Saturday, March 14, 2009

Whose Heritage do We claim?

A great-great-great uncle of my dad's signed the Declaration of Independence. There's even a little placard with his portrait and name on it embedded in the sidewalk of the historical district in Philadelphia. My great aunt Ruth, who lived to be 103, traveled the world when she was 22 in 1919, and was generally a super cool woman and a role model for me, was the family's heritage-keeper. That is to say, she kept records of the family's geneaology, photographs, accomplishments, etc.

I have always found this family's history very interesting, but also felt conflicted about it since it is the geneaology of my adoptive father's family, not my blood relations'. I have always felt uneasy about claiming his heritage because I was unsure I was entitled to it-- so much of the pride (and shame) of heritage in our society is based upon blood kinship, not adoptive kinship.

One day when I was in high school, I was called out of class by the guidance counselor to take a special test administered exclusively to descendants of the DAR to determine eligibility for a college scholarship. I had to ask the counselor what the DAR was, and when she told me it was the Daughters of the American Revolution, I remembered the great-great-great uncle, and figured it had something to do with him. Even then, when I was only 16 and had no idea what the DAR was all about, I had an inkling that I didn't technically qualify to even take this test, much less to receive the scholarship.

I didn't do well on the test, so I didn't advance to the next level of competition for the scholarship, but as it turns out, I wouldn't have been eligible for it anyway, as membership in the DAR is, as I suspected, based upon bloodlines.

Which brings me to the question I have been pondering: whose heritage do I claim? Do I claim the Scottish and Finnish ancestors I've heard about all my life from my adoptive parents, or do I claim the Norwegian and Swiss ancestors I've recently learned about from my newly found birthparents? Neither feels completely mine, yet I don't wish to eschew either of them because they both feel familiar and true. Who are my ancestors?

As adoptees, how do we reconcile our dual heritage?

9 comments:

JBH said...

Great post! I am working through this one myself. I am learning to take pride in both, but it's not easy.

I grew up with Norwegian cultural practices in my adopted home. Then when I was old enough to "check the box" of race/ethnicity, I cozied up to my genetic/blood lines of Japanese heritage. But I had to ask my (adopted) father "which box do I check?". I went on to study Japanese and East Asian history, and even lived in Japan for many years.

Now that I am older, and have returned to the USA, I am embracing the "white" part of my Asian-mixed blood line - German and Irish. Even today, as I saw students present historical reasons for their Irish pride on St. Patty's Day, I tried to connect in some way to this history (because it is in my bloodline!).

The way I see it - I can stake a claim to so many different heritages. I see that as a wonderful privilege. And, at times, it can be a challenge or a burden. But I take it one step at a time.

The Grauke-Collins Experience said...

I've always wondered how my great aunt felt about this issue. She was adopted by my great grandparents in the early 1910s when she was a toddler. She and her birth parents were traveling through town when there was an accident and her parents were both killed. No one knew who they were or had any way of finding out back then, so she was adopted by a local family (my great grandparents who desperately wanted a daughter after having several sons). This was a fairly isolated area of Texas and taking in an orphaned child was not unheard of.

To make this even more interesting, my aunt June was black. I was always fascinated that a black child was raised in the segregated South. I pestered my mother and grandmother about it over the years. (Did she feel different? Did she wonder about her birth family? Was she discriminated against? etc.). However, June was light skinned and my great grandfather was Indian and quite dark, so June "passed." Sadly, I never asked her about it because it would have been considered rude and disrespectful.

As a side note, soon after adopting June, my great grandmother had three girls, bringing the total to nine children.

The Grauke-Collins Experience said...

I meant to say "a black child was raised in the segregated South by a white family."

Andrea said...

Thanks for commenting, JBH and GCE.

Brian said...

Wow, I never knew that about DAR not accepting adoptees. They're Daughters of the American Revolution still living in that time period.

Andrea said...

you said it, Brian.

villalena said...

when the internet was newer and these things were a novelty, jim was peeping around and ended up at a genealogy site. he tracked his family line back to charlemagne. then it turned out that after going back a certain number of generations to europe, everyone is related to everyone.

villalena said...

also, i assume you've seen this? :)

http://www.fraenkelgallery.com/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=30&a=3&p=0&at=1

Andrea said...

Alena,
That is one creeeeepy picture of the DAR gals. I think it's especially telling that the focal point of the photo is of one woman's back, as if she has turned her back on the viewer, and is closing rank with her group, excluding those of us who don't belong...