Andrew Jackson’s face has fed my family.
He has gassed up my car and covered a couple of beers and paid my electric bill.
If I find him in the pocket of some jeans I haven’t worn in a while, I don’t burn the jeans and go on a social media rant. No, I usually get this wonderful little hit of elation after finding him.
Now, granted, it usually takes more than one of him to buy anything of consequence, but hey…the more of him the better.
I look down at that face and smile. Because the more of him you have, the more comfortable your life is.
This wasn’t always so …
My great, great, great grandmother didn’t like him at all. And she had good reason not to.
He uprooted her from her home and forced her to walk west on something called the Trail Of Tears. He was horrible to her and her family. He was responsible for the brutalization of her tribe and the systematic dismantling of her entire way of life.
Andrew Jackson’s racist policies were the undoing of my family…170 years ago.
But something happened to my great, great, great grandmother along that trail. An Irishman, who had worked his way out of indentured servitude, and down into Tennessee, where he set up a roadside trading post along the trail, found himself at the perfect crossroads of sexism, racism and legal pedophelia. He saw my great, great, great grandmother, took a liking to the young 14-year-old, and purchased her from the tribe (for a couple of horses) and out of the march westward.
Then, he started making half-breed babies with her. One of them was my great, great grandmother. I knew her daughter as Mama Hamm.
Mama Hamm had dark skin and high cheekbones and in order to become a “Hamm,” she married another dark-skinned, high cheekboned suiter, who had been an orphan, left on the doorstep of a couple of German immigrants named Hammershmidt (or something like that). In order to assimilate into the culture easier, they shortened the name to Hamm.
By the time my grandfather was born into their house in 1920, they had all but forgotten about how Andrew Jackson had brutalized their grandparents.
In fact, I went on a walking tour through the Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s historical home, just outside of Nashville) with my grandfather, once. He was mildly interested in the way people used to live back then. He was respectful and quiet and he nodded and said, “interesting,” at all the appropriate times.
But finally, he’d had enough, looked at his watch and said, “we need to get home. I’m hungry.”
At no point did he ever break down and cry, weeping for his people. At no point did he ever seethe with rage and have to fight back his urge to burn the place to the ground. At no point did he feel the need to spray-paint anything on any of the buildings or monuments there.
My grandfather had enlisted in the Navy, during WWII, to serve a country that had massacred and mutilated his own great grandparents. And yet, here he was, walking through the home of his oppressor, not even mentioning it.
Why was he more preoccupied with present matters than he was with something that had happened to his own great grandmother?
Maybe it’s because he had kids and grandkids around him and new technology and a better world. Maybe it’s because my grandfather understood that life in America can evolve and grow and re-shape, and in less than a couple of generations, it can look completely different than it did when your grandparents were young…if you let it.
My roots are from people who were not participating in any part of the American dream because they weren’t allowed to. I have known women in my family who remembered life before they were legally allowed to vote.
But you know what? They didn’t harp on those days and constantly dredge them up. They didn’t go on endless tirades about the injustices of systemic sexism and how it held them in some sort of life limbo that they would simply never be allowed to rise above as long as the white, male patriarchy ran the world.
No. They just voted. They took the win and never looked back.
On balance, I’m not a big fan of Andrew Jackson. I think he did some horrible things. But when I read about the past, I don’t feel the need to punish anyone now, for it.
The people who inflicted that suffering on those distant relatives of mine, are long dead, as are the ways of thinking and systems that enslaved them in their time.
I see the past for what it is – the past.
And I can look at all those horrible things and still believe in a nation (and a system) that allows itself to grow and become better. Because it does and it has. But it can’t if I continue to re-litigate it and re-live things that actually don’t have to be re-lived or re-litigated.
I have a daughter, adopted from China, who isn’t much older than that young Cherokee girl, sold to an Irishman at that trading post, all those years ago. Could my daughter be trafficked today, in 2020? Sure. Could she get sold to some Irish pub owner, somewhere? It’s definitely possible.
But it isn’t legal, it isn’t probable, and it isn’t anything anyone in the mainstream of life would even consider the least bit tolerable.
In less than three generations, a child getting sold to a former indentured servant, along a road designed for genocide, can turn into their great grandson getting bored at the museum of that very thing, wondering what’s for dinner.
And in less than five generations, it can turn into a Chinese girl being raised like an American princess, living less than a hundred miles from where her great, great, great great grandmother was sold.
The future of the past is in question. How much of it are we ready to destroy and erase? And how do we do that anyway? Maybe the best way to erase the past is by fully embracing the present and allowing it to allow us to build a better future, knowing where we came from but not being tethered to it.
If we can’t accept the complication of America, we can never really see the beauty in its ability to evolve. As long as we live in that moment where my great, great great grandmother is getting sold, we never get to the part where my grandfather doesn’t really think too much about it.
If we constantly obsess over what Andrew Jackson’s face meant then, we lose perspective on what his face means now…
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