- Twilight of the Idols
In the town square of Salem Massachusetts stands a bronze statue of my ancestor, Roger Conant. An imposing, imperious white man – what statue in a Massachusetts town common is not of a white man? – Conant looks grimly out from beneath his tall pilgrim hat and his windblown cape. The monument itself offers little explanation of who Conant is or why he’s immortalized there, but his stern Puritan gaze projects an unimpeachable right to stand firm on his granite pedestal for all time, in perpetuity.
In June 2020, in the inspiring sweep of the Movement for Black Lives, statues of white men are coming down all around us. In the UK a British slave dealer is deep-sixed into Bristol harbor; in Birmingham, Alabama a Confederate sailor is thrown to the ground; Christopher Columbus is beheaded in Boston, toppled in Minnesota and Virginia and quietly removed by city officials in San Francisco. In Sacramento, John Sutter, a settler famous for sparking the California gold rush and for the enslavement and brutalization of Native Americans that was integral to that massive undertaking, comes down. In Albuquerque, a man is shot by a white vigilante as the conquistador Juan de Oñate is removed from his plinth. In New Orleans, a high pedestal that held Robert E. Lee stands empty years after Lee was removed – a monument to the question, who should stand there?
The toppling of monuments is a powerful and contentious act because it goes straight to the wounded heart of a nation that is and has always been divided. Those in favor of maintaining the status quo rush to defend Confederate generals, slave-dealers and Indian killers for fear of “erasing history.” But tearing down statues is not erasing history. Turning public space into a stage to glorify the lives and normalize the acts of brutal men is erasing history.
So how, at moments of sweeping social transformation, do we remake our cultural symbols and bend the arc of history just a little more towards justice?
In a sense, whiteness itself – the historical invention of a race of people purported to represent the very apex of human evolution, a people whose apparently natural “supremacy” is at once unspoken and ubiquitous – is a kind of erasure. In the case of my own family history, it’s an erasure ten generations deep.
My ancestor Roger Conant wasn’t an imperial evangelist seeking gold and spices like Columbus, or a military figure like Robert E. Lee, or a punishing conquistador like Juan de Oñate. He was lesser known, not so important to history, and so of lesser consequence. Still, he stands watch over one of the sites where the divided history of our nation began – and that fact alone begs the question, should he stay or should he go?
Given the righteous anger swirling around public monuments this summer, that question may get decided before long by a restive crowd armed with cables and sledgehammers. And maybe so much has already been written about the colonists’ version of history that my say in the matter, as a descendant, is of no consequence. But I want to indulge in telling some of the details of Roger’s story, not to celebrate it, nor even to make an argument for or against the statue’s continued presence, but to explore what it might mean for us — the white descendants— to begin to make restitution.
Conant was a preacher’s son from a Devonshire village called Budleigh Salterton in the southwest of England. The village, small though it was, had also given birth to Sir Walter Raleigh, who landed at Virginia a generation prior, and it was just up the road from Plymouth, where droves of Puritans shipped out across the Atlantic to settle the New World. With his wife and young son, Conant, a fisherman and a salter of fish by trade, left Devonshire in 1623 aboard a ship called the Anne, and two months later made land at what is now Salem, Massachusetts.
In the turmoil of the Protestant reformation, with England lurching towards civil war, there is truth to the notion that Puritan pilgrims like Conant fled to the New World “seeking religious freedom.” But just as importantly, at a time when land in England was being enclosed by a growing capitalist class, a young tradesman like Conant would have fled, like so many immigrants do, towards a vague promise of land and, thereby, security for his family.
Conant played a role in founding several settlements that became the embryo of the United States. The little that’s written about him tells of a decent, judicious man who led his people through the most trying times. But that’s just what’s written, and there’s much we don’t know. We don’t know, for example, if Conant ever owned slaves, though if he did they would have been Irish, or even English. (Enslavement of Africans didn’t begin in New England until the 1650’s, but roughly half of Europeans in the colonies before 1776 were indentured servants.)
In any case, Roger Conant was a working man, not of the owning class, and during the course of his life – the first fifty years of English settlement in what the Wampanoag may have called “the Dawn Lands” – he himself was bullied and displaced by the men of more aristocratic stock who came to establish Massachusetts as the first of the original thirteen American colonies.
The best-known story about him has him in the role of peacekeeper. On a bronze plaque embedded in the granite rock of Rockport, Massachusetts, you learn that Conant “averted bloodshed between two factions,” an act that the plaque calls “a notable example of arbitration in the beginning of New England.”
As it happens, the other faction was led by Myles Standish, the pugnacious Puritan known to us from the Thanksgiving Myth. It seems that Conant and his clan, trying to earn a livelihood, had constructed a fishing pier at Rockport, up the coast from Plymouth Colony. Standish, known for his “hot and angry temper,” was captain of the Plymouth militia and therefore in charge of securing the colony’s economic interests. When Standish arrived at Rockport charged with eliminating the competition, my ancestor – perhaps diplomatically, perhaps simply outmanned and out-gunned – kept the peace and moved on.
This episode hardly makes my ancestor a hero. Regardless, it earned him a bronze plaque.
The next best-known incident of Conant’s life is also telling: shortly after he’d moved his clan from what is now Rockport to establish what became the Salem Colony, an aristocrat named John Endicott arrived from England and drove Conant out of the settlement. Just as in the Rockport incident, my ancestor, rather than fighting against a workingman’s destiny, seems to have bowed his head and moved on.
The details of what actually happened, let alone the motives and the real powers at play, we can’t really know. We do know that Endicott went on to become the Governor of Salem, which became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which became the first of the Thirteen Colonies, which grew to become the United States of America. My ancestor, meanwhile, became a footnote in history. Three hundred years after his landing, his descendants – my forebears – determined that Conant deserved more than a footnote, so they erected a statue on Salem Common.
As far as I’ve found, nothing is known about Conant’s dealings with the people of Naumkeag – the Wampanoag name for the lands that became Salem – probably because they weren’t considered people. The unwritten accounts – those told or untold by the Wampanoag, the Pocasset, the Narragansett, the Pequot, and by their ghosts – most likely died with their tellers, in situ or in the far-off West Indies where many were shipped off into slavery and oblivion.
If you visit the reconstructed historic Salem Village, though, you can glean a few clues: Conant planted tobacco, corn and squash – one of the first plantings of native crops by an English settler. His home, one of the first English houses built in the New World – later occupied by John Endicott after he took command over Salem – was a hybrid of native mudded wigwam and English timber frame. These bits of evidence suggest – cue up the Thanksgiving Myth here – that my ancestor and his clan received some help from the natives – or at least learned from their lifeways in order to survive.
But again, whether Conant received native help willingly or under coercion, we can’t know. What we do know is that the unpaid labor and ingenuity of millions of native people and later African slaves created the surpluses that allowed the settler economy to become the seed of nationhood. Given only the material artifacts, you can read Conant’s hybrid-wigwam house and colonial garden as signs of his willingness to adopt native technics – that is, to learn from the local people in a way would make him appear as something of a sympathetic character, a friend to the Indian. Or, you could read it instead as an instance of the settlers’ strategy of exploiting native labor and knowledge to build a nation for themselves. Looked at in that light, Conant’s actions, lacking reciprocity, could be construed as a kind of theft. Committed once, such a theft may be merely thoughtless, or rude, or inconsiderate. Committed repeatedly, at the scale of an entire continent and over the course of four centuries, it becomes an abuse of a different magnitude.
ii: Putting the Corn Back in the Ground
My ancestor’s landing four centuries ago is where my story on Turtle Island begins. It is also where the genocide of the native peoples of North America was kicked into high gear. The history of my white ancestry and the history of genocide do not merely happen at the same time – they are braided together. They are the same story.
In the years just prior to the pilgrims’ landing, the Wampanoags and Narragansetts had been decimated by disease carried by other Europeans who’d come to fish the cod and trap the beaver. By the time the Mayflower arrived in 1620, the natives’ villages lay empty, their fields abandoned. The Mayflower party themselves arrived ridden with pestilence, starvation, dissension and disease. Conant’s party a few years later most likely arrived in a similar state.
Conant and his clan seem to have experienced relative peace in the first years of their settlement, but that peace was short-lived. The natives had good reason to believe that everything the English touched was marked by death and disease. It would turn out that the first generation of settlers maintained an alliance with the natives just long enough to establish a population that could come out on the winning side of the eventual killing spree.
In 1620, a few years before Conant’s clan set foot at Naumkeag, William Bradford and the men of Plymouth Company stepped off the Mayflower, hungry and afraid. At first, they encountered no people, just “isles planted with corn, groves, mulberries, savage gardens and good harbors,” as Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation, his account of Puritan life in those years. After some days of exploration, the pilgrims came upon fields and “new stubble, of which [the Indians] had gotten corn this year, and many walnut trees full of nuts, and a great store of strawberries, and some vines.” Searching further, they uncovered “sandy pits in the earth filled with earthen pots,” “a bow and, as we thought, arrows, but they were rotten…”
Bradford and his men had unearthed what turned out to be graves. What they came upon next, and how they handled it, is of particular interest: “They found two of the Indians’ houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away. They also found corn, and beans of various colors. Those they brought away, intending to give full satisfaction when they should meet with any of [the Indians].”
In other words, the very first thing the pilgrim fathers did when they stepped onto the Dawn Lands was to dig up the graves of the recently dead and plunder the natives’ stores of food and seed.
Later in the account Bradford writes that some months afterwards, the natives “came and made their peace and full satisfaction was given by the settlers to those whose corn they had taken.” Bradford wants us to believe that the pilgrims repaid the Indians’ corn. But history written by the victors rarely tells the whole truth, and I’m skeptical. Even if Bradford’s tale were true and the “debt” was repaid, from that ignoble beginning the settlers went on to incur more debt – blood debt – through centuries of merciless slaughter.
Conant wasn’t a part of the corn-thieving incident – as I mentioned, my ancestor arrived later. And both incidents of Conant’s life – averting bloodshed with Myles Standish and moving on from Salem when John Endicott took over the colony – seem to illustrate that Conant’s clan was averse to fighting, at least with other settlers. But how much peace can you propagate when, in the midst of an epidemic that your own people brought, you settle uninvited in someone else’s territory and proceed to make it your own?
By 1637, the Pequot to the south began to rebel (Bradford called them “unruly”). The settlers made war upon them and slaughtered hundreds. The Plymouth colonists came to celebrate the massacre with a great feast day that may be the origin of our Thanksgiving. Roger Conant, 45 years old that year and fully established as a landed farmer, could not have known that the Pequot War, which began as an effort to establish a trading post on the Connecticut River and ended with the complete extermination of the Pequot as a people, would become the model for the next three centuries of conquest.
By the 1670’s – a generation later, after thousands more settlers had arrived – the Narragansetts, Massachusetts and Wampanoags had ample evidence that the English planned to exterminate them too, and they launched an open rebellion. The settlers responded with an ever-escalating war that bloodied the salt marshes and clotted the estuaries with corpses. Known to the settlers as King Phillip’s War and as Metacom’s War to the natives, the killing almost erased both the settlers and the Wampanoags from this continent.
Conant’s children – obviously, also my ancestors – likely fought in both the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War. They may even have been among the settlers who precipitated the slaughter. Conversely, there’s a small – vanishingly small – chance that some of my ancestors resisted or even opposed the call to violence. Every generation throws up people of conscience, abolitionists, allies and white “race traitors,” who side with the oppressed. I have yet to find evidence one way or the other. But if I’m to be honest, the more likely assumption is that my ancestors went with the status quo and joined in the killing.
Regardless of their role in the first waves of violence that marked early American history, the Conant clan survived down the generations, while most of the native people of that time and place did not, and I’m the result of their survival.
When Conant was run out of Salem the colony granted him 200 acres of Wampanoag land to call his own. The land grant converted my settler ancestor from an itinerant Devonshire fishermen into a landed yeoman farmer – and, retrospectively, into an American – and would be the beginnings of a savings account that paid out for generations.
Despite being given a considerable head start, in the ten generations since the original settlement my branch of the family somehow failed to amass the kind of wealth that would put us into the one percent and ensure me and my own children a prosperous future. But neither have we ever known hunger. While I didn’t inherit land or real assets of any kind, I did inherit enough privilege and enough comfort to be, well, comfortable and privileged. And, contrary to the conventional white supremacist view, you don’t get comfort and privilege from nowhere. Sure, there may be occasional American Dream success stories where hard work and perseverance pay off – but usually, if you’re white, you get comfort and privilege because generations ago someone took what didn’t belong to them, and everyone that came after did everything they could to hold onto it.
By the conventional view, I should be proud that a bronze statue memorializes my ancestor’s contribution to history. I’m not.
As far as I can tell, my ancestor was not as rapacious as William Bradford or as warlike as Myles Standish or as consequential as Christopher Columbus or as guilty of the worst racist atrocities as Juan de Oñate and Robert E. Lee and the slave traders and Confederates whose statues are being toppled as I write. Nevertheless, my ancestor, and his children, and their children, established the bloody legacy of settler colonialism, and I am their living heir. My two young daughters are their living heirs. And, to my knowledge, my family has never yet given full satisfaction for the debt.
How do we confront the still-raw, ugly truths of history? And what does it mean to make reparations 400 years after the fact? It’s a question that bears no easy response – and any effort to confront the question usually involves passing first through guilt and shame before getting anywhere near a good answer. But that’s all the more reason to ask.
I once came up with a plan, which I hope to carry out someday, to travel to Cape Cod – most likely in the off-season with not so many tourists swarming the white sand beaches – and to put in the ground there sacks and sacks of corn that I will have grown with my own hands. No living person would benefit from my corn, but the restless ghosts of some ancestors – the ones dispossessed and possibly massacred of my own ancestors – might be fed.
I am, in fact, growing the corn, little by little, summer by summer. I can’t promise that I’ll ever carry out the plan, nor do I believe that such a symbolic gesture will pay a debt four centuries old. The erasure of a people is not undone through made-up rituals. But maybe reparations begins with understanding the nature of what you’ve stolen.
Just recently, the Mashpee Wampanoag – the surviving descendants of my ancestors’ enemies – faced an illegal Trumpish effort to take away the postage-stamp-sized bit of tribal land that the government had granted them. When I learned of their struggle I did what the Tribe asked via social media: on the night of their legal hearing I lit a signal fire on my back porch 3000 miles away in California. It was in one sense a tiny gesture – literally, the very least I could do. But by turning my attention to the struggle of a people I’ve never met nor known, and by making an attempt to carry out a ritual just as they had asked, I did something. It’s far from enough – again, the erasure of stolen land cannot be undone through symbolic gestures – but doing something often beats doing nothing. In a way that I was not raised to do, I made an offering and a prayer, and you never know what prayers may land. However these things work, the Tribe won their court case – and I may one day be able to pay them a visit on their tribal land, if they’ll have me.
With an eye to Wampanoag territory, another step toward reparations could be to maybe, just maybe, topple down that statue in Salem Common and send old Roger Conant back to sea.
Or, if the town wants a monument to its founders there, maybe there’s a way to do it that reveals the lineaments of what actually happened, by whom and to whom, and at what cost to everyone. Maybe Roger stays, but new monuments go up – monuments to the people who white history has sought to drive into oblivion – perhaps the sachems, or traditional leaders of that territory, like Metacom, Massasoit and Weetamo (a female Sachem about whose central importance historian Lisa Brooks has written a stunning new history). That would be, at the very least, a gesture to say their names and write them back into the cultural landscape.
I’m not suggesting that the erasure of entire cultures can be undone by memorializing them in bronze – it would be naïve in the extreme to think that putting up new monuments can heal the wounds of genocide any more than naming a street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. absolves the nation of his murder. But at least it gives their memories a home.
Reparations also involves supporting ongoing struggles for truth and reconciliation in the places where we live. For me that can mean supporting a movement to reclaim a native burial site, or paying a voluntary land tax for living on traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone territory. But make no mistake: there may be beauty in attempting to work out how to pay an unpayable debt, but the erasure of a people is not repaired by making donations.
And its always good to provide material support and solidarity to more militant struggles like the one that erupted a few years ago at Standing Rock or today in the territory of the Wet’Suwet’en. Struggles for indigenous sovereignty – like struggles for Black Lives, for migrant justice, for criminal justice reform – are everywhere, and any white person who wants to support them can find myriad ways to do so. But even joining in frontline struggles is not a way to repair our collective past – it’s a way to fight for our common future.
Perhaps any serious attempt at reparations begins by asking why injustices persist, and how the generational privilege of some is bonded to the generational trauma of others. It begins by touching the wounds – ours and theirs – and by taking on the discomfort of a history where both the oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized.
The new science of epigenetics examines how trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Coupled with a clear-eyed analysis of the long theft of land and the massive social inequality built into our legal, political and economic systems, epigenetics goes a long way to explain why the descendants of people who were brutalized under slavery and genocide continue to suffer today. Author and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem suggests that because we all inhabit bodies and because we all live in relation to one another and to the larger histories from which we descend, intergenerational trauma doesn’t work only on the lineage of the oppressed, but on the lineage of the oppressor as well. It’s systemic, and its embodied, and its everywhere.
That’s a hard pill to swallow – but the good news is that Menakem, a therapist, offers some practices to begin to change at a cellular level.
In order to uproot racism we need to think generationally, and to act as if what we do individually and collectively changes the course of history – because it does. It takes a lifetime of conscious acts to transform not only our behaviors, but our beings. Join to that an effort to learn the ecologies of a place and a time – to learn our origins – and perhaps you have the beginnings of healing. In my case, this means seeking to understand the stories erased by my people’s misbegotten arrival on Turtle Island.
We can’t undo history, but we can learn our place in it. By knowing such histories, by scrutinizing them to find the parts we no longer want to hold onto, and by putting our real shoulder to the task of gaining liberation for all peoples, we may create the soil in which a true reparation can grow. If a few statues need to move to free the ground for planting, then so be it.