I possess a priceless fact, though I didn’t realize how rare and beautiful it was until recently. Both my grandfathers are deceased—my paternal grandfather (Grandpa) succumbed to cancer on September 25, 2008, and my maternal grandfather (Papaw) died to due complications from Alzheimer’s disease on August 5, 2015. I was close to both and can say that I was well and truly loved by them. And while that is indeed incomparable, it’s not the fact I’m here to talk about.
Both men were farmers, and each drove a pair of mules when working the land. But that’s not all. I know those animals’ names. Grandpa called his Doc and Rodney. Papaw’s were Jim and Adar. Neither set matched because, according to my father, a similarly-colored pair was usually purchased together from a breeder. Very few farmers had enough cash on hand to do so. That’s the kind of detail I keep in my pocket, something to worry with my thumb whenever I’ve lost my bearings.
There’s a certain sturdiness that comes with knowing things like this. Not only were my grandfathers real people I smelled and touched and loved. Men who carried me on their shoulders and did their best to help ensure I never went without. They also had a past; they were connected to a place in a way I, with my limited time working a farm, can never be. But when they told stories, thankfully, I listened. I gobbled their tall tales and humble yarns up like so many plates of beans, and they’ve carried me through the last decade—the one I’ve had to live without my patriarchs, my humble men of great valor.
I’ve never driven mules, never worked land from seed to harvest. However, I like to think the ability to do so is in my genetic code somewhere—like the musical talent I got from Papaw and the knack for words that came from Grandpa. If those traits manifested in me, why not an ability to cultivate life from the earth? I sometimes imagine myself buckling a pair of mules together, picking up the reins, giving a gee or haw, and having the entire thing figured out in just a few passes. And while I know it’s fantasy, the wish of a woman longing for something she’ll never have, I can’t quite bring myself to give up on the idea.
In The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the story of the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter), which the Dutch endured from 1944-1945. He writes, “Tens of thousands of men, women, and children died of malnourishment; millions survived. The change in nutrition was so acute and abrupt that it created a horrific natural experiment: as the citizens emerged from the winter, researchers could study the effect of a sudden famine on a defined cohort of people. Some features, such as malnourishment and growth retardation, were expected. Children who survived the Hongerwinter also potentially suffered chronic health issues associated with malnourishment: depression, anxiety, heart disease, gum disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes. (Audrey Hepburn, the wafer-thin actress, was one such survivor, and she would be afflicted by a multitude of chronic illnesses throughout her life.)
“In the 1980s, however, a more intriguing pattern emerged: when the children born to women who were pregnant during the famine grew up, they too had higher rates of obesity and heart disease. This finding too might have been anticipated. Exposure to malnourishment in utero is known to cause changes in fetal physiology. Nutrient-starved, a fetus alters its metabolism to sequester high amounts of fat to defend itself against caloric loss, resulting, paradoxically, in late-onset obesity and metabolic disarray. But the oddest result of the Hongerwinter study would take yet another generation to emerge. In the 1990s, when the grandchildren of men and women exposed to the famine were studied, they too had higher rates of obesity and heart disease (some of these health issues are still being evaluated). The acute period of starvation had somehow altered genes not just in those directly exposed to the event; the message had been transmitted to their grandchildren. Some heritable factor, or factors, must have been imprinted into the genomes of the starving men and women and crossed at least two generations. The Hongerwinter had etched itself into national memory, but it had penetrated genetic memory as well.”
Granted, neither branch of my family endured something as stark and horrific as the Hongerwinter, but if it is true that such an event could affect a family for not one but two generations, could a person be shaped by more mundane tasks and habits as well—especially those that have been practiced since time immemorial? Could the hours my grandfathers (and their grandfathers before them) spent behind a plow gently encouraging their animals have, in some small way, cultivated something in me too? It heartens me to think so, especially now that the way I view the world—and my very self—has changed forever.
“Race,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” I have come to a fuller understanding of this truth in recent years as well as the fact that the “white identity” I’ve assumed for most of my life is as flimsy and worthless as a Confederate dollar. According to Dr. Painter in this piece from 2015, “It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity. We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years.”
As I have written before, white identity—such as it is—was created via erasure. It is described by virtue of what it isn’t. Hence, I am “white” primarily because I am not black or Asian or Hispanic. “The useful part of white identity’s vagueness,” Dr. Painter says, “is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting. A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.”
Blandly uninteresting. Yes. That is what I have always felt about myself, what I have known in way beyond words. Even as a child, I was well aware that some part of me was missing. I’ve never had to grapple with who I am in the larger sense of the word because American culture has always said, “You are white. You are superior. You are normal. No need to think too hard about it. It’s everyone else who is lacking.”
Now, people are starting to speak up about white privilege, and because of the dearth of self created by that erasure, there’s nothing for white people to stand on. The only two options for self-definition open to us are “devoid” and “dreadful.” I’m either nothing or I’m a member of a “race” that has maintained supremacy through rape, murder, theft, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and systematic mass incarceration.
“We lack more meaningful senses of white identity,” Dr. Painter asserts in her conclusion, but the solution is not to create distinctions or lines. “White identity” can be reinvented by abolishing white privilege and building on other, more positive and inclusive factors. That is why knowing those mules’ names fills me with a sense of joy and contentment. They are a fact from my past that has not been fabricated or co-opted. Jim and Adar and Doc and Rodney are rock solid proof of who I am and where I come from, and they connect me with others as well.
Men and women from all “races” worked the land. Other grandfathers with different skin colors than Papaw and Grandpa also barked a solid gee and haw. They knew the sleepless nights when a cold snap came and threatened their crops. They, too, put in a hard day’s work and got up the next morning to do it all over again. And all of them rejoiced when the harvest came in and there were cans of peas and corn and tomatoes put up for the hard winter to come. This is a piece of my identity that doesn’t cause shame. It is simple and wholly good.
I can work with that.