Survivors: Family Histories of Surviving War, Colonialism, and Genocide
Introduction to a collection of essays from my students.
History is all around us. I constantly tell my students and readers that all of us, quite literally, make history every day. Our actions, those of “ordinary people,” create the history that will be taught tomorrow. I am a passionate believer in family history, oral history, and genealogy. All three are central to what I teach and the methods I use to teach. For those of us who teach at the college level and especially in humanities and social sciences, there are incredible resources, namely our own students.
Like many history professors and historians, I believe strongly in history from below, the practice of teaching, researching and writing from a bottom up view rather the history of elites. Getting students to know their family history and oral history is an important part of my practices. Oral history, and history broadly speaking, tie the individual to their family and community. That community includes both the local area and the nation, both the nation they live in and the nation(s) their family is from. I include nation to mean what Benedict Anderson famously defined it as, a community of like minds united by common language and culture. Nations can be political units, ethnic groups, or some mix of the two. One can speak of nations within nations, such as American Indian tribes.
Family histories also remove any sense of history being remote. Hearing stories of family members right in the center of major events, often literally struggling to stay alive, makes issues like war and peace, colonialism, and power struggles between nations or between elites and those struggling to get out from under their domination…suddenly such issues seem very immediate, and so real.
Northern Virginia Community College serves four of the most northernmost counties of Virginia, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William, essentially the suburbs of Washington, DC. In one study after another, Loudoun County, the one I teach in, is ranked the wealthiest county per capita in America, followed by Fairfax. Average income per family in the county tops $100,000.
One might not think of these communities as home to refugees from dangerous and traumatized nations. Such a thought would be wrong. These counties are home to survivors of the most heinous kinds of atrocities.
The volume you hold in your hands was largely written by the children and grandchildren of these survivors, often telling the stories of their elders and loved ones describing why they fled brutality of the kind no one should ever have to bear. In most cases, the students did not know of these hardships and atrocities first hand, as they only experienced them from hearing about them from their immediate family member. In other cases, the stories have been passed down, carefully preserved for several generations. In still other cases, these students heard of their family member’s experience for the first time because of writing these student papers. While all of these stories are important to preserve, it is the last type I am most proud of having a role in, helping to build ties between generations.
There are few places in the US that can compete for diversity with Northern Virginia. That fact surprised me when I first moved here, not expecting to live in a small Virginia town and yet be able to go to Afghan, Burmese, Indian, Peruvian, Salvadoran, and Thai restaurants within a population of fewer than 20,000. I quickly found myself teaching with this incredible resource, students from such a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds.
One might not think of Virginia suburbs as a center of multiculturalism, but one would be wrong. Less than two decades ago, the counties of Northern Virginia were overwhelmingly white, with also a longstanding Black presence going back to the earliest colonial times. It was in Virginia that some of the most restrictive racial purity and control laws were passed after Bacon’s Rebellion. Most of the Native presence had also been erased or removed over a century before American independence. In a treaty in 1646, the English took most Virginia land, forcing Indians to pay tribute. The Native population dropped over 90% from war and disease and all Indians legally became subjects of the Crown.
Virginia’s colonial laws enforced white supremacy. All white males had to be armed, but no nonwhites could be. No white servants or workers could be hired by nonwhites. Natives and Blacks were both classified as “Negroes and Other Slaves.” All white women bearing mixed children were heavily fined, and the children sold into slavery. Most women found guilty could not pay the fine, and so faced a prison sentence instead. All nonwhites were barred from office, testifying in court, and voting, and each racial group could only marry in the same racial category. Some of these restrictions lasted until the 1960s.
Other minorities largely were not in Virginia until recently. But today over 160 ethnic groups call Northern Virginia home. One in ten Virginians are foreign born, and one in nine Virginians speak a primary language that is not English. These numbers are likely several times higher in Northern Virginia than in the rest of the state.
Having Washington DC nearby has made Northern Virginia a magnet for well-educated immigrants. The medical centers also draw a high number of highly skilled immigrant doctors and other medical professionals. Research centers also bring in many highly educated scientists and other scholars. And contrary to the image many immigrant haters have of immigrants as poor, these skilled immigrants are precisely why Loudoun and Fairfax Counties have such high standards of living.
There are stories of survivors all around us, and their stories are of the utmost importance to tell. The genesis of this book came from a US History I class I taught. I became determined to gather these stories after a young Sudanese student’s essay told the story of her grandmother escaping from slavery. Not slavery as in exploitation, or the silly hyperbole of a conservative complaining about high taxes, but literal slavery, an African woman being bought and sold in the late twentieth century, abused and without rights, and finally having to escape in as dramatic a fashion as any Black American slave over 160 years ago.
That student, though, declined to have her story included, and ethically we must respect her wishes. About half of the students I approached are not included in this book. Many had moved on in their academic careers after the semester and their college email addresses were no longer in use. Others, for personal reasons, fear, shame, or worry about affecting relatives, did not want the stories they told to become public.
Among the stories students told to me in family histories for class, but not included in this collection:
A Peruvian student told the story of his uncle taking part in anti-insurgent campaigns, and his uncle’s memories of guilt following his part in the execution in the field of a rebel commander.
A student told of his ancestor’s life on death row before being executed for murder, and the family’s shame at being related to him. Some family members still refuse to speak of it many decades later.
A survivor of the civil war in Burundi turned in a family history describing a relative who had to flee for their life to the United States.
A Salvadoran student described her father fleeing El Salvador following the civil war of the 1980s. It was after the military dictatorship, so he did not fear reprisals from death squads, but from others in his village for being in the military.
A Guinean/Togoan student describing her grandfather’s life as the village leader, married to multiple wives.
A Ghanan student described her grandfather being arrested by the British for being part of the independence movement.
A Japanese-American student listened to the story of her aunt’s experience in the US internment camps in World War II.
A student with one Choctaw parent and one Mexican-American described the family traditions on both sides and the prejudice he’s faced.
A student from southwestern Virginia describes a small community’s accounts of themselves as Cherokee descendants who had to hide their ancestry from outsiders for many generations. This student is pursuing an anthropology degree, and I strongly urged her to study her own community.
Here in this collection we have other stories of surviving civil war, of seeing families torn apart and then reunited, loved ones lost, atrocities witnessed, relatives that had to flee, and the survivors that brought their children and grandchildren to the US. We have stories of living through long periods of colonialism and still uncertainly not knowing if your people will ever be independent. We have stories of outright genocide, entire peoples in Cambodia, Greece, Poland, and Rwanda facing whole or partial extinction.
And finally we have the stories of American Indians here in northern Virginia, who have faced both colonialism and genocide, and whose descendants are still in this land in spite of everything done to the contrary. After almost entirely being driven out of Virginia in colonial times, today one meets similar, if not exactly the same, Native people if one knows where to look.
The immigrant stories confound the stereotypes that bigots have of them. Most immigrants to the United States, both the families in this collection or elsewhere, are not from the poorest of the poor. Most are middle class in their home countries. Northern Virginia especially tends to draw quite a few highly educated immigrants, both in the faculty and in the student body and the students’ family members. One frequently meets the offspring of immigrant doctors, business people, and high level bureaucrats.
The American Indian stories also confound many people’s expectations of the area. Most of Virginia’s American Indian population began to be ethnically cleansed as far back as the earliest colonial times. Most every Virginian and other Americans knows the (largely false) legend of Pocahontas and her dealings with Jamestown. What far fewer know is that, upon her death and that of her father Powhattan, the English colonists began an ugly war that, along with disease, killed nine tenths of the Powhattan Confederacy in one generation. The Anglo-Cherokee War and the French and Indian War wiped out or drove away nearly all remaining Native people in the state. As mentioned before, Virginia passed a strict series of racial purity laws, the first in what would become the US, barring interracial marriage or even contact, and classified all Indians in a rigid racial hierarchy.
There are today eight very small state recognized tribes in Virginia, collectively less than 8,000 people on less than 2,000 acres. The ranches near where I grew up in Texas each had more land individually than those eight communities do altogether.
Yet Natives in Northern Virginia persist and thrive. Most Natives in northern Virginia came to the DC metro area for work, the same as many others. One Lakota I knew in graduate school works in the Department of the Interior, as does a Choctaw student who attended my class. The latter gave me the gift of a White House proclamation for Native American Heritage Month.
But the Native population of Virginia is shifting. As in much of the rest of America, the Native population of Virginia is increasingly from Latin America. It seems likely that the largest numbers of Natives in the area are not Mattaponi, Renape, or Cherokee, but Ayamara and Quechua from Bolivia and Peru, Pupile from El Salvador, and Maya from Guatemala and Mexico.
If one wants to go to Native powwows, the closest are at Washington DC universities. Virginia state-recognized tribes are mostly further south and east in the tidewaters region or close to Richmond. But the largest Native dances to be seen in northern Virginia are diabladas (devil dances, as the first Spaniards called them) and morenadas (dark skinned dances), both performed by Bolivian and Peruvian heritage groups in the area at festivals in the summer. These celebrations have both mestizo (mixed ancestry) and Indian people, but the latter are by far the majority. Both dances are indigenous to the Andes, though some theories claim the morenada has an Afro-Bolivian origin.
The structure of this collection is to group these accounts based on the experience of their family member, war, colonialism, or genocide, plus a separate category for American Indian accounts. Each account also has introductory historical background material on the nation of origin. The appendices include the release form each student signed, as well as the guidelines give to all students in my classes writing a family history paper. Each student’s bibliography is at the end of the essay. In some cases, the essay has no bibliography, reflecting when I had not yet required them for student family histories.
There are a number of recurring themes in these essays. One of the most prominent is gratitude that America is a haven for refugees. Another is how many of these students appreciate the struggles and discrimination that their mothers and grandmothers went through as women. Finally a number of these students describe their family member literally facing down evil. In a few cases, the family member largely avoided the great struggles going on in their nation, and that also is worthy of note.
More than a few works on oral history point to the limitations of the genre. Someone wanting exact data, of the kind put out by government and other institutions, should not rely on oral history. For analysis at a macro level, an average untrained person does about as well as one would expect. Some interviewee accounts are astonishingly insightful, while others may not know very much. These persons herein reflect very much the societies that produced them, and sometimes an oral history account may even show that person lazily reproducing falsehoods. One example that particularly stands out in this collection is a student’s family member’s story of “sex slaves” held by a rebel group during the Salvadoran Civil War, likely a government-spread rumor.
But for a micro view of personal and societal attitudes, worldview, and detailed daily life, oral history is outstanding. Oral history is often a study of memory, how these events are transmitted and remembered by members of a population, rather than exact reproduction. The mind does not record events like a camera or tape recorder. For studying what participants feel about what they went through, their perceptions and how they pass them along to family and other loved ones, oral history is ideal.
There certainly is room for many more studies like this one. At just one community college, teaching perhaps 1200 students over the course of three years, I found eleven families of wartime survivors, five of modern day colonialism, and five families with members who survived genocide, plus an almost equal number of survivors who chose not to be published. Had I chosen a different focus, there were any number of other collections that could have been gathered. Indeed, I argue and hope that other professors and even secondary high school teachers reading this should seek to gather family histories. Not just of the families of survivors such as these, but also military veterans, activists, immigration histories, studies focused on a particular ethnic group, and women’s history are all possible collections that could be gathered by teachers at schools.
Ideally, I would like to see the writing of family histories become standard practice in all US history survey courses, as well as other history classes. I could easily see a professor gathering veterans’ accounts either for an antiwar collection or for remembrance of service, or a combination of the two. Ethnic studies certainly could benefit from gathering students’ accounts. Most of the Latin American student essays were gathered in my Latin American classes, as most American Indian essays were in my American Indian classes. Some students chose to share their family experiences with their classmates, making events like the Salvadoran Civil War and Iranian Revolution seem every bit as real as any newsreel. I could also easily see women’s studies courses requiring every student to interview their grandmothers about their lives when younger to see the dramatic differences in women’s lives. Imagine students hearing about the days when abortion was illegal but sexual harassment was not.
Remembrance is important. Teaching about it is even more so.