From Ireland to Philadelphia: the unknown story of my ancestors

About six generations ago, my ancestors crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to Philadelphia. Well over a century later on Saint Patrick’s Day, I cannot stop wondering about my great-great-great grandparents.

Only in the past few months have I realized the privilege I have to know from where my ancestors came. Being African-Americans descended from slaves, many of my friends do not know their heritage. Due to the encouragement of one of my friends, I am now attempting to take advantage of the knowledge I have.

Because my family has been in the United States for so long and has married across cultures, among Irish, French and perhaps one or two Germans on my mom’s side and between English and Scottish on my dad’s, I have a difficult time resonating with my ancestors’ culture, however. I cannot resonate with it because I know nothing about it. It seems so distant and apart from me.

Before I started to know myself better, I simply felt “American.” This was largely influenced by my dad’s side of the family, the side I saw the most. They are incredibly patriotic, celebrating national holidays with the national anthem, Wiffle ball and pie. They are proud to be Americans, and while they are White, most of them do not embrace or even consider their European heritage, to my knowledge. My immediate family has never encouraged me to embrace my roots either, making it difficult for me to explore them.

Unfortunately, my grandparents are either growing forgetful or are already dead, so my chances of learning more about my ancestry are fading away.

My Grandpop on my mom’s side is the main person I can bring to mind who seems somewhat interested in his heritage, as demonstrated by his bookshelves full of Irish and a few French books and his past endeavors to look into our family ancestry. I learned from him that I am related to a famous Irish poet, though that man is not well known in America now.

I am primarily drawn to my Irish roots, and I often wonder about my family’s history. I try to go back in time and imagine the events that led up to my sister and me: Once upon a time, two Irish people got together and had a baby. What were their circumstances, and how large was the family? Their child or perhaps children grew up and moved across the ocean, where they lived in Philadelphia for six generations.

Why did my ancestors immigrate? That is my first and foremost question. I continue to wonder about what happened next. Were my ancestors poor? As Irish, how were they treated in the late 19th and early 20th century in the States? Were they prohibited from applying to certain jobs, as many Irish were? Did they have to do menial labor to survive?

Was it a big deal when they first intermarried with the French? At what point did they lose their Irish culture, and at what point did they become simply “White”? How did the power dynamics change over time? I am most curious about these questions.

As previously noted, my heritage has not affected me culturally, but does it impact my physically? I love my body, but I do not think I look Irish. I have my dad’s eye and body shape and hair texture, which were passed down from my English, Scottish and other unknown ancestors. Perhaps my green eyes are the most Irish physiological characteristic, but my family has been living and procreating in the United States for so long that I feel like a “European mutt” more than anything. My first name is Irish, but my parents chose it because it means “pure” rather than for its origin.

I am in the process of exploring who I am historically as I grow in who I am in my future — ideally an African, as much as any American emigrant or immigrant to East Africa can be. I wonder what cultures my children and grandchildren will inherit and how they will deal with the ambiguity of their European heritage as it grows more and more distant, since they will likely be mixed race from myself, a European-American, and from their father of who knows what other race or ethnicity.

My future husband and I will bring the cultures in which we were socialized into our home as well as other cultures in which we are interested. Since God has called me to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congolese culture should play a large part in their lives as well. Thus, my children will likely be multicultural, third culture kids. Multiculturalism is beautiful, but it is complicated. I look forward to exploring it more as I look into my heritage, engage in the present and prepare for the future.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Racial Reconciliation: Humility, Listening, and Clear Communication

Sammy Mallow, a sophomore at Wheaton College in IL, spoke about racial reconciliation when I interviewed him for an article this past weekend. His words were simple yet deep, profound and refreshing. I’d like to share some of it here since it does not all fit in The Wheaton Record.

Mallow shared the story of racial reconciliation between him and his former RA and now dear friend, Joseph McGann. Mallow grew up as a half Cambodian, half American missionary kid. He spent four years in Cambodia, one in the United States, back and forth and back and forth, for most of his life. McGann was socialized in New York, did home school and went to a Christian private school, and never left the country. “We learned a lot from each other,” Mallow said.

Mallow said, “I basically learned to appreciate more growing up in America like the way he did.” Mallow said he learned that he can still have a lot of fun with people who are different than himself, adding, “I can still connect with them and be understood by them and enjoy their company.”

On the other hand, Mallow said, “(McGann) learned that there’s a lot to the world.” He elaborated, “Different cultures are immensely important to learn about and to appreciate.”

Mallow continued with some solid advice. He said, “It’s important to be careful and be patient with people. When you’re trying to build a relationship with someone who is different than you — this applies to everything, but especially racial issues — you have to be careful to listen to what the other person is perceiving from you. Also, (you have to be careful about) what you are intending to communicate.” I believe that by “careful,” Mallow meant perceptive in listening and clear in speaking.

From Sammy Mallow, from the Solidarity procession about which I was writing when I interviewed him, and from my friend Mark Andersen, I have been reminded to listen to other people’s stories. How have our brothers and sisters of various skin colors or facial structures been hurt by comments that were allegedly jokes? What words have bad connotations or are degrading? Avoid those terms. Learn from those who are different than you. Their stories are important, and their experiences are valid. Affirm your brothers and sisters. Apologize if need be.

Jesus embodied ultimate humility and reconciled mankind to God so that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have eternal life. As Jesus did, so we must do. We must be humble before our powerful God and before our fellow humans. If we understand who God is and what He has done for us through His great love, there is nothing else we can do! We must reconcile with each other; in this case, we must reconcile the wrongs done by racial prejudice and discrimination.

Why is this important? We must practice racial reconciliation because together we comprise the church, the body of Christ. We need each other. Furthermore, God is glorified before all mankind when all His people unite to follow Jesus.

As you go on with your daily lives, I pray that you will take this to heart. You ought not to be reconciled because I say so or because Mallow said so or for any other reason besides its importance to Christ Jesus. What I have said in this blog post is based in the Bible, and it has massive implications on the real world in which we live. Please read the following passage from God’s Word as you prepare to return to your school work, cleaning, job, parenting, web surfing, or whatever it is you were doing.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5 verses16-21, Paul wrote, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV).