I’m in my mom’s old apartment, sorting through family photographs. Her collection spans more than eight decades, from the 1920s to the early 2000s: two bookcases crammed with shoeboxes, each one packed with envelopes. A rough calculation comes to about 60,000 individual pictures.
What do I keep? What do I toss? The “keepers” pile accumulates slowly. I linger over a picture of me at four years old in a bare concrete playground; another with 68 of my closest relatives celebrating my grandmother’s 100th birthday; one of my brother posing next to a portrait of Albert Einstein, copying his faraway gaze and clasped hands.
I save most of the photos of my brother, especially from his childhood and young adulthood. He died when his three boys were teenagers, and I want my nephews to have a sense of their dad in the years before they were born. Coming upon a picture of my own father when he was 20, I’m stunned by his resemblance to my nephew Eli, and I realize that I also want to give Eli and his brothers evidence of the people they barely knew, but who were integral to who they are and will be.
We have all inherited a past, and we will contribute parts of it to the future, whether they are physical traits and predispositions that we carry in our genes or influences imposed by the world we inhabit. We may not have a say in what we were given by previous generations, but we are repeatedly faced with choices about what we will pass along.
In his book The Gene, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee takes his readers on a chronological tour of science and society, from Darwin to eugenics to recombinant DNA and beyond. The book’s subtitle, An Intimate History, refers in part to his own family, including his uncles’ and cousin’s struggles with mental illness. It is also about an intimate future: What might he, or his children, inherit? He shared his fears with the woman who would soon be his wife: “It was only fair to a future partner that I should come with a letter of warning.”
My dad, in his old age, had dementia—possibly Alzheimer’s. I can’t help but wonder: What does this mean for my future mental capacity? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are no treatments to prevent or cure the disease, “so the results of genetic testing have no practical impact on medical treatment decisions.” Frankly, I don’t want to know. Will my nephews? Like their grandfather and father, they are scientists. Maybe they will delve into research for a cure—if not for themselves, then for future generations.
The genes you inherit have obvious effects on your life and those of your offspring. But what about other pieces of the past that you have—or have not—inherited? Ethics, religious beliefs, cultural biases... One of the most influential is wealth.
In her New York Times Magazine article “What Is Owed,” Nikole Hannah-Jones writes about the myriad ways that generations of Black Americans were kept from obtaining wealth.
“Wealth is not something people create solely by themselves,” she writes, “it is accumulated across generations.” This also means that the barriers to wealth are accumulated across generations. She cites numerous examples of these barriers throughout the history of what eventually would be, and is now, the United States:
“Laws barred enslaved people from making wills or owning property ... ”
“In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of ... 40-acre tracts to newly freed people ... ” But, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson overturned the order.
Blacks were “denied entry into labor unions and ... were legally relegated into segregated, substandard neighborhoods and segregated, substandard schools ... ”
The list goes on and on.
For me, this stood out: “As part of the New Deal programs, the federal government created redlining maps, marking neighborhoods where black people lived in red ink to denote that they were uninsurable. As a result, 98 percent of the loans the Federal Housing Administration insured from 1934 to 1962 went to white Americans ... ”
Many of the snapshots in my mom’s collection include family homes—my grandparents’ small rented apartment that they shared with two adult daughters; my parents’ progression of houses in the suburbs, starting in 1953. Looking at them side by side, I see what was previously invisible to me: an inheritance not of money or property, but of opportunity. If you have old photographs of the people and places that have influenced your life, I suggest an afternoon of slow perusal. Take the time to ask yourself, “What, of the past, have I been given? What will I bring to the future?” ca
© 2021 W. Richmond