What my African-American family taught me about permanence

I think it speaks to the magic of America that the lives of an African-American farmer in rural, southern Arkansas, born just 2 generations from slavery, could become entwined with a Korean-American, an immigrant just 1 generation removed from the trauma of war. When I first shook my grandfather-in-law’s hand as I introduced him to his great granddaughter, I was struck by the huge size of his hands and the obvious strength they still held despite his 80+ years of age. Those were hands that worked very hard for a very long time. My small, white-collar hands were completely swallowed up by his large, callused fingers and pads. Yet, Willie Branch Sr.’s hands were so gentle when he held my daughter. His amazement and delight in her was obvious. Even now, thinking about this as I write it, I get emotional recalling his joy. Willie Branch Sr. died without knowing anything about the blockchain. Yet, his life overlaps with my work on depub.space because of what his life, and that of his family, teaches me about the power of permanence.

I thought a lot about permanence as I drove down I-49 to my wife’s family reunion right before 4th of July weekend. I was listening to an audiobook, Born in Blackness, that viewed modern (Western) history from an African perspective: that the growth and wealth enjoyed by the United States and other western nations (and even the Islamic empire before the rise of the “West”) was due directly to the exploitation of African resources (gold in particular) and African labor (millions of Africans kidnapped and enslaved). I thought what it must have been like to be one of my wife’s ancestors: kidnapped with violence, brought over to Arkansas in terrible conditions, and then forced to work the hot, humid land in a foreign place until they died from overwork, violence or despair. The average life expectancy of someone brought over from Africa was under 7 years so the owners treated these human beings as disposable parts with an expiring shelf life. If I were kidnapped and enslaved in such conditions, what kind of culture and knowledge would I be able to pass to my descendants? What could I preserve? Which of my beliefs and values would survive that awful experience and how could I have any confidence that my children and their descendants would inherit anything of value from me and my pre-slave life given my wretched state? From the current perspective of my over-privileged life, I have no idea; it seems a miracle greater than Victor Frankl’s experience with the Holocaust. Yet, judging by Willie Branch Sr’s life, preserving hope and the determination to improve is exactly what his ancestors did; and the growth of his family, from its humble origins in Watson, Arkansas, is a testament to the power of preserving what matters.

History, both large and small, swings on what’s been preserved versus lost. It’s far easier to write the story of the former as who knows what our world would look like if the Library at Alexandria hadn’t burned in 283BCE or if the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), had not destroyed all of those written works (known in Chinese as 焚書坑儒) in 212-213BCE? We do know that Western Europe (and the United States by extension) would look very different if the Arabs did not preserve the Classical knowledge that sparked the European Renaissance). We see from recent developments in archeology and paleontology that as we make advancements in recovering preserved information and expand our knowledge of human history, we also expand our insights into the range of possibilities for humans and our societies (in particular, I referring to the advancements made with LIDAR in Central and South America1 see this article about a find in Mexico and another one about a find in Guatemala as examples. that are rewriting our knowledge of pre-Columbian civilizations, many of which were organized in ways very different from our own). As one of my teachers, Douglas Carmichael, likes to say, “You have to know where you’ve been if you want to understand where you’re going.”

When I stood in the ancestral cemetery of my wife’s family, it was easy to get a sense of where her family had been. The cemetery is in a small clearing, bordered by trees on one corner and huge, open fields more characteristic of the land on every other. There is nothing but green fields, and that small corner of trees, within eyesight; just rows of work stretching for miles. The sun, hot and merciless, sat on our heads and shoulders like a heavy blanket and the air was thick and humid. I imagined being forced to toil from sunup to sundown in those conditions, beaten and punished if I worked too slow, all while not completely understanding what what was happening to me because of the barriers of culture and language. It’s horrifying. And after all that abuse, when the work became too much and I died, my body would be disposed of like garbage. How does one deal with the death of loved ones when the rest of the world is absolutely indifferent? I don’t know and given that, it was truly inspiring to see the care taken to beautify this resting place for former slaves and their descendants.

Much of that beauty was due to the hard work of Willie Branch Sr. I didn’t know this before becoming part of my wife’s family but cemeteries and graves are just as important to Southern African-American culture as cemeteries and graves are to many Asian cultures. In many Asian countries, ancestor worship is an integral part of cultural life. Historical continuity plays a large role in many Asian cosmologies and world views. Notice, for example, how consistently the Chinese Communist Party refers to the multi-millennial history of Chinese culture and civilization. Korea and Japan have origin myths that tie their culture and civilizations directly to divine paternity. On certain holidays, many people in Asia will go to the graves of their ancestors to perform acts of veneration and remembrance. Failure to do so could have real world consequences for it’s believed that ancestors watch over and guide their descendants and that to anger or offend one’s ancestors is to risk not only losing that divine protection but to risk turning allies into an enemies.

Willie Branch Sr. didn’t spend all those hours making his family cemetery beautiful because he was worried about angry ghosts bringing bad luck into his life; he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. And Willie Branch Sr. prided himself on being a person who did the right things that needed doing. When graves needed headstones, he spent his hard-earned money buying them and spent his precious time and energy installing them. I tried to think about why he would do that. As an immigrant child of a North Korean family, I never had any real sense of extended family; my grandmother never had any contact with her large, extended family in North Korea after the Korean War started in 1950. So it’s hard for me to imagine why someone would spend all that precious time and money on people who were already dead and gone.

What I came to appreciate over this weekend with my wife’s family is the power and importance of permanence. People may not call it “permanence”—it could also be called “history” or “narrative” or “cosmology.” But I see the latter 3 terms as dependent on the first—permanence is an attribute of the bits of information that comprise a history, narrative or cosmology; something must have persisted if it wants history to say it existed. Where we have been and the stories we tell ourselves of how we got here determines our view of what’s next and what is possible. A narrative not anchored to anything of permanence is a weak story and hardly the stuff to build a life around. How then does a man in the circumstances of Willie Branch Sr. create and maintain permanence? He created it by focusing on the 2 pillars of his life: family and faith.

Willie Branch Sr. had faith.

He had faith in hard work: he was a man who worked every day of his adult life doing the kind of exhausting labor that earning your living from the land requires.

He had faith in education: he made sure his 9 kids prioritized school and they all finished college to become professionals: doctor, engineer, lawyer, business owner and other respectable careers. His brother with 17 kids sent every single one to college where they graduated with a degree. His other brother, with 15 kids, did the same. His older sister, born well before desegregation, went to high school and finished college–coming back to become the principal at the local elementary school where she would have an outsized impact on her family and the other children in the community.

And Willie Branch Sr. had faith in God, so much so that he would probably be upset that I put this last. Willie Branch Sr. had faith in God and was not afraid of letting the light of his faith shine. He didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble: instead, he worked hard, prayed hard and made sure his kids studied hard. Willie Branch Sr. may not have had the chance to go to college but he wanted his kids to go to college and they did. When University of Arkansas began accepting African-American students, he sent his oldest daughter, Marvia (who graduated at the top of her high school class, despite being in the 2nd graduating class after desegregation); something he must have never imagined possible when he was growing up in segregated Arkansas. Seeing his children grow and succeed, Willie Branch Sr. had all the evidence he needed to confirm his faith that God is good.

Willie Branch Sr. also had family.

Oh my but did he have family! Willie Branch Sr was one of 10 children. His brothers had over 10 children each. Growing up, my mother-in-law recalls there were about 50 family members within 3 miles of his house. “We literally filled up the school bus!”, she recalls, laughing.

So small wonder then that to Willie Branch, permanence meant faith and family. Family was strength; no one would mess with the Branch children because it meant taking on the entire, extended family. Family was also wealth; when you didn’t have much, and society didn’t care care about your suffering, family was the only thing you could count on…provided you did the work. So Willie worked hard on family too. He and his brothers started a tradition in 1968 of biennial family reunions that continues to the present day. And every family reunion, the family gets together to share stories of family, both present and gone. The stories create the continuity and permanence that reinforces the family’s strength and continued hope for a better future; the places like the family cemetery create a permanent place to enshrine where the family came from and what it overcame.

Even before my wife’s family reunion this weekend, permanence has been on my mind. This past month marked a milestone in my mind for web3 as evidence recorded and authenticated using the blockchain was officially submitted as evidence in international court. On Friday, June 10th, 2022, Starling Lab and Hala Systems submitted electronic evidence of Russian war crimes in Khariv, Ukraine to the to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Their submission showed how blockchain technology can prove that the evidence “has not been tampered with between the field and the courtroom” and addressed many of the other, related challenges faced when submitting digital evidence to court.

The advantages of using the blockchain versus Web 2.x technologies for recording digital evidence stem from 2 interrelated attributes of web3/blockchain technologies: immutability and decentralization. Because all of the data on a blockchain is processed and stored on every node of that blockchain (also referred to, confusingly, as miners or validators), it’s much harder to alter data. And any alteration must involve other validators (ensuring a certain minimum level of transparency and decentralization) because each node on the blockchain must synchronize its data with the other nodes. The distributed data (known as a ledger) ensures transparency and ensures transactions can be verified.

Contrast this with non-blockchain technologies where a single user with the appropriate permissions could theoretically alter and delete information with no one being aware that any alteration or deletion occurred. This is, in fact, the classic hacker scenario that’s often portrayed in media. While various courts have accepted digital evidence for years, albeit with restrictions or caveats, in the era of fake news, being able to remove doubt is essential for establishing credibility and restoring trust in digital records. By utilizing the blockchain to record evidence, a user is able to cryptographically “lock” a specific piece of content (the evidence) to a certain user (via cryptographic wallet) at a specific time (via the cryptographic transaction). No alteration of any of these attributes is possible (with current technologies) without also altering or breaking the cryptographic signature, thus revealing the alteration.2 I am really simplifying blockchain technology to make it more accessible to a non-technical audience. I am sure examples can be found where what I say is not true 100% of the time.

In the ICC submission, Starling Lab explains that decentralized, cryptographic tools (i.e., blockchain) can do the following 4 things3from here to support the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations:

  1. Establish the authenticity and origin of digital content
  2. Protect the identity of the sources and investigators
  3. Secure preservation of documents and distributed crowdsourced analysis
  4. Create robust chains of custody to help self-authenticate digital content

These capabilities makes blockchain publishing platforms, like depub.space, very useful to individuals and organizations looking to store content to be used later, either as evidence or to store some other digital “item” that they would like to sell or lend later. In fact, in conjunction with our partner, LikeCoin,4 who were also mentioned in the Starling Lab article as one of Starling Lab’s L1 protocol parters, we’re already working with some media organizations and journalists to use depub.space to record important evidence. I’ll discuss this work more later in future installments of the #depubdiaries as more of the work becomes public.

The downsides of immutability are worth discussing in greater detail and I’ll do so in a future #depubdiaries post. But briefly, I think community-driven content management is a good compromise and makes good use of the consensus mechanisms enabled by the blockchain. My thinking here is still evolving and it’s something I think about a lot in my spare time because of the interesting hypotheticals and edge cases.

Given that I think about this sort of stuff in my spare time, not surprising then that I was thinking about the blockchain and permanence in the middle of rural, southern Arkansas, although it felt a bit surreal. There was no cell phone service for much of the drive from the highway to the cemetery. The scenery looked much as it did 20 years ago. I felt a bit like a time-traveling alien being there thinking my blockchain thoughts, especially given how different my life and background are from Willie’s. I’m sure Willie Branch Sr. didn’t care about the blockchain before he died. But I know he did care about the ability to preserve and remember what was important to him: family, faith and pride in both.

I heard at the family reunion that Willie’s family, once largely confined to Watson, Arkansas, now stretches from coast to coast. And I saw at the family reunion how the family’s stories of overcoming hardship are an important part of fueling the current generation’s success. With Willie’s family, I see further proof that the stories we tell ourselves matter. We’ve all become so conditioned to the online world being ephemeral; websites go up, they come down, accounts get deleted, posts get moderated & removed, social networks appear and then disappear—taking our friend networks with them. It’s hard for many to fully appreciate what decentralization and immutably allow them to do that Web 2.x does not; they may not understand how the stories we tell ourselves will become corrupted if we can’t depend on the permanence of certain data and records and rely instead on billionaires to preserve our history.

Willie Branch Sr. and his ancestors could not depend on any data or records. They certainly could not rely on anyone else to preserve their family history. Poor records are why details about his early life are still fuzzy to his children; society tends to record only that which the powerful find worthy of note. Why do we think it will be any different with the billionaires and the 1% that currently control our media and politics?

There is so much temptation to let the platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Google decide what we will see because that seems like the easiest solution. If the world is covered in broken glass, we want them to cover the whole world with carpet rather than taking the trouble to put on some shoes. We trust the competency of these companies because of their effectiveness at entertaining us and we keep putting these powerful purveyors of addicting technologies into positions where they write their own rules. Even though we have lots of data that the billionaire founders of these companies will use their money and power—and that of the companies they control—to expand their reach, wealth and influence, we keep expecting them to act like NGOs or branches of the government.

Given that they are all corporations, we need to change our expectations. If you keep putting the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse, the fox isn’t to blame for slaughtering the 10th batch of chickens; you are. Likewise, we shouldn’t continue to expect these large, powerful corporations to be loyal to anything but their bottom line. If they are because it’s great marketing, fantastic. But we should treat them like a meth addict that’s cleaned up for one night to attend a family wedding: their best behavior will only last as long as their temporary motivation to behave. A meth addict can be cured; a corporation, by the nature of its very bylaws and structural incentives, cannot. We put our society and government at risk if we entrust these platforms with our ability to remember and discuss the past and present. I think Willie would agree with this sentiment: don’t expect the world to be any different than what it is; deal with it how it is. We have to safeguard our future through hard work and paying attention to details.

I’m writing this on the 4th of July and like many Americans, I’m struggling to balance patriotism with 4 years of Trump, inflation, COVID, racism, police violence, mass shootings, rising inequality and a neocon Supreme Court that’s overturning precedent and embracing infamy. Yet, I can’t help but feel grateful to be living in the United States, warts and all. I’ve lived in a lot of other places and I don’t think there is another place in the world where Willie Branch Sr. and I, given our upbringing and childhood circumstances, could write our stories so that they would combine through his great grandchildren—comfortably living a middle-class life in fast-growing Northwest Arkansas. I wouldn’t want to work on depub.space while living anywhere else but the United States because of the Constitutional protections I enjoy as a U.S. citizen. I’m grateful that even though my grandfather-in-law had a hard life encumbered by racism, he didn’t fall back on excuses and worked hard to build a better life for his wife and children. Every time I hold my son’s hand and feel the echoes of his great grandfather in his thick hands, I’m grateful that my wife’s family found a way to create permanence out of a world that saw them as disposable and temporary. For me, the 4th of July is worth celebrating as part of our universal story of mistakes made, the (messy) progress to date and the hard work yet to come to ensure we can all write our stories the way we want to. God bless America.

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