Black and White: American Genealogy, Race, and Popular Response

Article excerpt

ON THE FIRST DAY of my symposium on race and genealogy, I asked class members to pair up and tell their partners two things about their family histories. After the pairs had a chance to chat, we regrouped, and each student reported on what his or her partner shared. We went around the group--almost all white, almost all at least third-generation (or more) in the mid-Michigan area. We heard briefly of various immigrants, relatives who served in the military, family who had some brush with fame, etc. Then the young white woman paired with the only obviously black student in the class said, "My partner's great, great, great grandparents were slaves" and then, without missing a beat said, "and every Sunday my partner's extended family has dinner together." There was silence. Some of the white folks were wondering how--or if--they should respond.

As the course went on--and this essay developed--the central goal of both became questioning the character of that silence and the dialogue that started after the silence. Together, we explored the intersections of race and genealogy in contemporary American popular culture--especially through in-depth discussion of two recent popular genealogies, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White (1994) and Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family (1998). We concluded that texts like Haizlip's and Ball's represent important revisions of the idea and place of genealogy in America--not only in their consideration of an often "absent" (or, more properly, unspoken) element in genealogy (race) but also in their complex placement of genealogy and race in front of a mass audience. This essay explores the contexts of white and black genealogy in which Haizlip's and Ball's books functioned and then begins to study the ways in which the context, marketing, and reception (especially on the Oprah Winfrey show) of their texts shaped--and vocalized--a complex place for discussion of race in American genealogy.

A survey of one set of distant "forebears" of texts like Haizlip's and Ball's--genealogies published in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century--suggests that genealogy has long been used as a mode of advancing certain types of nationalist, classist, and racist ideologies even as such texts--and, indeed, because such texts--attempt to keep questions of color and race silent. Most of these texts were written by upper and upper-middle class white Americans, and most attempt to reify--or at least assert--the author's family's place as "first citizens of the republic."

The texts all begin with the "Immigrant"--an idealized progenitor constructed as a stunning combination of religious pilgrim, pioneer, patriot, and entrepreneur. This progenitor is always male, always white, and almost always English; he receives both more space and more narrative than any of the descendants. The narrative is rarely--if ever--more than an external account of long-term heroism; the writers never really speculate on the progenitor's motivations or emotions. Indeed, ironically, the function of most of this space is to buttress the author's conception of his (and it usually is "his" until the late nineteenth century) socio-economic and moral position in the nation. These genealogies are most interested in constructing a past to support a very specific conception of the present, in tracing down (one ancestor/many descendants with the author highlighted) rather than the more contemporary tracing up (one central descendant with many ancestors; i.e., a tree with roots). Specifically, the function of the pedigree is to establish the descendant's right to high position (moral, social, financial, etc.) by highlighting the worthy progenitor.

Consider, for example, John Chase's 1928 The Descendants of Thomas and Aquila Chase, which opens with an illustration of a stone tablet the author placed in the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The tablet reads, below an illustration of a ship, "Aquila Chase, Mariner, 1618-1670, Hampton, NH 1640; Newbury, MA 1646. …