I’m a mutt, born not bedraggled but quite lucky, a red blooded American, son to a plumber who works hard for good money and a teacher. We grew up in a working class largely Haitian neighborhood with schools unfairly derided for violence. The frequent troubles of the area were treated harshly by police, arrests for gun lovers, a lot of young moms unable to hold steady work who self-medicated often with weed but sometimes with heroine (maybe rightly) lost babies to DCFS, etc. Suicidal kids sometimes killed each other over lost love and bad weed.
Now, having bought the domain Snowflake.Media to sell my art and thinking, I must grapple with this revelation: Snowflake used to be a term for whites who opposed the abolition of slavery circa 1860. While all language evolves and "Snowflake" is generally used in modern parlance as a curse on precious or otherwise entitled millennials, this is some bad Juju, really uncomfortable and sickening shit. Words have a way of retaining whiffs of old meaning.
The origin of the term might be Germanic, with words conjoined, cause of that Dutzow, Missouri settlement that started in 1832 by Baron von Bock. (I wonder if he owned any slaves.) Merrium Webster offers a skeleton "Snowflake" origin story:
"In Missouri in the early 1860s, a "Snowflake" was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery—the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people. The Snowflakes hoped slavery would survive the country's civil war, and were contrasted with two other groups. The Claybanks (whose name came from the colorless color of the local terrestrial clay) wanted a gradual transition out of slavery for slaves, with eventual freedom accompanied by compensation to slave owners; the Charcoals—who were also called Brown Radicals—wanted immediate emancipation and for black people to be able to enlist in the armed forces."
While that's good context, I'm still curious how it started. Who said "Snowflake" first and why? I like to put pins in history, identify those moments where a single decision changes everything, but no single narrative can explain all. Language is only a set of useful games. It's a way of implanting our memories and traditions from one generation into the next.
If you read Samuel Johnson's dictionary (the first English dictionary) you'd think Shakespeare and John Milton invented modern English. But they just encoded the new words that people were speaking in their time on paper. Words must evolve in action before they can appear in books.
Thinking about my origin story, my roots, I have a few different narratives to consider, and the further back I go up my family tree, the more detours and complications I see. It's impractical (and probably impossible) to trace my line back to this and that amoeba (Adam and Eve).
My granddad was an architect, and I'm in the process of buying the house he designed and built in 1953. I plan to raise my family where my dad grew up. In July I drove to the house to check out its leaky roof. In a popcorn trough on the counter I found a $100 bill of Louisiana Confederate currency. I don't remember putting it there. Someone must have found it among Granddad's stuff and left it to be picked up later. I thought for a moment maybe a neighbor left it as a signal of solidarity with white people everywhere. I really wish that that neighborhood was not so uncomfortably white.
I looked up online the bill I found. It is probably a replica sold by some southern estate that became a museum for posterity or whatever. Real Confederate money can sell for a pretty penny. It's funny how nostalgia can make old things absurdly precious.
My aunt thinks the bill probably belonged to Andrew, the boy with a drop of black blood that my grandparents adopted with great pride and to the agitation of their neighbors. I get squirmy thinking why Granddad might bring Andrew to visit a plantation in the south. In pictures he doesn't really look black. I bet he wondered about his roots, how he exists and why. I remember reading a series of love letters he had from a local girl, a corrispondance he apparently struck up after he got sick.
Other lines in my family tree get vague. They aren't set down so clearly. My mom's dad "escaped" Germany in the 30s. His dad dropped him, his sister and his mom, in New York City and rushed right back to the Third Reich in persuit of a career in the opera. Her mom died without sharing much of her story. My dad's mom's family has an elaborate and semi-elitist set of momentos and name-drops picked up from along the trails of the white masses, stretching back into the largely forgotten belly of American history.
A lot of wealth grew from the slave trade. It's funny how the things we do for money can often be too embaressing to speak aloud let alone implant in text or artwork. Even our memories distort, painting rosy pictures of the most dismal circumstances. The bad ideas and convenient untruths endorsed by people who share my DNA are legion. Releasing the demons, killing the pigs, casting aspersions on someone's livelihood (even, and sometimes especially, once they are dead) seems sacrilegious.
But we can't get better without learning from the mistakes of our ancestors. You could argue even now people find themselves in wage slavery, living hand to mouth. That certainly appears from a distance to be the case in Bangladesh, where unregulated or otherwise ill defined industries thrive. Life demands a lot of energy, and in feeding our needs we can sometimes get greedy. It's all very bleak. Wouldn't it be great if we were all billionaires?
The entitled among us, those who win scholarships, who inherit fortunes, who for whatever reason succeed must remember the fruits of our labor still come from the earth. The nutriants of our ancestors make all this possible. Whatever good deeds and good materials we invent must grow out of shit and toil. Let's not get arrogant and take credit for other individual's achievements.
There's this alt-right movement among white people (a meta, very ironic group of eugenicists) who like to take credit for other people's achievements. They'll say things like, "Look at all the good things that Christian traditions gave us." Or, “Race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity.” Well, maybe so, but let's not get hysterical. We still use Arabic numerals, and we probably shouldn't still be wearing shoes inside, tracking dog shit microbes all over the places where we play and eat. I'm a poodle too, but that's not something I brag about.