Why I Joined +MPU Part II

Greater Boston, MA

Ben Lyon   |   August 01, 2023

To Judy and Wyatt, two children enslaved by my ancestors.

Some background

This is part 2/2 explaining why I joined +More Perfect Union to start the +MPU Greater Boston Brickyard. If you haven’t read part 1/2, please start here.

About +More Perfect Union

MPU is a nationwide movement to strengthen our communities and heal our country by creating meaningful connections through service and leadership.

MPU forms local chapters to bring people together through service, civics, and leadership. We are training and inspiring the next generation of leaders to serve their communities.

Why I Joined +More Perfect Union – Part 2: Cellular Memory

What follows was my written response to the +MPU 2023 Fellowship Application question, “Write your own letter describing the idea of America and what it means to you.” Media added for context.

To my [fictional] children,

Our first ancestor in North America, Sisely, arrived as part of a Jamestown Supply Mission in 1611, 165 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. She was only 14 and, for all intents and purposes, was likely a child bride sent to repopulate the Colony after the “Starving Time”. Sisely eventually married a man named William, beginning our bloodline on my father’s side. William paid the passage for at least 40 indentured servants to come to the Virginia Colony and was “awarded” 2,000 acres of land under the King’s headright system; this land was seized from American Indian Groups like the Powhatan with genocidal fury. Sisely and William were among less than 1,000 colonists in Virginia when the first slave ship, the White Lion, arrived in 1619. Being plantation owners at the beginning of the tobacco boom, we have no reason to doubt that Sisely and William directly benefited from slavery just as they did with indentured servitude and forced migration. [In fact, a recent archaeological dig unearthed an item of possible Afro-Caribbean origin where Sisely and William used to live.]

half a dozen white people walking around Jamestown settlement
Walking Jamestown with my parents.

Fast forward two centuries to the American Civil War, where at least 8 of our ancestors were combatants–6 with the Confederacy. Our Confederate ancestors fought to preserve slavery and the slavocracy that propped up the American South. One ancestor, also named William, retreated across Richmond’s Mayo Bridge as Union Cavalry raced into the city, mere days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. I live 100 feet from the Mayo Bridge today and imagine this scene often. I also live a few hundred feet from the Slave Trail, where hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were force-marched by night from the Manchester Docks into Richmond’s ~70 auction houses before being scattered to the wind.

I’m telling you these things because they are true and live in the cellular memory of the American State and our own bodies. I’m telling you these things, not to add darkness, but to add color–to help you see the past and better understand the present.

sunsetting at dusk over the James river in Richmond, Virginia
Sunset over Richmond, Virginia. Mayo Bridge not visible.

The Truth is, genocide and enslavement are at the very core of the American Story. Once you understand this, you are free to Reconcile, break from the past and contribute to a more perfect union. In logic, the fundamental attribution error tells us we are not bad people because we have done bad things. So too with America.

America is neither inherently bad nor good. America is what we– Americans–make of it. America is how we show up in the world and what we aspire to be. Who then shall we be? How then shall we live?

As we look to the future, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. In The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats writes “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Let America be the center. Let the values behind our actions guide the way: equality and justice for all; freedom from oppression; the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our duty as citizens is to define America by our actions. Never forget this.


I’ve been asked about guilt as I explore and share my family’s past. I’m not sure guilt is useful and I don’t feel guilt today.

I DO feel responsibility as an American, a descendent of Ancient Planters and a person of conscience, though. I’ve walked the ground of my ancestors. I’m learning the names of the people we wronged.

My family’s history is America’s history. It is OUR history. It is real. And it is repeating.

Who then shall we be? How then shall we live?