Family histories console me about death. The vast web of my family’s genealogy seems to transcend each perilous moment of birth and death and display secure relationships between the living and the dead—and thus between the living and the living. I feel supported by the lifelines of those relationships. I identify completely with Lynn Palermo in The Armchair Genealogist when she relates that the sudden deaths of her husband’s father and mother spurred her towards genealogy:
“The frailty of the last year and half had brought me to the realization there was so much I wanted to know about my own history, my own ancestors, I wanted to write those stories.”
Yes. “Those stories” contribute life to my family tree, too. The word “tree” suggests a permanent, live, growing creation. When I watch “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” I can see that knowing the dead adds meaning to the lives of the living. Thank you, genealogists.
“Those stories” are not always happy. History holds outrages for us, mixed unpredictably with inspirations. It shook me to learn that the evil behemoth of institutional slavery had captured my ancestors, who owned slaves for sixty years. My book Into the Briar Patch explores how slaveholding affected my ancestors’ hearts and minds. Long research taught me to hold back from either blaming or praising them, and instead to concentrate on understanding them. My cousins knew the book would be about some wrenching issues, and even so they were kind and helpful to the point of reading and commenting on my drafts. I’ve tried to be fair, and I’m grateful that reviewers (shout-out “Thank You!” to Caroline Pointer) have called my book clear-eyed, objective, and compassionate. Nevertheless, I find it an ongoing struggle to be open and considerate of everyone. Conflicts do arise.
I’ll try to express here some of these conflicts and possible paths to resolution. E. M. Forster has said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I write?”
We all know that slavery meant sexual relationships between white male slave owners and African-American female slaves, resulting in mixed-race children. One look at our population today shows these relationships were frequent, even commonplace. Many of these relationships were probably coerced, in that great power imbalance, but were all of them coerced? Even though I’m an avowed feminist, I wonder. Only the participants could have answered this question, and then perhaps only in silence to themselves.
In our family there have long been rumors. When I began my research, one dear cousin said to me, only half-jokingly, “Don’t dig too deep, or you may find some black babies.” Another cousin later sent me some printouts from ancestry.com, which I interpreted as clues to our possible mixed-race relatives—documentation of mulatto families who had lived near our family in 1880, 1920, or 1930, and who shared our first names and surnames.
My choice was either to follow up these clues or to shut the book on further investigation. After waiting a while, I followed up the clues. I decided that knowledge is better than intentional ignorance, and that family lines are important. Robin Foster @saving stories has been very generous and encouraging, with her expertise and wide experience. Megan Smolenyak’s fine webinar on “Finding the Living” has given me additional ideas. In my guest post for In-Depth Genealogy on April 28th I’ve presented my first tentative research results—my hypotheses that my great-grandfather, my 2 x great-uncle, and my great-uncle had mixed-race children. I haven’t yet found living descendants of these children.
I’m now informing my cousins about this research, one by one. When/if I do identify living mixed-race relatives, I will talk further with my white relatives. They have each been supremely kind and forthright with me in my research, and I feel that my first loyalty is to them, the family I have known all these years. Would they like to see my findings? Do they want to follow up in some way? I will listen to them carefully.
Low Country Africana on April 23rd tweeted an article about James DeWolf of Massachusetts, who has discovered that his ancestor James DeWolf (b. 1764) of Rhode Island was “the leading slave trader in all of U.S. history.” James then sent letters to 200 of his relatives, asking whether they wanted to explore with him the connections with their shared past. Only 9 of those 200 agreed, but now these ten people have made an Emmy-nominated documentary: “Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North.”
Will any of my relatives want to explore with me the connections with our (still hypothetical) living mixed-race family members? From my experience growing up in the South, I can imagine dozens of reasons for them to say No. But maybe some would say Yes.
Then more questions would arise. Would we try to reach out in some way to our mixed-race relatives, who may or may not want to be contacted? How would that work? This is not a simple question, to me.
Even James DeWolf’s nine consenting relatives, once they learned the totality of the family’s complicity in the slave trade, said they only felt comfortable reaching out to white people, “because they didn’t want to be perceived as white people naively reaching out to black people.” That’s interesting. Is their fear warranted?
I’m vulnerable to naiveté, it’s true. Social concerns can be naïve-making forces. In my utopian fantasies, white Southerners meet their mixed-race Southern relatives in a scene of racial healing. Our ancestors have been through slavery, on either side, and we are the result. Hooray! We don’t need to be afraid or angry. Present humanity can replace the inhumanity of the past. We can meet in justice and friendship.
Well. History is not fantasy. On “Finding Your Roots,” I have witnessed some reunions between blacks and whites. They were positive, yes, but fairly sober. The heavens did not open. In fact, these meetings were follow-ups to DNA testing—one more hurdle for people to consider. Some white people have refused Skip Gates’ request for DNA testing to establish ancestors in common with mixed-race guests on the show.
Moving back to reality, I do feel loyalty to my not-yet-found second and third mixed-race cousins. They are the family I don’t know. Their genealogies, joined to mine, represent for me an additional massive web of relationships that stretch across births and deaths to make a permanent pattern in history. I want to listen to their stories. But would they want to tell me their stories?
Through these loyalties and these genealogies, I feel as if I’m moving an inch at a time. The march of history, in small steps.