Being a “linked descendant” puts racism and white privilege in a harsh light for me. It makes speaking out honestly about the legacy of slavery a personal and family imperative.
I always knew that my mother’s ancestral roots went back to at least one plantation-owning Virginia family, but not until well into adulthood did I realize that being directly descended from one plantation family actually means being descended from many such families, and related by marriage to as many as 50 others. Furthermore, this heritage for “first families of Virginia” turns out to endow me with an extended family of European American cousins, but an equally large or larger extended family of African American cousins. And the longer I studied my family tree, the more I realized how large, extended and “linked” it is.
As I use the term, being a “linked descendant” has several layers of meaning. First, it means knowing and acknowledging that at least one of my ancestors owned slaves, kept people in bondage to make his own life easier. “Linked,” in this case, means bondage and speaks of chains and shackles.
Being a “linked descendant” also means that I know there are living descendants of the enslaved people owned by my ancestors; my family’s involvement with slavery cannot be relegated to the past. The past and its harms are linked to the present and its harms.
Being a “linked descendant” means I am fortunate enough to know personally a number of the descendants of my ancestors’ enslaved people; we are connected in the present, albeit in a different way than our ancestors were connected in the past.
Finally, being a “linked descendant” means I am as fully and equally related by blood to African American descendants of enslaved people as I am to the European American descendants of slave owners, people my grandmother introduced me to at family reunions.
The story of how I come to be part of a large biracial family, linked by slavery and by kinship, is a fairly commonplace story among the old land-owning families of the American South. In part, it is the story of two generations of slave-owning families. My 5xgreat grandfather, John, had four children who survived into adulthood, the offspring of three European American wives, and was widowed three times. After the death of his third wife, John took one of his enslaved women, Elizabeth, as a concubine and had at least six children with her, children who are the half-brothers and half-sisters to his children of European heritage.
One of his European-heritage daughters, Martha, married Thomas, a plantation-owner. Martha gave birth to several children, two of whom lived to be adults. When Martha’s father John died, she and Thomas inherited many of John’s enslaved people, including John’s concubine Elizabeth and her children, Martha’s half-siblings. Like her mother before her, Martha died young, and Thomas never remarried. And like his father-in-law, Thomas subsequently had a long-standing relationship with one of the enslaved half-sisters of his wife. Together they had several children. As with John’s family, Thomas’s family included two sets of half-siblings, at least four children of combined African and European heritage and two children of only European heritage.
The descendants of these six half-siblings were linked through ownership in the past, and linked through kinship that will endure forever, in the past, present and future. In the present, some of the descendants of Thomas are linked through friendship as well. We are also linked by a shared passion to make sure the full and honest story of our family connections is told, honored, and explored.
As a descendant of the European American side of the family, integrating the implications of being a “linked descendant” has meant wrestling with my upbringing, to see African Americans as part of the “we,” not members of the “they.” It has meant opening my mind and my conscience, my ears and eyes, and my heart to the reality that discrimination, disrespect, and denial of rights are happening to my people, my family, not to strangers or faceless others. To viscerally comprehend that my cousins are followed in upscale shops, my cousins will be required to produce identification to vote in some states, and my cousins could be victims of enforcers of “stand your ground” laws.
Being “linked” also means accepting real, horrific disconnects and distortions I’d rather not look at if I didn’t have to. Some of the cousins I know and cherish are related to me because one side of my family took an active role in capturing, abducting and enslaving the other side of my family. Grandfather John was a slave trader. Socially and politically prominent men on one side of my family took advantage of their power and forced powerless women on the other side of the family into sexual relationships. Grandfather John and Grandfather Thomas took enslaved women as concubines. The wealthy, powerful European side of my family kept its biracial children from the other side of the family in bondage, did not acknowledge their paternity, did not let them share in their patrimony, and worse still, separated those children from their mothers and from each other, and sold them, when those rich and powerful men’s bad financial decisions created pressure for funds.
Being a linked descendant means I am linked personally and directly to one of the darkest, most shameful, most uncomfortable threads of American history, linked to a shame my fellow Americans do not want to face, take responsibility for, and make amends for. Being a linked descendant means I am graced with opportunities to speak up for justice, ask questions about the truth, push into areas of discomfort hoping for mercy, and be part of the search for peace in my soul, in my family, and in my nation.