As with all other Americans, other than Native Americans, I come from immigrant beginnings. There is nothing aristocratic about my heritage. My mother's family came from Sweden, arriving here to look for economic opportunities. Their own country was poor and did not have room for her sons and daughters to thrive. And so they came here, as so many before and since have arrived, full of hope and fear, driven by the need to survive. My Swedish grandparents met and wed in Chicago and raised my mother and her sister in Portland, Oregon. The woods there reminded them of Sweden. They appreciated the chance to thrive, and never understood the way their grandchildren took for granted the chances available to them as Americans.
My father's family arrived in the 1700's as indentured servants, also seeking economic opportunities. They settled in the hills of Appalachia, and struggled for generations to survive on its thin soil. They did what they had to do: timber work, coal mining, even moonshine running, whatever they needed to do to feed their children. Eventually they moved north, just ahead of troops looking for those who had taken part in a coal mining strike. In Western Pennsylvania they worked in the steel industry and other trades. They didn't thrive economically through the years, but they made do. And they developed a strong sense of faith and community with those close to them. They also laid down a rich base of creativity from which they wove art and music into their everyday lives.
Recently, my son gave us all DNA testing kits to see what may lay hidden in our past. When the results came back, they confirmed something I had always suspected. In the mid-seventeen hundreds a West African woman became one of my grandmothers. Her "immigration" to America was one of terror and violence. She had been hidden and erased from our family's history, but now she stands in the open as one of the women who made me who I am. I carry in me the genes of this woman whose name I will never know. And it makes me feel a little closer to the wider world around me. It's a reminder that we are all related, literally, to the people around us in important and often unknown ways. Which means one more reason we need to do unto others as we would have others do unto us, because they ARE us and we are them.