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Reblogged:Family Roots

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"We come from a line of strong Norse and Celtic mix. We take what is our due." This is a line I read from a father, to a daughter, advising her to demand something she considered her right.

It is interesting how people look to their history in this way, because -- in fact -- this is myth. There's no biological transfer of philosophy across that time, and yet people invoke the myth, because it stirs emotion. It works like good heroic literature: it shows us what humans can do. We are inspired. If "these people could do so, so could I". The emotional reality is stronger, if we add "my own ancestors could do this,…" which translates to "people just like me could do this… and, so can I".

I was always puzzled by Rand's mention of the TV series "Roots". Though she said the author's idea of tracing his biological ancestors was tribalist, she also praised him for producing "a representative image of black people in America, from an aspect that had not been presented before". Wait! Why would it be tribalist to look for one's biological ancestors, but praiseworthy to look more broadly, at "black ancestry"? Rand's answer is that he portrayed black slaves as moral heroes: as people who never relinquished the idea that they were human beings with equal rights, in whose hearts the desire for freedom would never be extinguished.

Like the father in the quote above, the father saying "we can be heroes… because, this is who we are", the Roots series was saying "blacks can be heroes… because, this is who we are". Rationally, logically, factually ... we can be heroes because we are human, not because we are Norse/Celtic or Black. Yet, by narrowing down from "human" to "Norse" or "Black" or anything more specific, we make the picture more concrete, closer to reality, more achievable, and thus more inspiring.

This is the role of literature in myth: it makes the abstract concrete. This gives it a reality that is more real, and makes it a more effective motivator of emotion. The point, then, is not to look for family merely to know the nitty gritty, but to look for inspiration. 

It does not need to be all positive either. We look to myth for strength, but we can spin inspiring tales from negatives too. A jailed swindler in the family, can become a cautionary myth of "people like us can be tempted by short term gain". Or, if the swindler's children were regular folk: "people like us, do not simply ape our parents" (Yes, that's a bit ironic.)

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