Sleeping Soundly, River Wake, 2018. Acrylic on panel, 48 × 48 in. All artwork by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier.
In my own personal, brief experience of Atlanta (I moved here in July 2021), it seems like the legacy of Jim Crow is everywhere and nowhere. I rarely move in a space that does not contain a significant number of Black people, yet the marks of exclusion are present in formerly red-lined, now gentrified, neighborhoods. Atlanta’s international character is everywhere present in its food, music, and arts communities, as well as in acts of anti-Asian and anti-Black violence. Few people have any knowledge of the city’s Indigenous people, even as the veritable main street, Peachtree Street, is named for a Muscogee village called, in English, “Standing Peachtree.”
It’s profoundly strange to me that a group of people so deeply in the minority, such as white people in metro Atlanta, think that it’s ok to extinguish a Black or Indigenous story in favor of a Confederate one. A Native friend of mine hikes Stone Mountain regularly and reports that she rarely sees white hikers and recreational users. Personally, she has made a commitment to maintain that space for nonwhite people, resisting the story told by the monument. While I have not heard Muscogee people discuss it, I can only imagine that the mountain has been a location to gather since their origins in this place, which is to say, since time immemorial. In the short time since racists have tried to control the mountain’s story, the mountain, drawing on the people, has pushed back.
As a Lumbee, I have no connection to my ancestors’ Indigenous languages. Inheritance has become something else, and I play with how English words sound in my mouth and the ideas they communicate. “I stand to inherit,” I sometimes think. But then I ask, “Am I set for life, wealthy, without problems?” Or, “I will inherit nothing,” I say. Then again, I ask, “Am I destitute, forlorn, trapped in an endless struggle?” Either way, my Lumbee family has adopted capitalist habits, in that we usually think of an inheritance as property, as items that can be listed and counted, categorized by type, and assigned value. Capitalist valuation compares and ranks both the invaluable and unvaluable, as if one identity could be worth more than another, as if one lineage outweighs another, as if land is worth more than water is worth more than people, and so on.
We inherit things, items, property, but also names, traits, and qualities. And one of the truly bedeviling things about our sincere desire to reckon with our inheritances is the lack of direction we face when trying to decide what we must atone for. When what we inherit can’t be deeded or catalogued in a will or on a census or a tribal enrollment application, our ancestors provide no direction about what to do with those things that have stories we do not understand, or stories that communicate values we reject. We want a recipe to be passed down, but we receive only the ingredients, with no directions about how to use them, no instructions about the right choices to make. There is no recipe to follow for historical reckoning. Some of us spend our entire lives trying to find the instructions.
The law thinks of inheritance as individualized, but inheritance is also collective, which is to say that we have to take the good with the bad. Our ancestors unintentionally passed on things that create collateral damage. I feel this about my family. As proud as I am of them, of what I’ve inherited—an ear for music, a talent for baking, brown eyes—I also know that I’ve inherited things my ancestors didn’t intend to pass on: high blood pressure, a mean streak, an impatience that has been my undoing. Depending on where I am and when, these inherited traits might compromise me and the prospects for inclusion and belonging that I can experience. My daughter inherits these traits as well, which could put her at greater risk. A sad truth of the United States is that she, as a Native person, by virtue of her belonging in that community, must accept accountability for things she didn’t do. Unlike many of her white peers, who are primarily saddled with the good or bad consequences of their own choices, she faces obstacles that are shaped by stereotypes, myths, and assumptions she has no choice but to inherit—obstacles that are manufactured by labels, by race and her racialized body, by her minoritized status, by her intersectional identities as Indigenous and female. I am acutely aware of what I may inadvertently pass on to her, and so the stakes of this conversation are high.