Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Heritage of Sin

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was counting them up last night, the number of generations in my family since the Civil War, and if I had children, there would be six. My great, great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather, father, my son or daughter, and me. According to our limited records, my great, great grandfather was from Virginia, his ancestors having immigrated from Wales years before. Records indicating much more than that are missing but we know his family did not own slaves.

It's uncertain whether they had abolitionist leanings, but I know I never heard either my grandfather or father refer to African-Americans in any way that suggested they viewed them as anything except equals. Nor have I ever heard them use the N word, in public or in private. The reason, my father explained, was their inclination to regard people on the basis of what they did rather than how they looked. "Looks can be deceiving," he said, "and being white doesn't guarantee anything. Remember that."

You'd think six generations would provide enough time to get past the notion that skin color is a valid determinate of character and personal worth. Obviously, it's not, as evidenced at the very least by the racial issues that surfaced in the last presidential election. Nor have they vanished, given recent comments in the media to the effect that the current President would not have been elected had he been darker and had more pronounced African-American facial features. Not that this remark was intended as a racial slur -- I've heard at least one African-American commentator agree with it. What bothers me is its possible, if not probable, truth.

I realize it's only been forty-six years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it's been 147 since the Emancipation Proclamation. It's enough to make a person wonder if there isn't something to the idea of "fallen-ness," after all. If being human doesn't entail an inherent character flaw that renders one susceptible to prejudice, in spite of education, economic, or environmental influences. I suspect we'd like to think we're more evolved than that, though not everyone behaves like it, particularly when old wounds are probed and scabs torn away in the passion of national debate.

Martin Luther King was a preacher and I feel certain he was very familiar with the verse that describes how the sins of the fathers may carry over for up to seven generations. The meaning is obvious: our actions may have far more than immediate consequences. I don't see how it's even remotely possible for one people to enslave another without having powerful and tragic ongoing effects. Taken literally, my grandchildren would be that seventh generation. I'd like to see us overcome our "heritage of sin" well before then.

(Public Domain Image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. via Wikipedia)
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