Saturday, December 5, 2015

The DAR and Cultural Identity

I have craved a cultural identity since I was a young child.  I relished movies about people with strong cultural ties, such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Pocahontas" and I really want to think of a third one that isn't "Schindler's List" but every example I think of is more culturally insensitive than the last.  I grew up in a white, Midwestern town where our grasping at cultural identity was probably a large part of what led people to genealogy.  It's what led me to mine.

My interest in the Daughters of the American Revolution began when I thought I'd never know the identity of my biological father.  My social father's mother had been very interested in her own genealogy, and I have a framed family tree she drew that includes pencil sketches of a few generations of her ancestors.  They aren't my ancestors, but no one else in her family seemed to want it, and she's a talented artist.  It seemed less weird to have it hanging on my dining room wall when I thought it was the only paternal family I'd ever know. 

I decided to trace my dad's family tree on since his mother had given me a decent start.  I remembered another family tree she had drawn up that traced her American ancestors back to the 1600s.  I thought maybe I could join the DAR.  If there was going to be institutionalized lying on my birth certificate, I wanted at least to be able to use it to gain entry to a club where I didn't belong.

In case you aren't aware, the DAR is an American group for ladies over the age of 18 who can trace their direct lineage to someone who aided America in the fight for independence.  By "trace," they mean you have to produce birth, marriage, and death certificates for everyone in your direct line back to the ancestor in question.  Most states didn't keep such records until about a hundred years after the Revolutionary War, so that can be a tricky feat.  Fortunately, if a more immediate ancestor is already a member of the DAR -- such as your mother or grandmother -- you only have to prove your lineage back to that person.  Very convenient for maintaining the status quo.  DNA evidence doesn't count as proof nor is it accepted, so no one really knows how many of the members actually descended from patriots biologically and not just legally, or how many meet the bloodline criteria but are excluded because of an ancestor being adopted or born out of wedlock.

I think my dad's mom tried to join the DAR at one point.  When I found a "patriot" in her tree and looked him up in the DAR's patriot database, there was a note explicitly stating that the there was no certifiable proof that the daughter from whom my grandmother descended was legally his child.   

Now that I've done more genealogical research on my own family tree, I've found I'm descended from at least half a dozen "patriots" on my maternal grandfather's side.  While I find a club based around purity of blood rather distasteful and assigning yourself value based on who you were born to rather sad (especially in my case), the DAR still sings its siren song for me.  I crave acceptance and belonging.  Also, "I'm off to my DAR meeting," is one of the WASPiest things a person can say, and I've striven to be WASPier since adolescence.

In case you aren't aware, a WASP is a White Anglo Saxon Protestant, but it has a connotation of snobby old money and power, which is what I find appealing about the term.  I was born white, of mostly British descent, and Methodist, so I'm a WASP in the most literal sense, but I was raised as White Trash.  It's a very different subculture.  We kept a totaled car in our driveway when I was growing up.  My brother has a gun collection.  My grandpa used the "n" word at Thanksgiving dinner.  I don't get jokes about "double-wide trailers" because my uncle lived in one and it was a hell of a lot nicer than the house where I grew up, not to mention TWICE AS WIDE as his previous trailer.  It's a very different subculture.

As I drew up my family tree over the last year, it seemed my DAR dreams would be quashed by the fact that my maternal grandfather was "illegitimate."  I had no idea what name he'd had at birth because his parents weren't married, and his siblings were all half-siblings with different surnames.  Every census since his birth had listed them all under a different surname -- that of whomever their mother had most recently married, even though there was never a man in the house come census time.  I couldn't find evidence my grandfather had even existed under his father's surname before he enlisted in the army for WWII, so I didn't know how to request a copy of his birth certificate. 

Then a couple of weeks ago it occurred to me to try.  I knew his birth date and his mother's maiden name and the city where he was born.  Maybe that would be enough.  I used the only legal name under which I knew him and included his father's name for good measure.  It worked.  It turns out Wilkes -- his father's last name -- was always his last name.  And his father's name was on his birth certificate too.  Where my grandfather and I come from (and maybe across America -- I'm not sure), the mother's husband is automatically the legal father, whether he is present for the birth or not.  If the mother is unmarried and no father is present to sign his name to the birth certificate, the father line unceremoniously reads "bastard."  I'm not sure if this is still how things are done, but it's how they were done when my grandpa was born in the 1920s.

My grandpa's father wasn't present for his birth.  I know this because the line of the birth certificate where it asks for his last known address reads, "Unknown -- Abandoned Wife."  Perhaps it's true.  Perhaps they were married, in spite of the fact that there is no marriage license registered for them in the county where they both lived or anywhere else I have looked and in spite of the fact that my grandmother's letters made it sound like they weren't.  (Or perhaps Michael is right and "Abandoned Wife" was the name of his hometown in Kentucky.)  But I think it's equally likely my great-grandmother didn't want to have "bastard" written on her son's birth certificate.  And I think that was a solid move on her part.  I have great respect for people willing to lie for a good cause, and in this case, my great-grandmother was able to convey more truth on her son's birth certificate than the word "bastard" ever would have.  

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