquire it. That comes naturally and especially in modern America, rarely has much to do with one's biological ancestry.

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