My father loves genealogy. He has spent countless hours looking up old records about our family and others’. And he is good at it. Through his hard work, I have learned that I owe my existence to a young man who decided to brave a “coffin ship” from Ireland and who survived the trip. Someone who started in Canada and then came to the U.S. in search of work and opportunity.
The history of this country is built on stories of how our ancestors came here. And though my ancestors did not have it easy, they were privileged enough to choose to come here and were not captured, enslaved or pushed off their land. Their white skin was never a guarantee for success but it did allow them to assimilate more easily, to become “American” and to hold on to the possibility that they too, could attain the American Dream.
No matter your story about how you came to live in America, we all have some sort of a family tree. And when you start looking into the stories of those who came before you may find moments of perseverance and struggle during some of the darkest moments of our collective history. You may find old photos of people that look like you and names that have been passed down through generations. Looking into your family history can cultivate great feelings of pride, meaning and understanding. We all yearn to understand where we come from in order to get a better sense of where we belong.
You may learn about the cousin who abandoned his family to start a new one or the great great uncle who was hospitalized for mental illness that no one spoke about. You may find various tales of violence and treachery that color our history. Our ancestors were no angels—they were people, with their flaws, their troubles and their fears. Just like the history of our country, our family history is not always pretty.
Nevertheless, so many of us identify with our ancestors and the land they came from. So often the traditions, customs and recipes that make up a huge part of our identity tend to be from a country that we may not have been to ourselves. We are a nation of “______-Americans” whose cultural differences are constantly being called out by those who stand to gain from our division.
I too grew up up thinking I was Irish/English-American. It was not until I left the country for the first time at 20 to study abroad in Rome that this aspect of my identity was first challenged. It was the spring of 2003 and my first experiences traveling around Europe happened at the same time as the U.S. invading Iraq. All of a sudden, I was THE “American,” responsible for representing our vast country and being asked to answer for its unpopular actions.
I further challenged my identity by going to live in Northern Ireland for a few years while in my twenties. Few Americans get a chance to live in a country where many of their ancestors came from. Sure, I recognized a lot of the cultural traditions, lived among people who looked a lot like me and met a lot of people with my name. But it was clear that I was not Irish or English: I am American. I was forced to deal with the fact that the place I thought I could identify with did in fact not identify with me.
I think this confusion of identity is what makes us American: we are no longer what our ancestors were but instead are something new. This duality is disconcerting and can lead to loneliness and fear. We all want to have a home and belong.
If we look at our country being a sort of family (a rather large one) we can see that the United States has always been a different kind of country and a different kind of family. With people coming from all over the world to make a home in one place, we have become more alike and more of a collective culture than those that we still hold onto and identify with. Just think: within your own family, those you disagree most with tend to be the ones who are most like you.
Botanical trees and family trees handle differences in a similar way. In horticulture, grafting is a practice where one branch is taken from a tree and attached to the lower part of another tree so that the leaves, branches, and fruit grow on the root structure of another. In some ways it seems unnatural or forced but it also shows the incredible resilience of two trees whose tissues are joined so as to continue their growth together.
We are a grafted, painfully put-together American family tree with deep roots and a whole lot of dirt. What makes us unique is our different branches. Your ancestors— who took the leap of faith to come here or who resolutely built a life on the land they were forced to inhabit—grafted their branch to this root structure.
Though our votes have already been cast, we are in a moment where we get to decide how we want to move forward as a country, a family and well, a tree. Will we see that, despite our perceived divisions, we are in fact all together in this or will we start cutting off our own branches out of fear? Just think how our great great great grandchildren will look back on us and whether we are living a story they will take great pride in learning or if we are in fact just adding to the depth of the dirt.