Amid a rise of laws forbidding discussions of racist histories, sharing our ancestors’ shameful wrongdoings is more urgent than ever
Maud NewtonWed 14 Sep 2022
My father, a successful lawyer and former aerospace engineer with an Ivy League degree, was an ardent defender of slavery. Throughout my childhood, at the dinner table and the park, and when driving past public housing, he held forth on the superiority of white people and, as he saw it, the inferiority of everyone else. He idolized our ancestors, who enslaved Black people in Mississippi. He would routinely denounce abolition as the meddling of know-nothing northern “bleeding hearts”.
“Birds of a feather flock together” was his mantra. This zeal for segregation extended to storytelling, and banning images of integration – lest his daughter be tempted to consort with anyone who wasn’t white. He used my mom’s nail polish to cover Black children in picture books, or cut their faces out altogether. When I was seven years old, he took out a brown-skinned toy on the side porch and hammered it until its head came off. Then he threw it in the garbage, where he said it belonged. He forbade me to watch Sesame Street because Black and white children played together on the show.
His cruelty was pointed and multifaceted. Once, when he asked what I’d learned that day at my fundamentalist Christian school in Miami, I mentioned that when someone fled enslavement in the South and was captured, their enslaver cut off their toes. My father was so angry, he seemed to levitate. He canceled my plans and his own, and spent the weekend sketching civil war battlegrounds, lecturing me about the benevolence of my ancestors and the importance of cotton.
Luckily, no one else I knew in South Florida in the 1970s and 1980s agreed that slavery was acceptable. As a child, I believed the US had progressed not only past my father’s enthusiasm for slavery, but past the denialism of our set of mid-century World Book Encyclopedias, which depicted plantations as bastions of quaint antebellum customs rather than the sites of bondage they were.
But the past several years have underscored how much that impulse is still with us – and is growing. In June, a group of educators in Texas reportedly proposed to the State Board of Education that references to slavery in the social studies curriculum be replaced with the phrase “involuntary relocation”. The suggestion followed a Texas law enacted last year that prohibits teaching of subjects that might make students (by which it really means white students) “uncomfortable”.
As the new school year begins, similar laws effectively recast all references to slavery and its legacy as “critical race theory” in states from Florida to New Hampshire to North Dakota. Florida’s counterpart, the “Stop WOKE Act,” also targets private employers.
I’m sure my father would approve.
More than 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, I felt I had to protect myself by choosing estrangement from my father. But one effect of having an overt white supremacist for a parent was that I always knew about my enslaver ancestors. Unlike many white people in this country, I didn’t have the option of turning away – of choosing denial.
As years went by, I continued to think about my family’s harmful legacy. I often felt alone in this preoccupation. Even in heart-to-hearts with friends and family, my impulse to engage with these histories frequently seemed to puzzle people. And with an intuition about systemic racism but no deep understanding of or language for it, I struggled to explain why wrestling with my family’s connection to slavery was important, not only to me but more broadly.
A few years after I cut ties with my father, I started researching my genealogy on Ancestry.com. At first I focused mostly on my mom’s side, which featured a slew of over-the-top Texans: the grandfather who’d purportedly married 13 times, the great-grandfather who’d killed a man with a hay hook, another great-grandfather who was said to have been a Dallas communist.
But I also researched my paternal ancestors, hoping to find that my father had exaggerated our ancestors’ involvement in slavery. I guess at some level I hoped to find that I didn’t come from enslavers, after all.
Instead, poring over census data and wills, I discovered so many paternal ancestors enslaving people – six bound by my fourth great-grandfather, Jesse Newton of Drew county, Arkansas; eight bound by my fourth great-grandmother, Sarah Tucker Hampton of Holmes county, Mississippi; 19 bound by my fourth great-grandfather, Jordan Bailey of Lexington county, Mississippi; and on and on. I struggled to keep track of who all these forebears were. I felt sick and disgusted, and also determined not to look away.
Without fully realizing it, I progressively aligned myself ever more closely with my mother’s people, assigning one side of my family the role of “racist” and the other side the role of “not racist” – or “not fundamentally racist.”
But then I uncovered ancestors who enslaved Black people on my mom’s side, too. These were forebears of my beloved Texan granny, whose hardscrabble childhood had always been a point of pride for her – and, I was realizing, also for me. The discovery was a gut punch, but a critical, enlightening one. A memory returned of Granny, after working long hours on her yard, referring to what she’d been doing as “N-word work.” The truth had been there for me to see all along.
I have a photo of Granny as a girl, around 1914, riding with her little sister and their grandfather in a wagon pulled by an emaciated horse. Her childhood nutrition was so lacking that she lost her teeth by her mid-20s.
I’d always imagined that Granny came from generations of poor white Appalachian folk. In reality, some of my ancestors through Granny, including my fifth great-grandfather, William Kinchen of St Helena Parish, Louisiana, not only enslaved Black people in Louisiana, but argued in the courts over who had the right to enslave them. The lawsuit listed the names, ages and complexions of five enslaved people it characterized as stolen property.
A line traced back to Puritan Massachusetts, where my ninth great-grandfather, Cornet Joseph Parsons, helped engineer the genocide and displacement of the Nonotuck and Agawam people who had lived in what we call western Massachusetts for millennia before my people came.
No matter which way I turned, the violent underpinnings of this country were part of my family.
Throughout my childhood, my mother disagreed with my father’s zeal for segregation and ardent defense of slavery, though she rarely challenged him on it directly. When I was 12, much to my relief, they divorced.
There is no more intimate connection to history than through our individual families
“I tried my best to avoid arguments with him so you wouldn’t have to live in any more strife than you already did,” my mom told me in an email a few years ago. “Maybe I was wrong, but I never felt as if either of you really respected him or wanted to be like him or his prejudices.”
But when I told my mom about our enslaving ancestors through Granny, I wasn’t entirely sure that she believed me. I began to see her allegiance to Donald Trump as a continuation of the same impulse that led her to tie herself to someone like my father, a man whose bigoted impulses were excused as incidental traits that had to be tolerated in exchange for the financial security and other benefits of being connected to him.
Just a little more than three of my lifetimes ago – I’m 51 – my ancestors were holding people in bondage. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” was a frequent warning in the schoolrooms of my childhood, one typically given in connection with major events like the fall of Rome or the American revolution. But there is no more intimate connection to history than through our individual families. And with the rise of laws forbidding discussions of racist histories, sharing our own ancestors’ shameful wrongdoings has never been more urgent.
Over the years, I began to think of this practice as “acknowledgement genealogy”, a name inspired by land acknowledgement or the practice of acknowledging that we are on the land of Indigenous people; in my case, in New York City, the Lenape. It’s also influenced by organizations like Coming to the Table, which enables dialogue and reparative work between descendants of enslavers and descendants of people who were enslaved, and Jennifer Mendelsohn’s Resistance Genealogy project.
Mendelsohn’s resistance genealogy tends to focus on the ways family trees of rightwing politicians undermine their own attitudes toward immigration, whereas acknowledgement genealogy, as I envision it, invites those of us whose ancestors participated in atrocities to learn about those harms, be public about them, and commit ourselves to taking up the reparative work that needs to follow.
For white people, acknowledging these histories does not mean seeking out our Black friends and unburdening ourselves in search of exoneration. It means having hard conversations, matter-of-fact conversations, often with fellow white people who may not want to have them. I’ve found that in sharing my ancestors’ harmful histories with people who may be in denial or more subtly resistant, it can help to lean into “I feel” statements.
Berating a history-averse neighbor about the horrors of slavery and the continuing harms of white supremacy is less likely to be effective than an open-hearted personal conversation. Saying “just a little more than a 150 years ago, my own ancestors were enslaving Black people, and I feel a real responsibility to reckon with that” is a more vulnerable approach. Most people are more likely to think about an open-hearted, painful personal revelation than a lecture after they walk away.
Family histories like mine are at the foundation of the culture we live in, a reality we have to confront
Family histories like mine are at the foundation of the culture we live in, a reality we have to confront. And they are not limited to the south. Slavery permeated the Massachusetts Bay Colony; it was not banned in New York City until 1827. Unclenching around what my ancestors did has given me a sense of continuing interness with them that’s not tied to silence and unhealthy allegiance. It brought an awareness of how those ancestors survive in me, and a clarity about how I want to show up in the world. The acknowledgment connects with a legacy of my evangelical upbringing, the idea that “the truth will set you free.” So it’s not about feeling guilty; it’s about honesty.
Ispoke with Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, the organization whose reparative work I’ve followed at a distance and occasionally donated to for almost a decade. They have local chapters across the country working toward repair. As he writes in his book Inheriting the Trade, DeWolf is a white man who grew up in Bend, Oregon, where he “watched Leave it to Beaver on television and lived a sheltered Leave it to Beaver life”, rarely interacting with Black people until 2001, when he agreed to travel to Cuba to confront his family history.
A descendant of what he calls the largest slave-trading dynasty in US history, DeWolf agreed that honesty is the only path – with a caveat. “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
Through him, I learned of Reparations4Slavery, an organization led by Lotte Lieb Dula and Briayna Cuffie, who advocate for “reparative genealogy” – a better name than mine – which they see as “the act of researching our heritage, acknowledging our connection to slavery, and daylighting the history of those our ancestors enslaved”.
Dula’s white ancestors were enslavers at the foundation of Maryland; Cuffie’s Black ancestors were enslaved in the state. Their organization advocates for acknowledgment by making slavery-era family records available online to descendants of the enslaved. They view this repatriation of histories and records as a visible connection of past and present and a “solid first step toward reparative relationship-building”.
Of course, acknowledgement is not everything. While Germany has paid billions in reparations for the Holocaust, and the US government paid reparations to Japanese families who suffered internment, Black people in this country have received little but an occasional apology, gestures toward equality continually undermined by systems that work to preserve the advantages of white people, and, now, a federal holiday on Juneteenth that is celebrated by all.
Organizations like Harvard, Georgetown and William and Mary have been in the news for taking small steps toward reparations because of their involvement in slavery – but we don’t have to sit back and wait for institutions to figure things out.
Individual acknowledgment, acts, and advocacy are vital. The Reparations4Slavery website suggests many ways of engaging in repair beyond sharing your own family history, including committing time and money, being intentional around these histories and working against their persistence as we move through the world.
Laura Hill, a Black writer, educator and activist who leads the Historic Triangle chapter of Coming to the Table, has devoted herself to reparations education for years, and observed in a column for the Virginian-Pilot last year that “reparations are about restoring lives intentionally designed to advance a racist status quo”, one that has benefitted white Americans over the 400 years that they’ve “lived with laws, policies and customs intentionally bent in their favor, while most people of African ancestry were relegated to inferior jobs, housing, education, justice systems and income levels”.
In our phone interview, Hill pointed to the example of the military, which extended income, health care, housing, insurance, pension and other benefits to Black soldiers in 1948. If this kind of package were offered to Black families more broadly, it would be the kind of reparative start we need, Hill argues.
She, like all the advocates and activists whom I’ve spoken to, considers acknowledgment a critical first step in the reckoning process. This is also true for Sharon Morgan, a genealogist and writer who founded Our Black Ancestry, a nonprofit devoted to resources for African American genealogical research and a healing community for many. Talking to me from her home in Mississippi, Morgan emphasized that acknowledgement is a crucial corrective to the denial of white people. As we look for a “coherent way to move forward”, genealogy can provide us with a path. Every enslaved ancestor of hers whom she can name had a white father, she says, and it’s disturbing that “white people do not realize how connected we might be”
This is not a microwaveable moment but a slow cooker … The old values are desperate to hold on
Making contact with people who have been working toward acknowledgement and reparations most of their lives has deepened my understanding of how important it is to do this work in community, rather than sitting in front of my computer, anxiously reading news and stewing about strangers’ opinions on social media.
Harold Fields, head of the Denver Black Reparations Council, has been working toward acknowledgement and reparations all his life. “I cut my teeth on creating multiracial families,” he told me. Fields is Black and his wife is white, and they’re both from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with families deeply rooted in the racist history of that state. Over the years, their previously hostile families, who disowned them for marrying each other at a time when white southerners were still trying to insist on segregation, have made peace. The brother-in-law who once wanted to kill him “has become quite an ally”.
His gift for metaphor and tenacious advocacy are awe-inspiring – even over the phone. “This is not a microwaveable moment,” he told me, but “a slow cooker”. New values are trying to get born, but there’s an equal and opposing rise in fundamentalism, and a retrenchment. “The old values are desperate to hold on.”
He believes in the power of storytelling for arriving at a true culture of repair that operates “from the bottom up as well as from the top down”. He’s found that the more people tell their stories, the deeper they will go and the less resistant they become to seeing the repair that’s needed.
“We should be talking to hospice workers about how they help people make the transition from the life that they knew,” he told me, “to a new one that they’re afraid of. When we think about values dying, that is hospice work.”
I’m still learning how to be an effective ally, a process I expect to continue for the rest of my life. But I do have a few observations about acknowledgment, individual acts and advocacy for broader repair.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s vital for those of us who are reckoning with the legacies of enslaver ancestors not to seek or expect absolution from descendants of those who were enslaved, and not to flood people who have spent their lives struggling against the legacies of these atrocities with details they may not want to hear. It’s important not to operate from a place of yearning for forgiveness. If we feel defensive, we can recognize that feeling, but not act from that place.
Perfection is also the enemy of this work. It can prevent us from taking any steps at all. I know I will not get everything right, but I can acknowledge mistakes and course-correct. The goal is not to map it all out before we take our first steps, but to be honest, to listen, to take small or large reparative acts that are within our power, and to help create pathways for the change and restitution that Black people tell us this country needs.