I’m a biographer specializing in the lives of extraordinary women, and there’s a reason why I am drawn so strongly to my subject: I was surrounded from birth by strong women extraordinary in their own individual ways, my mother and grandmother in particular. My grandmother descended from slave holders in the South and in New England, and knew enough about that period of her family’s history to be ashamed of it and yet keen to know what had happened to the people her people had held in bondage. My mother, too, was keen to know this. My grandmother died in 2001, ten years before I joined CTTT, but my mother, who died last December, was able to celebrate with me my meeting with linked descendants in Norwich, CT last spring and my stay with Joseph McGill, Dionne Ford Kurtti, and David Pettee in the slave quarters of Bush-Holley House in Greenwich. She was not able to partake of my discovery earlier this spring, through the auspices of 23andMe, several African American cousins scattered throughout the US, one of them linking my white family to the greatness of Daisy Bates of the Little Rock Nine. But how happy she would have been, as I am happy to know my cousins and to be welcomed by them into their families. I have long considered the possibility of a book around these discoveries – one of my cousins, the link to Daisy Bates, and one of my linked descendants (through Guy Drock of eighteenth century Norwich, CT) are helping me think it through in ways I had not considered. If a book comes out of this, it will be more through them than through me, as it should be!
I am involved in this group not just because I am actively seeking linked descendants from my family’s history of slavery, which stretches back almost three hundred years in North America, but also because of my work to reconstruct the histories of my African American cousins, whose history was suppressed, even as they themselves were oppressed, by my well-documented ancestors South and North. Though I have much more to learn, and sometimes wonder if this lifetime is life enough in which to learn it all, I have gathered wisdom from my cousins linked and blood, and feel I could contribute a little not just to the examination of this painful shared history of ours but maybe help others who are in the same situation, white and black – wanting to know the details of a terrible past, without knowledge of which we cannot be completely whole. Nor, lacking that knowledge, can social justice reach its fullest possible arc. Part of the research for my book will take me into Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and force me to walk ground worked by slaves – and for someone like myself, who couldn’t bring himself on his last visit to the Atlanta area even to drive out to a famous plantation, Bulloch Hall, because it was built by slaves and he feared hearing the voices of the suffering out of every stone, decided to stay far, far away. I cannot do that. There is a line from Rebecca West’s early novel, “The Return of the Soldier”, that I think of when I recoil from what I think I can’t face:
“Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is an adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf.”