Modern America is often characterized as a place where people can make up their own minds about what to be, what to do, and where to live and work. Famously, America is considered a place where people are not confined to live out legacies that they inherit because of who their parents were. People in America are mobile: they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and, with hard work and dedication, make of themselves what they will.
Yet much of what we human beings are is, in fact, inherited. People do not choose their biological parents, nor do they select their historical connections to birthplace, ethnicity, culture, language, or class. Genes determine skin color, height, sex at birth, and a range of other characteristics. There are also strong statistical correlations between parents and their children when it comes to educational achievement, earning potential, political attitudes, and so on. Inheritance therefore involves a range of pre-determined biological and social conditions with which people must grapple over a lifetime, within particular historical and cultural contexts.
In “Them That’s Got Shall Get”, we will study how the tensions between inheritance and mobility have manifested in American culture. We will study how the principles of freedom, equality, and property rights created conditions for the acquisition of new wealth, and how these principles changed how people thought about what they are entitled to by virtue of the conditions of their birth. Topics may include property rights, racial identity, social privelege, adoption, eugenics, national pride, family loyalty, and citizenship.
We will also address how people respond to the determining features of inheritance through their free will. People manipulate skin and hair color; they sustain, or challenge, or attempt to destroy bonds to birth-family or culture; in some cases, they change their primary sex characteristics. And having shaped their own lives through acts of will, people create and ratify documents that express their desires after death; their “wills” literally continue to live on in how they bequeath their property. People also create laws and policies to challenge or shape the legacies of inheritance, or reject the religion or class into which they were born in favor of a chosen spiritual or economic affiliation. Yet history cannot be erased, and genes cannot be altered. Inheritance is part of who we are. This program will invite students to consider how they understand inheritance in their own experience, and to learn to think in critical and useful ways about the tensions that inheritance creates in their own lives.
The program will take two field trips. The first will be a day trip to the International District in Seattle, where we will learn about Asian-American experience and visit Inter*im and the Wing Luke Museum, the only Pan-Asian community-based museum in the United States. The second will be a three-day trip to La Push, Washington, home to the Quileute Tribe, where we will visit a community deeply influenced by inherited links to a particular place and to specific ways of living in and understanding that place.