I’ve used the original inspiration on PBS Faces of America in my course on Ethnicity in America , and had stus compare to the commercial version Who Do you Think You Are, so last night while flipping around the channels and landing on the latter, I stopped to watch country singer Reba McEntire explore her heritage.
What I witnessed was nothing less than a classic version of discourse displacement around issues of race and class.*
McEntire was chagrined to learn that she was descended from a slave owner (15:00) who traded in slaves as young as 14 months (20:00). Several times McEntire questioned the historian “why would he sell a child? You don’t have an idea why?” The question was left largely unanswered despite the rather obvious conclusion that he sold slaves because that is what slave owners did ALL THE TIME as a matter of routine business. Instead the expert stressed the possibilities for “healing” when white folk understand slavery! The segment ends with McEntire asking her ancestor “George what was going on why did you do this?” and staring off into the distance. [note this would have been a lovely spot for an illustrated voice over on the creation of slavery and the role of the slave trade, like occurred later in the show for indentured servitude)
McEntire then discovered she was the descendant of an indentured servant who came to Virginia at aged 9. While McEntire notes the contradiction between her six times grandfather being an indentured servant and his grandson owned slaves, “light at the end of the tunnel of being free, the slaves didn’t have that hope” she immediately follows that with a return to “why is he by himself a 9 year old boy?”
She traveled back to England in an ongoing, and oft voiced need to answer the question “why would someone send their 9 year old child alone to America?” I didn’t count, but I’d estimate she asked the question at least 6 times.
That question dominates the remaining narrative, with McEntire’s angst engendered on behalf of this imagined ancestor’s plight (which brings her to tears “this breaks my heart” unlike the plight of the 14 month or 3 year old slave sold by her ancestor), the fear and the uncertainty, plumbed until in a cathartic resolution standing adjacent to the potter’s field in which her impoverished ancestors were most likely buried, McEntire found peace and expressed considerable gratitude towards her indentured predecessor, including a plea for forgiveness (40:00), not for owning slaves, but for questioning the decision to send a child as an indentured servant. The only healing that took place McEntire’s resolution of her white class-based guilt, right down to her drawing an explicit comparison between the sacrifice to send a child to America and her mother’s sacrifice in taking her to Nashville to pursue a singing career.
I’m not sure if some editor noticed this discourse displacement because tacked on during the final segment in which McEntire returned to her mother’s home in OK to present the findings of “her”** genealogical research to her mother, was a general “tsk tsking” of the plight of the slave, who unlike the indentured servant, had no “light” at the end of the tunnel, despite the fact that they often toiled side by side. They remarked that indentured servitude “was pretty much lie slaver, yes it was, her mother agrees,” although without that light at the end of the tunnel.
This was all rather too little, too late in my opinion, and most annoyingly left out the crucial historical information about how indentured servitude was displaced by permanent, inheritable, racialized slavery by whites, some of whom, like McEntire, were descended form indentured servants, although a lengthy voice over earlier, illustrated with historical documents, explained in details the situation of indentured servants.
The result, McEntire’s heritage as the descendant of a slave owner is effaced by her far more palatable “rags to riches” rise from indentured servitude.
* lest you think “real” academics don’t do this, check out the powerful and spot on Notes From an “Angry Woman of Color”: Academic Policing and Disciplining Women of Color in a Post (Fill in the blank) Era
**Never mind that the whole show is set up as an expert aided scavenger hunt, which each historian or geneologist awkwardly stopping to send McEntire on to the next stop and has an egregious example of product placement for Ancestry.com which appears to be the major sponsor.