Crip ancestral wisdom
So I last wrote about “crip futurism” but it struck me that so much about our future will be rediscovering our past. So often I hear white western futurists, or sometimes academics, theorising in very complex language about stuff that indigenous people have known for thousands of years.
One of the parts of The Dawn of Everything by the Davids (Graeber and Wengrow) that stuck with me personally was learning that in the first tens of thousands of years of human “civilisation”, disabled people were not invariably cast aside, treated as discards as our ableist society might lead us to imagine.
In fact, based on the evidence in burials, often disabled people were treated with great respect, likely high status. Why? We can't know for certain, but it seems that disabled people were valued precisely for their difference. This probably means that they also got the chance to have families, and descendants. Meaning, we are their descendants too. And they are our ancestors.
Today is the Dia dos Finados, Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls Day in English. In places where Catholicism fused with indigenous spirituality — I experienced this in East Timor — this day is the most important official holiday. It's a day to visit the graves of ancestors, and pay tribute to them. As I can't do this, I'm writing this now.
Recently I stumbled across these excellent videos about Brazilian indigenous wisdom. One, inspired by Tukano ancestral knowledge, interpreted by João Paulo Lima Barreto, depicts the emergence of life on earth, and mitochondria, which are transmitted by mothers. As I was watching, I couldn't help but think of my own mitochondrial dysfunction. And my maternal ancestors.
I'm really lucky that the family genealogist, my uncle, cared enough to do a deep dive on my maternal ancestors back four generations. His work allows me to answer these questions posed by The Society of Disabled Oracles:
Who do you give thanks to living and dead?
I'll start by giving thanks to my uncle, who gathered together this information. My women ancestors left no written record of their own, and even the oral record from my grandmother was thin. Many genealogists skip the women and focus on the men.
I'm giving thanks to Edith Sophia and Edith Hilda, my great great and great grandmothers, whose stories I will tell.
I'm also giving thanks to those living women family members who are chronically sick and/or disabled. Some I share mitochondrial DNA with, but not all. I always saw you and respected you. Now I understand you in a new way.
And I have to include my mother, whose instinct was to go out into the world and experience more than her ancestors were able to. And my grandfather, who transmitted his curiosity for the world to my mother. He died in hospital with a Spanish dictionary by his bedside. They too are the reason I'm here in this form.
Who are your ancestors and what did you learn from them?
Edith Sophia, my great great grandmother was born in Brixton, not far from where I lived for many years. Her father was an itinerant man of German extraction, who was accused of fraud, and seemingly had the family on the move. We don't know much about her mother, sadly. (But my uncle speculates that as she died in Brighton “perhaps she had been ill for some time and went there in an attempt to recover her health”.) Edith Sophia took up with a guy called variously Alfred Horace and Charles, who her father didn't like. His given names change on the various children's birth certificates. He may or may not have been disabled in a military campaign either South Africa or Egypt/Sudan in the 1890s. He died in a workhouse in Edmonton, North London.
Edith Sophia had over 20 addresses across London, tending towards the east. Her second eldest son Joseph, writes my uncle “was not only a thief but also a very unsuccessful one, convicted and imprisoned at least sixteen times.” She lost her two youngest adult sons in the First World War, one in the Somme and one in Iraq – their names are listed on the war cross on Shacklewell Green in East London.
Family members told my uncle that Edith Sophia was lent money by family for various money-making hustles, but they failed, perhaps in part because of “mental health” problems. When I read this, I read between the lines. When women reported physical health complaints, or invisible disabilities, they were invariably told they were psychological. I wish I knew more. She was a survivor, dying at age 73.
Her daughter Edith Hilda received post for her mother at one point. So we know they were in touch. We know she married a crane operator, who stuck around, unlike her father. Edith Hilda suffered a long-term mystery illness, her daughters (including my grandmother) nursed and looked after her. My uncle speculates that it could have been “long influenza”. If so, she was sick during nearly all of her adult life, and she died at age 48 in 1937. When she died, her estate was worth £705, approximately £60k today, so at least we know she didn't die in such deep poverty. Her address when she died was in Plaistow, East London, Cockney central. I will visit it someday.
What do I learn from them? From Edith Sophia, fight like hell to survive, and don't rely on an (unlucky?) person, or the state, that will send your partner to war then to the workhouse and send your boys to become cannon-fodder. From Edith Hilda, do trust the right person, and lean on family for support when sick.
They carried trauma of chronic illness and poverty between generations. Reading between the lines you can feel the relentless stress that pursued them, punctuated by traumatic events, some wars. (I can't help but read some of their suffering as imperial “blowback”.) Edith Sophia's life feels like a case study in complex post traumatic stress disorder. I just wish they or my grandmother would have spoken about this more, or written about it, or left a record of their lived experiences. I suppose I learn from them how important this is.
From both of them, I learn how deeply oppressive our society was to poor women, and how the safety nets created in this country have only existed for the blink of an eye. These are worth fighting like hell for. While I don't have to fight like Edith Sophia, and I hope I don't die at Edith Hilda's age, my struggle will be similar – to survive in a society that wishes I would disappear. And blames me for my condition.
Who do you want to name and honor, even the ones that are unknown?
These are just the stories that I know from what we could glean from the written record. My great great great grandmother Joanna was born at the tail end of the industrial revolution. I would like to think those who came before this, and the enclosure of the commons, might have had it easier. They might have had their own powers, occult or otherwise, to push back against oppression.
In honouring this history, I also want to recognise that I am the end of this mitochondrial line in my branch of the family. I have no children. Edith Sophia, Edith Hilda, Hilda Edith (my grandmother), Diana (my mum who had no sisters), and me. There is something strange in thinking like this, as I always considered my brother's kids to be the next generation. But they don't have these mitochondria, and all of the stories, struggle and dysfunction that come with them. In a way, it makes me feel all the more imperative to live my best life.