In 2018 we began a process of exploring our ancestries, beginning with retelling our own family stories in the context of race and colonization. When Siko’s father passed away, she wrote in order to process her loss, and this became an entry point for confronting her place in history. This inspired Adele to embark on her own journey of grieving the passing of her father by coming to terms with the painful aspects of her history.

Adele Godoy Vrana and Siko Bouterse at Creative Commons Global Summit 2019

Siko Bouterse,
October 2018

My father died just a few weeks ago. I always used to say he was the ancestor I was least proud of, but as he became sick with cancer this past year we became closer and I began to recognize that, as always, his story and self was more complex than that.

He was an alcoholic with a lifelong disease, and a stubborn anger inherited from generations of Bouterses, who never accepted the fact that willpower alone would not change anything. He was mercurial, and would suddenly fly into bouts of rage or sadness with no explanation, terrifying my childhood self. He could be petty, suddenly upset over seemingly small things with no explanation. He could be unkind or dishonest to the women in his life. He conflated illness with weakness. As I child, I learned many of these habits and took them as normal, learning to deal with them as best I could. As a young woman, I rejected them and put up walls to protect myself from him and others like him.

At the same time, I loved my father. He could be generous, vivacious and gregarious. He had a talent for making strangers love him. He was a musician who could make a room come alive with his guitar, singing and whistling. He had an easy directness and wicked sense of humor which was fun to be around. He had a background in biology, and through him I learned to look closely at the natural world around me, to forage for treats in the woods and love the outdoors in all it’s glorious small and big moments.

Through him I also developed an early appreciation for both how big and small the human world is. My father lived much of his life as an outlaw, circumventing the system in different ways, damning convention. He was always on the move, always seeking someplace where things would be different. When I was small, he took me away from the rest of my family for a time, and he and my 4-year-old-self hitchhiked together across the United States. Later on, I grew up with our family spread across three continents - the Netherlands, the US, and Brasil. My father brought a translator’s mind to the socio-cultural systems and political economy of each place. From him I learned early on that ours was both a deeply connected and deeply fragmented world.

It would be easy to choose only one side of my father and tell this as his story. I could choose to make him into the monster my teenage self saw him as, or eulogize his good qualities into heroics, as one is supposed to do graveside.

Instead, I choose to acknowledge that, like Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes. As we all do.

Deep self examination, which includes examination of our family and ancestral histories, is really painful, and it is also an important part of the healing and decolonizing process.

— Siko Bouterse

Portrait of Siko Bouterse

I’m a digital-knowledge and anti-oppression activist, co-conspirator, mother of a kick-ass feminist daughter, and co-director of the non-profit campaign Whose Knowledge?. I’m the child of artists and translators, musicians and scholars, fabulous home cooks and immigrant coal-shovelers. My Italian grandfather on my mother’s side had to change his name to make it sound more white-Anglo for his gigs as a New York City jazz musician, and his wife had the cross burned on her lawn by white supremacists as a girl growing up in the American South. In 2018 I live with white privilege in a country that’s still arguing whether #BlackLivesMatter.

I’m also a settler on Awaswas land, living in the unceded territory of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, where stories of Ohlone Native Americans continue to be told as if there are no Native people left here. As if no one is still fighting for federal tribal recognition and land rights. My kick-ass daughter is starting to study California history in nearly the same way I was taught it over 30 years ago. Indians will either be romanticized as some far-off past, or portrayed as victims in the tortuous place of the California missions, but only occasionally will my white child be made aware that the Amah Mutsun are still here (and that alone is a small bit of progress from my own elementary schooling). When I visited Mission San Juan Bautista as a 4th grader, it haunted me, though I couldn’t yet fully articulate why. Thanks to friends and teachers like Kumeyaay scholar Michael Connolly Miskwish, though, whose tribal Nation stretches from Southern California to Northern Baja, today I am able to offer my own daughter a slightly fuller perspective, and more words to describe what she’s seeing and feeling in California. Did you know that the California mission roofs used to be thatched? Today’s “mission revival architecture” is full of Spanish tiles, but the Spaniards actually had to make that change after their first round of buildings failed. Why? Because Native American tribes like the Kumeyaay kept burning the missions down. Thatch catches fire so easily. We need to talk about indigenous oppression, but we also must talk about indigenous resistance, and it’s markers on the landscape around us today. We need to talk about the nearly-600 member Amah Mutsun tribal band who remain actively seeking recognition in the area where I live, and how we can be better guests and allies, not just recreate how the Ohlone of old used to grind acorns.

Portrait of Siko's father

Just as my memories of my father are neither 100% rosy nor 100% terrible, our collective memories of our colonizing histories cannot be either fully golden, pitiful, or monstrous.

— Siko Bouterse

And what of the ancestors of the ancestor that I’ve been least proud of? The Dutch side of my family is one I learned the least about. Perhaps this was willful omission, given my troubled relationship with my father, as well as the ugly history of Dutch colonization that many of us would rather forget. In our last months together, my father and I talked a lot about colonization. I had recently been to South Africa and was thinking a good deal about the Netherland’s role in the oppression of African people. My father was quite sure that the Bouterse’s were involved in the Dutch slave trade, and confessed to being unable to enter the nearby shipbuilders museum because it made him feel ashamed and disgusted. As a young girl it was difficult to see myself in historical narratives that usually focused on great men; now, I’ve begun to revist the history of the transatlantic slave trade, this time trying to locate myself in it.

The Dutch Golden age of exploration is often portrayed as a time of abundant commerce, capital, art and science, and it did have of those things. But this capitalist quest was built on a foundation of slavery. Initially the Dutch shipped enslaved people to northern Brazil. One of my sisters, and my dear friend and colleague Adele, both Afro-Brazilian women, are quite possibly the descendants of those enslaved people, and I am quite possibly the descendants of their traders. For almost 300 years, until the 1870’s, the Dutch sailed across the Atlantic with enslaved people from fortresses along Ghana’s coast. It’s estimated that Dutch participation in the Atlantic slave trade was about 5 percent overall. That’s 550,000-600,000 African people stolen from their homes and land.

In 1682, coffee and sugar plantations were established in Surinam by the Netherlands, to be worked by enslaved Africans. People sometimes ask me if I’m related to Desi Bouterse, the president of Surinam, accused of numerous human rights violations as the global cycle of violence continues. Given Dutch involvement in the slave trade there, the connection is not without distant possibility.

The first enslaved Africans arrived in North America, where I live today, on a Dutch ship in 1691. Twenty human captives were among the cargo unloaded in Jamestown, Virginia. The slave trade appears to have been ultimately less profitable for the Dutch than the French or English, and Dutch traders were even more negligent in caring for the people on their ships. “Approximately 2 out of 1000 slaves died every day on Dutch slave ships per month, compared to 1 on English slave ships and 1.5 on French ships.” Aside from the ugliness of reducing people down to numbers - someone’s ancestor was that so-called half of a person dying on a French ship one Tuesday - the other thing that strikes me in this history is that my slave-trading ancestors were apparently extra indifferent to the physical conditions of the humans they were transporting. My ancestors were even more willing to accept loss of lives while cutting costs on food, water, or fresh air than those master colonizers, the British.

What kind of ancestor do I want to be?

— Siko Bouterse

Siko as a child with her father

It’s hard to face these truths. But it’s a responsibility we each have to locate ourselves and the multitudes we contain, within the complex histories of the world. It helps us become whole people and better allies, and build more just and equitable societies together. It’s a starting point for any re-imagining of the digital and physical worlds that we hope to do. Just as my memories of my father are neither 100% rosy nor 100% terrible, our collective memories of our colonizing histories cannot be either fully golden, pitiful, or monstrous. They contain all those things, and more. We can replace thatch roofs with tiles, but we can’t forget what they were built for and who resisted this building. I’m learning to find and share the golden in my father, even as I won’t hide the terrible parts of him that made such a deep impression on me growing up. Having a better understanding of all his multitudes has helped me discern which parts I choose to cultivate and seek to pass on to my kick-ass daughter (music, humor, and foraging in nature, for example) and which parts I actively seek to let die with him (an inability to control anger, for starters). What kind of ancestor do I want to be?

In our histories as colonizers, there’s still so many gaps to fill. I grew up on the golden and pitiful stories of California history. We can do more to fill in the gaps with stories of both oppression and resistance, however. I’m still working up the courage to visit the museum that my father could not visit, and to locate my ancestors in the fabric of the slave trade. This, too, is a marker of my privilege — the ability to decide if I want to face this history or not. For a long time, it was easier not to know. But silence has a long-term cost. My father left me a final letter with this wish: “may your path be wondrous, and have an impact on this difficult world.” What I know now is that deep self examination, which includes examination of our family and ancestral histories, is really painful, and it is also an important part of the healing and decolonizing process. We have to unearth it, and tell stories that contain multitudes, to have an impact on this difficult world.

The threads that connect us

Map showing geographical locations of Adele's and Siko's stories

Adele Godoy Vrana,
April 2019

September 2019 will be 4 years since my father passed away. He died alone of a heart attack at his home in Brazil. My dad’s body sat in abandonment for days before the foul smell allerted the nearby neighbors. Both my mother and younger brother were out of the country, and I was living 6,000 miles away, in California. Given the circumstances of his passing, there was no time for any of us to travel to my hometown Jaboticabal, a small city in the state of Sao Paulo and say goodbye. We were not there for him. But, in an ironic turn, his mother and 4 of his siblings, who he barely talked to, showed up to bury him.

My dad was a depressive alcoholic who mostly avoided any relationship with his parents and siblings. Growing up, I saw my grandparents 3 times in total. My dad rarely talked about or with them. He struggled because he believed his parents didn’t love him as much as they loved his siblings. And, he didn’t know WHY he was not loved. This big why marked my dad’s existence and made him a seeker. The problem is that he was looking for an answer to this big why in the wrong place. He assumed he was the problem and felt guilty for feeling unloved. That’s when he used alcohol, gambling, and self-sabotage in his career and unhealthy life choices of all kinds to numb his deepest pains.

I have never told my father, but I have a theory that my father was rejected and mistreated by his own father because he didn’t have the “right” color. Most of my dad’s siblings had light skin, light-colored eyes and straight hair. They all looked white or could pass as white with the exception of my dad. He was brown, had curly hair, brown eyes. I believe my dad’s body and existence reminded my grandfather of his tainted whiteness. He had failed in the family’s “whitening” process that his siblings excelled at, and in return his father made his life miserable.

Knowing your past, your ancestors and being able to affirm and liberate oneself should not be unattainable or a privilege.

— Adele Godoy Vrana

Portrait of Adele Godoy Vrana

My dad was severely abused both physically and mentally by my grandfather. The only childhood memory my dad shared with me was when my grandfather hung him naked in a tree for hours to punish him for eating something he wasn’t supposed to. Being black or at least looking like a black man automatically made him less worthy of love and respect than his siblings. I believe systemic racism was the answer to the big WHY my dad was seeking during his whole life.

My grandfather was a white man. I once heard his European ancestors were from Spain but other than that, I know absolutely nothing about them. What I do know is that their whiteness has always been hyper-valued within and outside my dad’s family. Despite this, my grandfather married a woman who, to me, clearly was not white, though she might have considered herself as such. My grandmother was a mixed race woman born and raised in a generation who was taught to believe that “whitening” the Brazilian population by actively encouraging mixed race relationships between white, black and indigenous people, was a good thing. This ideology came from Brazil’s long and ugly history of colonization, in which some inter-racial relationships were consensual, but most of them were not. The myth of Brazil being a racial democracy started with rape and abuse of indigenous and African women.

Brazil’s post-slavery strategy to reduce the number of afro-Brazilians was to promote European immigration by providing immigrants with land and paid labor. The goal was to increase the number of white people living in Brazil and engaging in inter-racial relationships to gradually “whiten” the overall population.

So in a really pragmatic way, my father’s family was an emblematic example of Brazil’s “whitening” ideology… with the exception of my dad, who had failed the “whitening” process his siblings excelled at. Ironically and yet quite fittingly, my father didn’t consider himself a black man. He never discussed race or identity with me or my younger brother. We never had “the talk” that black parents give their children about how to act when we are stopped by police based on racial profiling. We never heard about Zumbi, Mandela or any black icons in Brazil’s or world’s history. We were not introduced to black artists or learned how to admire black culture with my dad. We never talked about our ancestors or what was done to them because of slavery. We were afro-descendents raised in a racial vacuum.

Whether he was aware of it or not, my dad sadly believed that he could simply avoid racism by choosing to not identify himself as a black man. He may have believed that my country was in fact a “racial democracy” where racism didn’t exist and everyone had the same opportunities regardless of their race.

Adele as a child holding and kissing a white doll

We were afro-descendents raised in a racial vacuum.

— Adele Godoy Vrana

The problem is, when you are black, avoiding racism is not an option. No matter how you choose to self-identify, the world will treat you as such. I am black. I am an afro-Brazilian woman with brown skin, kinky-curly hair and dark-brown eyes. As a child, I experienced racism, physical abuse, violence and depression and didn’t know why. I didn’t understand why the world treated me like that. I didn’t know where I came from and I couldn’t use my ancestry to affirm and uplift myself. And, there was nowhere to look for answers. Much like my dad, my mom also didn’t know anything about her ancestors. I never heard my mom self-identifying herself as a black woman. For her, much of her process of seeing herself as a black woman only happened after I affirmed my own identity as one.

The little my 71 year old mother knows about her ancestors is that there were a mix of indigenous and black peoples. My grandmother, who clearly looked indigenous, used to say that her mother - my great-grandmother - was hunted down by settlers, captured and taken away from her tribe. We don’t know which tribe, who were these settlers, what happened with my great-grandmother’s life after that. The only thing I know is my great-grandmother could be one of the indigenous women I saw pictured in my history books. I never knew her name, never heard about her past or life. I just knew about the violence and subjugation that wrote her in the history of my country’s and America’s colonization with no agency or humanity.

Colonizers intentionally destroyed slavery records about the free women and men they captured in the African continent. Colonizers also wiped out indigenous people’s knowledge and culture as they wiped out entire tribes and communities across Brazil. Colonizers wiped out indigenous and African knowledge, names, family connections, communities, and culture in order to conquer them. They knew that not having a past, not knowing our own origins, would make it almost impossible for us to affirm and liberate ourselves. Would my father’s childhood and later life have been any different if he saw and affirmed himself as a black man? What would my own childhood have been like if I knew what my teachers and “friends” were using to dehumanize me was actually my greatest strength? What would have happened to me if my history books portrayed my African and indigenous ancestors as human beings with rights, culture and knowledges instead of property and disposable labor?

Growing up as a poor afro-Brazilian, the idea of tracing my ancestors sounded unattainable. I didn’t have the financial resources, the time, or the emotional support required to do it. On top of that, I felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know where to begin looking. Part of me wanted to know more, but I resented and felt discouraged by the kind of information that was been presented to me. At school, History was at the same time my beloved and most hated topic. I loved to learn from the past, but hated the classes that would touch on colonization and slavery. I remember slouching down on my school chair every time we got to the chapters of Columbus and “the discovery of America” and when I saw pictures of Africans being shipped to America. I don’t think my teachers ever realized they were talking about the ancestors I didn’t know but was aware of. While my “white” classmates felt affirmed to read about the achievements of their ancestors, I felt inferior seeing my African ancestors as lifeless bodies, property with no name, agency or power. Their stories made me shrink, shut up and feel less than.

My dad showed me that vulnerability is a super-power and not a weakness.

— Adele Godoy Vrana

Adele as a child with her father

Fastrack a few years, a long journey in and out and here I am. That little afro-Brazilian girl became a activist, a techie, a mother raising two feminist boys and the co-director of the non-profit campaign Whose Knowledge?. Along with compañeras Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse, I get to spend my days decolonizing myself and the internet to make sure marginalized people and communities, especially black women like me, can see and be themselves online.

When my friend and colleague Siko shared her writing about her dad’s passing and her process of seeking her ancestors, I had a meltdown. I cried uncontrollably for hours as if someone had pushed my “release the pressure” button. Siko’s piece centered her dad, the multitudes of his being and his connection to the Dutch slade-trading ancestors she chose to ignore for most of her life. Right there and then, as strongly as I felt the pain of being the descendent of the Africans who were trafficked as slaves to Brazil possibly by her Dutch ancestors, I also felt an invitation to write my own reflections about my ancestors and the effects of colonization from a seeker perspective.

My dad didn’t leave many things behind. His life was not filled with huge, memorable achievements. But, still, he has a legacy. He taught me that acknowledging and accepting my feelings is as hard as it is rewarding. My dad showed me vulnerability is a super-power and not a weakness. I learned how to say “I am sorry” from him. He was also the first man I saw crying without shame or self-censure. It was probably my first feminist lesson - men can cry too and that’s ok. He taught me that life is better if you have music playing in the background —now, when I have dance parties with my children, I remember that my father, too, filled our home with music. Beyond the fond memories and all the love I feel for him, today I see that becoming a seeker is claiming my dad’s legacy in my own way. My dad seeked the answer that could have changed his life. He died without the answer to his WHY; I wish I had shared what I am sharing here with him. I wish I could tell him and the little boy that he once was that he deserved to be loved and treated well. I wish I could tell him all the pain from the torture and abuse was not his fault.

My dad always said he was proud of me for who I was and had become. I wonder what he would say and feel knowing that he can rest while I take on the seeking for him. More than that, now I can also be the seeker for my family, my children and many of us whose ancestors were silenced and oppressed by colonization. Knowing your past, your ancestors and being able to affirm and liberate oneself should not be unattainable or a privilege. And that’s what I hope to change for my sisters, brothers and their children who will come after me.

Adele Godoy Vrana and Siko Bouterse hugging after their talk at Creative Commons Global Summit 2019

We then began a series of conversations to braid our stories and mutual histories together. And, the result was this talk at Creative Commons Global Summit 2019.

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? We invite you to join us on this journey of reflecting on your own ancestry and place in history and share your story as well!

Share your story on social media with the hashtag #ExploringOurOrigins.