Inherited History

On the way back home from Idaho, Lisa and I began listening to the audio version of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.  We aren’t done yet, so I’ll wait until giving my thoughts of his story, but there was one thing that jumped out at me.

Obama’s father was from Kenya.  So, while he is African-American, his ancestors didn’t experience slavery.  Even so, it is very evident from his story that Obama has inherited that history, the history of the majority of African-Americans, shaped by the fact of slavery and the ramifications of that history on their lives today.

In Obama’s case, this is a direct result of his skin color. And, at first glance, it might seem he is somewhat unique in this regard.  But, thinking about it more, it seems to me that this happens to everyone who is born to immigrants.  It is the difference between cultural history and what might be called familiar history, or the history associated with one’s ancestors.  In Obama’s case, he inherited the cultural history of African-Americans, not the familiar history of his Kenyan father.

I’m the son of a Basque immigrant, but the history I know, that I identify with, is most certainly that of the United States.  I really know relatively little about the history of the Basque people or of Spain and France.  However, it is precisely because of this that I’ve taken such an interest in the Basque people and their history.  And, I think, this happens to many children of immigrants.  It is why there are people who call themselves Basque-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, or what have you.  I think it is because they lose the history of their parents or grandparents by the simple fact that they were born and raised in a different country.  They inherit the history of the culture in which they grow up, not that of their immigrant ancestors.  And it is the desire to connect with that history, to connect with their ancestors in some way, that lead people such as myself to call ourselves Basque-American.

I’ve often been asked why I consider myself as something other than just “American”.  Why do I add “Basque” in front?  And, beyond vaguaries about it being the culture of my dad and my grandpa, I never had a really good answer.  I think that this is the answer.  It is to connect to their history, to their experience, to not be completely disconnected from the cultural reality in which they grew up.  It is to honor their culture, but it is more than that.  I call myself Basque-American because the history that shaped some of my ancestors was not the American experience, it was something else, and I want to better know what that was so as to better understand who they are and who I am.

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