Remembering their names

When I joined Coming To The Table over two years ago, I began a journey—a journey into the lives and times of my slave-holding ancestors and, most important for me, into the lives of the people they had enslaved. Taken together, we call ourselves linked descendants.

Along the way, I have participated in discussions with other descendants of enslaved and enslaver, and learned from what they have said to me.  In March 2012, I had the opportunity to spend a night in slave quarters with Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project (http://www.lowcountryafricana.com/2012/04/10/descendants-of-slaveholders-descendants-of-slaves-share-overnight-stay-at-bush-holley-house-greenwich-ct/ ), and other Coming To The Table members, in Connecticut, the last place any of us might associate with slavery.

I had fantasized for years what my first meeting with my linked descendants would be like. I would drive down a long and winding Deep South road, frayed asphalt edged with the rough lace of rusted barbed wire, a few cattle or horses ruminating in warm golden fields, the summer snow of cotton dolloped atop brittle brown stalks, and I would find some piece of land where my ancestors had lived. There would be an unpretentious wooden house, where even shade trees did little to cool the bug-buzzing air.  Already waiting for me would be my black family, and we’d spend the day together in reunion.  I would tell them, each one of them, that I was sorry for what my ancestors did to them.  I would imagine tearful goodbyes spoken in twilight, to a score of busy cicadas and a sky full of stars which, like the day, was too beautiful, too terrible, to take in all at once.

Given this fantasy, you may imagine what it was like when I actually found myself on my way to meet descendants of a slave owned by my ancestors. I drove a winding road not in the Deep South but the Deep North—through the low wooded hills of southeastern Connecticut, to be exact—on a silver-green spring day, too chilly to leave my jacket in the car when I arrived in Norwich, “the Rose of New England”, blooming at the confluence of the Yantic and Thames Rivers, and came face to face with a history I had no idea I carried around inside me.

On paper, I knew I was the eighth great-grandson of Benajah Bushnell, businessman of Norwich, member of one of the town’s most respected families. The Bushnells and my other Connecticut and Massachusetts ancestors were people I was sure were untainted by the slavery that sluiced grittily through the rest of my maternal grandmother’s ancestry.  New Englanders were, after all, the first to come out against the “peculiar institution”.  The great abolitionists were from there.  Safe houses for slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad dotted the placid New England landscape, as ubiquitous as red leaves in autumn.  Through this one branch of the family tree, I could be sure that slavery had played no part in my ancestors’ fortunes, because the North was on the right side of history. Funny the things they taught me in school, because I found that all that I have just written is incredibly untrue. What I had not known till shortly before this trip was that Benajah Bushnell was a slave owner. And not just Benajah Bushnell, but members of his wife’s family, and members of other families I was related to throughout New England.  In fact my earliest slave-owning ancestor lived in Boston, later the hotbed of Abolition, in the opportunistic and rapacious mid-1600s.

Indeed, Connecticut was the last place I expected to meet my first linked descendants, Donald Roddy and Daryl D’Angelo, whose forebear Guy Drock had been the property of my Bushnell ancestors over two centuries earlier. Meeting Drock’s descendants in Norwich—the first time in over two centuries that members of the Drock and Bushnell families had been reunited there—was sobering, confusing, and emotional for all of us.  To begin with, Daryl and Don looked like me.  To escape some if not all of that other sin of New England not often spoken of—racial prejudice against blacks, long after slavery was outlawed north of the Mason-Dixon line—many of Drock’s descendants married into white families. So in meeting them, I encountered not the technical and illusory “other” posed by difference in skin color, but the concept of slavery unveiled by any perceived difference between us, which somehow made our shared legacy even more challenging to face. Daryl and Don, too, had their reservations about this meeting that I had engineered.  What did I want from them? What purpose did this meeting serve? We are still discussing this over a year later. And we are still trying to understand the feelings that washed over all of us on one particular moment during our visit to Norwich. Norwich historian Dale Plummer, whose research into the life of Guy Drock had informed Daryl’s and Don’s own research into their history, took us on a tour of the town, starting with the Leffingwell House, home of some of my slave-holding ancestors.  Walking through the creaking paneled rooms, where rectitude, Christian devotion, and everything else that speaks of old New England like dried flowers pressed in albums by maiden daughters, it was almost impossible to imagine slaves living and working in such a house.  That changed when we descended to the daylight basement.  Here, according to local tradition, slaves readied for auction at the “north door” of the basement were said to have been kept chained to iron rings set in the stone walls.  Standing with Daryl and Don and gazing quietly at the door through which slaves exited into lives of servitude, we all had a very new, very troubled impression of the mists and maples of colonial New England. (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett/2013/10/04/slavery-freedom-and-reunion-in-a-colonial-connecticut-town)

Now I have begun another leg of this journey, one freighted with more emotion than I expected, full of stimulation and sadness and some indefinable something that I am unable to articulate in words.  Through the DNA testing company 23andMe, I have found some interesting details about my genetic makeup—that I have a drop of Ashkenazi Jewish blood, for instance (an ironic fact considering my German grandmother’s ancestry was published in the years leading up to the Third Reich as prime examples of Aryan origin), or the fact that my male ancestors originated in north-western Africa some 25,000 years ago and that I belong to a haplogroup commonly found in males from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Though I know quite a lot about my European ancestry, discovering this much more ancient genetic history is wonderful indeed.   But the greatest gift my DNA has given me is the certainty that I have several known, and possibly many yet to be known, African American cousins. Another gift is that with a few exceptions that I expected and with which I completely sympathize, most have welcomed my contact.  The happiness of these reunions, which I never thought I would experience at all, is tempered by the recollection of what it is that brings us together; and when one thinks of that, it is amazing that they want to have anything to do with me at all. But as we know, healing often comes first from the sufferer rather than the perpetrator.

My cousins and I don’t yet know which lines connect us. All we know for now is that we all share states of origin where my ancestors held slaves. Some of my cousins know the counties or parishes of their ancestors, and these, too, are places where my ancestors lived. For the most part, I have documents and records where my cousins have only oral history to go on.  Between the two sources of information, likelihoods and theories are shaping against the otherwise inchoate backdrop of the antebellum South.  What we can be sure of is that some time in the last two hundred years or so, my ancestors and their ancestors made that most intimate of personal connections—the conceiving and bearing of a child—though “connection” puts a pretty face on an ugly scenario.  It doesn’t take any imagination at all to guess how those children were begotten.  In a world where white men ruled white and black women, the latter were exploited for more than their ability to harvest crops, manage livestock, or clean up after their owners.  Even if my given male ancestors didn’t conceive children on their enslaved women, some male among their descendants surely did.  However it occurred, in my family tree there are cousins whose ancestors were in all probability joined to mine not through love or choice but because these women had no recourse but to submit.  I close my eyes and try to imagine the faces of those women, but all I see is fear.

There are people who find it in themselves to say, as a visitor to a South Carolina plantation recently said to a guide there, “Is there only the one slave cabin?”  The guide had to remind the visitor that, when all is said and done, even one slave cabin is too many.  In this vein some might tell me that what happened 150-250 years ago was not my doing and that I bear no fault for it; that if my family exploited slave women not just for work but for pleasure, that was their crime, not mine.  But I ask—who, then, is to make amends to the survivors?

I cannot turn back the clock as my grandmother wished she could do. Many times she said to me, “Had I been born in the time of slavery, I would have let them all go free.”  Her apology, my apology, count for little against the suffering of those enslaved by our forebears.  Yet I cannot deny my real sorrow for what was done and for the cascade of misfortune the slave trade brought to African people carried to North America in chains and kept there in servitude.  I want it known, if only to honor the ghosts of those unmarked graves along many a back road in the Deep South or along the edges of white people’s graveyards in New England towns, that I value them as human beings who were born to freedom like all people and were deprived of it to serve the fortunes of a privileged few.  That if no one else will, I will always remember their names.

I turned to biography full time in 2005, after serving as art and music critic for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Canada. Regardless of genre, what interests me as a writer is always character and courage, particularly in women, who have had to hang on tight to both to make their mark in what is still very much a man's world. I am drawn to the character and courage of disenfranchised populations, to those who don't or won't fit the mould, and to people marginalized because of race or creed. I am drawn to the largely unsung and too often exploited and damaged lives of our animal sisters and brothers. I want justice, and keep looking for it everywhere I go.

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Posted in Abolitionist, Ancestry, Connecting Across Families, Contemporary (1970- present), Discovery & Personal Reactions, Intimacy & Family Life, Linked Descendants, Racism, Slaveholders, Slaveholding (1780 -1865)
2 comments on “Remembering their names
  1. Thanks, Grant, for this moving recollection of meeting your African American cousins. I am burdened by being descended from slave owners on both sides of my family in SC. I had known some of the descendants of the enslaved on my mothers side as a child and know their descendants through my family history project, Shared History. I have not found blood connection–yet, but know it is there somewhere. I will continue my search.

  2. Kerri says:

    Thank you, more than you realize for taking me on your journey. I just found out today, on my 60th birthday that I am a direct descendant of Mr. Guy Drock! I have always “known” there was more to the story and it is an amazing feeling to know just a little bit more.

    Thank you again,

    Kerri

    Kerri

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