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Unearthing a Family Tree's Diverse Roots

Journalist, novelist and playwright Thulani Davis traces her roots in her new book, My Confederate Kinfolk: a Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots. Among the revelations Davis uncovered was that her ancestors include a Scots-Irish clan of cotton planters as well as Africans from Sierra Leone.

Davis' previous books include the novels 1959 and Maker of Saints. She also wrote the librettos for Amistad and Malcolm X.

Read an Excerpt from My Confederate Kinfolk:

Twenty-first Century Freedwoman

This is a book about real people and some of their experiences from the mid-nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century -- two families: one black, one white, many of whom never knew each other as well as some of their neighbors, folk whose families lie in graveyards next to the cotton fields they worked. In the process of trying to learn a little about a great-grandfather, I came across a sprawling extended family and a lot of classic Americana -- pioneers, Midwest farmers, men who went to the Gold Rush, and southern planters. Since January 2001 when I started taking notes for what I thought would be a novel, I have added over 175 people to my family tree, kinfolk no one in my family knew a thing about four years ago. This book concerns only a few of these people; the stories their lives left behind have given me an amazing four years.

I was able to learn most about roughly two dozen people who were ordinary Americans of their time. Their journeys seem singular and extraordinary to me, yet I cannot believe they were terribly unusual. Some of the other figures who occasionally ride through on horseback, such as generals of the Confederacy, were fairly easy to look up, and the Civil War being an American obsession, there are a wide range of interpretations of such people and everything they did.

Historians have written a wealth of texts on every period in this book as well as many of the specific events, even those that may be totally unfamiliar to most of us. Some of these are engaging histories, others offer insightful analyses of the forces at work in our society when masses of people did something in concert -- migrations, elections, surviving disasters -- and still others have given a window on people in bondage, lives obscured by a paucity of documentation.

I have tried to stay close to the ground trod by some of the ancestors, clinging to them like a shadow and following their trails through events large and small. This sometimes involved spending five or six hours several times a month to locate where the second baby in the family was born, or dragging behind them during the Civil War, plotting on my own hand-drawn maps of Arkansas which route troops took to attack a small town from its south side. I am not a historian. The Civil War left landmarks all over Virginia, where I grew up, but I never paid much attention to the war's history. When I started my research, I knew nothing about how cotton is raised, and began to read about both cotton farming and rice farming because I was unsure which I might need. But it was cotton that ultimately ruled the lives of the people in this book, and I finally had to go look at some -- not the sprigs of wood with cotton bolls and seeds one can buy in florist shops in New York City, but fields of cotton. A friend and I drove through two thirds of the state of Mississippi, and were continually awed. Even covering elections in Alabama's Black Belt did not prepare me for the vastness of the Delta's cotton fields. So many scenarios came to mind regarding the people no longer visible in those fields, who have since been replaced by machines.

I am also not a genealogist, though I am now much more agile in the face of old documents than I once was. But I am a journalist who is, like many in my trade, very curious, very stubborn, and able to push keys on a computer for very long hours. So this text is not a history nor a genealogy but built from my own great interests: how we define being American, how we deal with race, and human character.

I did not count on having to revise some of my thinking about myself. Down to the last week of writing this book I have been faced with mysteries that could not be explained, yet continued to surface. In the most recent case, a person I have never met said that one of my ancestors looked less Indian than another. There was a persistent understanding about some Choctaw heritage that ran like a loose thread through the cloth, always visible because it was out of place, but never falling away from the rest of the cloth. This thread that kept appearing but not revealing its origin made me look at the whole fabric again and again. American history as I was taught it did not prepare me for what I found, but the skepticism of my teachers in segregated schools did.

Think of any African American you know who had any family from the South or West before the Civil War and you have a person who is likely to have family ties -- black and white -- to the founders of the country, from those carved in marble to the unnamed soldiers of the Revolutionary War; kinship with people who were taken from their homes in the East on the Trail of Tears to designated Indian territories; connections to several different religious practices -- African, indigenous American, Christian, and possibly Muslim -- and at least that many languages; and ties to the American system of slavery.

I found in my own family experiences the ten prominent elements of the Grand Narrative of African American history: 1) Middle Passage; 2) southern bondage; 3) the Civil War; 4) Reconstruction; 5) Jim Crow and the rise of lynching; 6) World War I, the Great Migration, and the rise of white race riots; 7) the 1920s cultural renaissance; 8) the second Great Migration of the 1940s; 9) World War II; and 10) the mid-century struggle for full human and citizenship rights. But many items on that list are events in American history in which the white actors have disappeared. Ask a high school student the name of one politician who created Jim Crow. Ask her why people moved to Chicago in the 1940s and she is more likely to say the boll weevil than the longer lasting evil of sharecropping.

I can easily add to my list elements associated with what might be called the white Grand Narrative: the colonial period; the American Revolution; pioneering and the expansion to the Mississippi River; the U.S.-Mexican War; spreading King Cotton from the exhausted Southeast to uncleared West; the Gold Rush; the wars against Native Americans; the building of railroads and stockyards; and on and on. Ask a student to name an African American who walked from Virginia to Alabama to take cotton farming south. That person is one of my unnamed ancestors. I can say for a fact my friend Arnim's great-grandfather, Richard King, helped take cotton from Alabama to Texas at six years of age. Another friend, the late writer Buriel Clay, had a great-grandmother and great aunt who walked during the Civil War from Louisiana to Texas through the same battlefields my white ancestors fought in as Confederates. They took King Cotton there. The Campbells' slaves took it there. Because their names were not written down, we must follow those named in official papers who took cotton to Texas, whose names are now etched in monuments in small towns all over that state. There are no statues of these African Americans anywhere cotton is grown.

Naming is a powerful act. African Americans are still very much nameless as actors in American history, and our history, despite the wealth of it now available, is still considered of interest only to other black people. It may take a recognition that some of the unnamed actors of American history, from traditional heroes shot by the British in the Revolution to nameless lynch victims, are our kinfolk -- the relatives of black and white Americans -- for all of us to act when black votes are not counted. It may take the realization of kinship for the mass of Americans to say, "those votes were paid for in blood by people who might have been my grandparents, aunts, or uncles." Where compassion has failed, perhaps history can help.

At the heart of my story are people I have come to know largely by their actions. It is interesting to try to understand people without any of the reasons given for what they did. After transcribing nearly one hundred pages of personal documents for the white family, I began to have opinions about each family member -- likes, dislikes, amusements, pity. Still, they rarely gave reasons for choices and stuck to stating the facts. So many issues in life were not discussed that the actions taken became the road map to the emotional life. For those who were in bondage, I have no pieces of paper that bear their thoughts. With the freedmen and women, any actions, choices, or decisions made after 1865 seemed huge. They had enormous significance if only because they could not be made before and may represent long held desires or sudden impulses, but they were all initiations of self-determination. As such, they are still compelling.

There is seldom a day in my own life when I do not try to make sure that my own power to decide has been attempted in the situations I meet. With me, that is a defining bit of character. This indulgence is not only who I think I am, but who I would like to be. I would like to have the power and consciousness to say amen to the course of my life even if I take no specific action in a given moment because I still feel the desires of those who came before me to push their own personal agency closer to their desires. That is, of course, part of life, but knowing people who lacked the power to act in their own lives brings a desire to give yourself what they were denied. As a practicing Buddhist, I spend a lot of time trying to examine my need to decide, to act, to be powerful. Fortunately, Richard King's great-grandson said to me one day, "You are a twenty-first century Freedwoman."

Yes. Though this journey has brought me many gifts, without question the greatest has been to come closer to the first generation out of bondage. I learned a great deal by exploring the white lives in this book, and learned about myself as well. The white Americans in this book went through episodes of frontier life and rugged travel across the country that seem unthinkable today. At the same time, I cannot overstate how important the lives of freedmen and women should be in the study of American history. They were the bodies on whom the effects of the Civil War were played out. Whatever ideas were in the culture about freedom, citizenship, and the right to participate in democracy -- whether accepted ideas or marginalized concepts -- were all tested on these people when they were suddenly emancipated from legalized slavery.

Regardless of the success or failure of those attempts to address the crisis that emerged immediately at the end of the war with this change in legal status, the people themselves pushed way beyond the intentions and limits set by those in power. Farmers in the Midwest who thought they would accept a few "refugee" servants and laborers, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and missionaries who started rural schools in the South all encountered more people than expected, met with more demands for education, participation, respect, and access to economic autonomy than anyone had bargained for. The first freed generation operated on the simple premise that their biggest problem was being in bondage, and once that was abolished, they set about shaping their own lives with results that are astounding. It is as if the spiritual waters of the culture broke through all the levees and surged forward, taking with them anything too lightly rooted, soaking the land, and ultimately enriching the ground on which we stand.

Men and women born in the last generation of bondage and the first generation of freedom invented blues and jazz, explored the North Pole, started schools, ran for office, opened businesses, created Broadway shows, and served as diplomats. They settled the West and drove the engines that became Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and other great cities. They wrote poems and novels, devised indispensible tools for modern life, medicine, and the study of humankind. They created justice movements, made the beds, served the meals, and polished the doorknobs. They slaughtered the hogs, delivered babies, fought in three wars, and continued to get the cotton out. If we could have bottled the air of those times and the ideas of forward thinkers after the Civil War, a most honorable human system might have been built. Our children need whatever that was, that unbounded drive to create new lives that the freedmen and freedwomen brought to the invention of African American self-determination on a mass level. The first women and men to walk away from bondage reinvented the race, redefined the terms of American citizenship, and spread that blend of African and Euro-American culture created in bondage in the antebellum South. Never has one group of people acted on such a large scale in so many regions of the country to push this society to honor its foundational principles. They taught the rest of us how to do it and yet there is no cultural memory of those millions. They are freedom's "Greatest Generation."

Like most people, I grew up knowing more about one side of the family than the other. In our family nothing was ever said about my mother's people, though we all knew there was a Mississippi plantation, and a master-housekeeper, race mixing-inheritance-squabble story. This particular mix is common, so it was as if we knew already the story and its meaning. My family story as a Davis was so complete, so textured, layered, and present, that when I looked in the mirror, I could connect every feature on my face with someone in my father's family. I had a Davis nose, Davis mouth, and Davis hairline. I had my Dad's hands, and might have gotten my hair from the undetailed report of blood from Madagascar or from the often heard reports of Indian blood that black folks talked about. Still, I was complete, whole.

It is just as I used to try to tell people about segregation -- we weren't seeking integration because we were missing the amenities across town; we weren't going without tailors, barbers, shoemakers, gamblers, or landscapers: our world was complete. We did not enter the integration struggle to fill a void on a shopping list; we gave up one kind of autonomy in the pursuit of justice. And we all have the knowledge that our portion of humanity comes from a wholeness somewhere. I was completely explained by what I knew. If I didn't know everything, I still could explain myself completely.

As a Davis growing up in Hampton, Virginia, with no knowledge of how we came to be called Davis, my life was rich with family lore. My great-grandfather on that side of the family, William Roscoe Davis, was born in the county where Nat Turner lived and was an adolescent at the time of the revolt. He experienced a religious awakening during that same period when slaveholders decided to promote the faith among the bondpeople. Not long after, he was sold or given to an owner in my hometown, who then fled when Union troops came. My great-grandfather was able to take that opportunity to rescue his family from the farm where they were kept. I have always been aware of the closeness, the short time since slavery, because my grandfather, Andrew Davis, was born in slavery. He had told his family about seeing the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac in the Hampton Roads from a mill where the family lived during the Civil War. We weren't missing anything, and what we knew of the white ancestors was none too good.

My Uncle Arthur told me that the "furthest back" Davis ancestor was an African woman named Liza -- my great-great-grandmother -- whom his father had known. The family story was not that Liza was raped, that was never said, only that her son, William, was "fathered" by a British sea captain. William, in turn, was married to a woman who was a biracial person, then called mulatto, likely conceived in the same way as he, and she too had at least one child by her master. After he brought the family together, they raised seven children.

My hairline is not a Davis trait at all; it comes from a Scots-Irish family named Campbell. I do have my Dad's hands. I'm not sure about my nose. I have seen the dark circles under my eyes on photos of people I never knew existed -- great aunts, a great-grandmother on the Campbell side. Looking in the mirror is quite a different experience at fifty-six years of age than it was only four years ago. That Madagascar stuff is there somewhere, I suppose, as well as at least two other unknown African heritages, the unsought input from the United Kingdom, and who knows about that Native American piece. At least now I know if I have it, more likely it's a Choctaw gene than Cherokee.

Finding the Campbell women jarred me, in part because the resemblance between us was easier for me to see on them than on the men. What spooked me though was that three of them turned out to be would-be writers: one of fiction, one of poetry, and one who wrote a memoir. Another Campbell woman built several theaters. That is a tad provocative, I thought. I started down this whole writing road to be a playwright, got snared by poetry, and realized one day that novels were something I just had to try. These are my passions. Yes, I once made a quilt with my grandmother's assistance -- since it was the early 1970s, it was all fabric from old dashikis. I learned to make pottery because my mother did, and pottery is something of a family craving. All the women in the family also sew but that's where I exhibited hands that were all thumbs. But a bunch of women turning out novels and writing irate letters to the editor of the local paper -- that scared me. This discovery was also disturbing simply because for so many years it did not even occur to me to look for them. Such is the barrier of imagination in a country in which racialism defies common sense.

One cannot be completely explained by anything, thank goodness, even one's lifetime of actions and decisions. But it would be easier to build selves less fictional and community less mythical if the truth of American heritage was accepted. This country has been crazy about deciding how to make people black or white ever since Thomas Jefferson thought a system should be devised and made law. From that moment, the lies began. In the eighteenth century, when most Africans lived in Virginia and Maryland, the state of Virginia began to exile white women who had children by blacks as well as people who were "white enough" by Jefferson's standard to be free, and more lies and unspoken realities became the norm. For Jefferson, the possibility of confusion seems to have been a powerful catalyst. Toni Morrison has described the idea very well:

Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.1

If you ask an African American where she gets her last name from, and if she has heard tales, at least in my experience, she will talk not about a one-time slaveholder but a white biological forebear. It is rare that someone tells me the family just took the name from the last owner, though that is considered the normal explanation for our names. The line I have heard most often is, "There was a Confederate colonel in there somewhere." I have heard it so many times that I still tend to think any white southerner with a sizeable plantation got an automatic rank of colonel if they submitted to service for the southern cause. Yes, there is a colonel in this book. While I remember people saying that it was rumored that (fill in the blank, Abe Lincoln or Warren Harding, for example) had "a nigger in the woodpile," no one ever said, "Yeah, so-and-so has a redneck in the woodpile." First of all, that would disparage the prevalence of rape in those family stories and, secondly, it was too common to bother about. My uncle Arthur Davis gave me his unpublished autobiography to edit before he passed, and his early-twentieth-century childhood was replete with neighbors who knew their white kinfolk, usually former masters. He has an outrageous story of next door neighbors who took in "ole massa" and how his father, Andrew, couldn't bear it. There was no mystery. But for the rest of us, folk stopped repeating all the details, and in my own childhood, for instance, the white folks' papers were kept in a segregated library I could not visit if I wanted. I know many African Americans who have their "white folks," and only one who felt the need to look for them. It wasn't strange in times past, but it is much more strange that it continues in a case like that of Strom Thurmond's African American daughter, who kept his secret.

When I was growing up, African Americans were still apt to brag about any heritage that mitigated pure Africanness, that modified black looks. People used adjectives that literally modified being black. "Good" hair, "aquiline" nose, "peachy" skin, mariney, cafe au lait, comely, "pretty," big boned, built not brawny, not stud-like.

And the Reconstruction period had to be ignored in order for this society to become officially segregated and to keep alive the slavery heritage as a marker for whom to marginalize, and to keep alive the romance of an elevated and gracious nineteenth century culture. In reality, this country was a fairly brutal place to live no matter where one might have been. Even as I tell people I meet today that this book deals with Reconstruction, I almost always have to define the word and to explain the "Redemption" period -- the destruction of Reconstruction -- I have to start by saying that Reconstruction was difficult for white southerners. The violent overthrow of Reconstruction is also part of this story.

Understanding the Redemption is central to understanding the politics of today. If I told someone tomorrow that white supremacists ran black people on their tickets in 1875 to get black people to sign on for the worst possible agenda for their lives, most people wouldn't believe me. Do we even know black people in Mississippi could vote then? If I said it happened in a northern city recently, no one would blink. These scenarios continue to be used successfully because we continue to ignore our past.

In my childhood in Virginia, I was somewhat interested in history but more interested in the latest records. I never saw the inside of the run-down plantation homes behind long driveways off the local roads. But in high school, a teacher gave me DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America, and it had a profound effect on me. This was one more incredible moment in history I had never learned about and one of the most fascinating. The racist textbooks of the segregated school system in Virginia painted the period as one of corruption, governed by the rise of absolute ignorance to positions of power. I'm quite sure one did not have to go to school in the South to be taught this view. This ten-year period could have changed many of the terms by which we have always lived in this country -- highly racialized terms -- and in the goals of the builders of Reconstruction lie the seeds of contemporary struggles for justice across the country. But when I read Black Reconstruction, I had no idea that in middle-age I would find myself putting my shoes in the muddy cotton fields in Mississippi and Alabama, trying to retrace the steps of people who could provide some of the anecdotal particulars of that epic study. Dr. DuBois continues to be a light on the path.

In working on My Confederate Kinfolk I found myself stepping into dank sinking land edged by creeks in the Mississippi Delta where the struggle people have waged has been romanticized, erased, buried, and glorified, without a sense of how personal and physically perilous it was to be thrown about a brutal countryside by the violence of what is later called history. The people in this book were forced from state to state by circumstances from sale or war, to family tragedy, the local guns of social change, and, ever so rarely, pleasure.

I have been amazed at how social change plays out face to face, at how the Campbell family went to war with brothers, friends, neighbors, cousins, and slaves. They knew well the people in battle with them. Familiarity was all. The Campbells knew family in almost all the places the war took them, fought in situations where thousands of men dug up the land for trenches and breastworks, where they hid behind hay bales, and where the fighting was close enough to use a pistol. No smart bombs. People were wounded and got sick repeatedly and went back to battle. If it was bad, and your family was able, they brought a wagon for you.

When the African American Tarrant and Curry families tried to vote after the war, they knew well the farmers who came into the fields on horseback to warn them to stay away from the polls. Their neighbors who were lynched knew the men who killed them. If any of these farm workers tried to buy land, they knew every merchant who refused them credit for supplies, or burned down their children's schools. They had been bought and sold by some of these same violent people in their midst. They had, in some cases, been concubines to the men, or fathered by them, men so often referred to by their peers without irony as "the best men in town." They lived in a world where families sold their own children because of their skin color, where most of "the best men in town" had probably, at least once, put the names of their own progeny on the inventory and had to make that decision.

When the early Ku Klux Klan members gathered in rooms in town, the carpetbagger living upstairs knew them all. Their black concubines knew to pick them up at an appointed hour, and the wives knew not to stop by during the hours after the meeting when the Kluxers and their black women often caroused before heading home. Slavery and its aftermath were much more about intimacy, all kinds of intimacy, than one learns in classrooms, or sees depicted in mainstream media. People who visit Monticello, for instance, probably seldom ponder the fact that during the many years that Jefferson built and rebuilt his home, everyone in the household slept in one room. The hierarchy of chattel slavery infers distance by way of class, power, and the physical separation of facilities between owners and chattel. The space allowed the animal stock was much more hospitable than the space allotted for human chattel who lived with no privacy whatsoever, in groups from three to six or more in a room. But the enforcement of separation came long after slavery.

My Confederate Kinfolk shares with the reader some of this intimacy of friend and foe, of slaveholder and slave, of freedwoman and employer. I have attempted to look at the communities to which people belonged: overlapping communities of choice, communities of circumstance, and communities of coercion. A handsome young black woman who might have grown up in Yazoo, Mississippi, starting life as a slave, and later -- in freedom -- "given" to the former master as a concubine to ensure the family's chance of making a living is a person who belongs to all three kinds of community. She has forced intimates, intimates of choice, and, if lucky, intimates who share the burden of work, or help to educate or otherwise support her. A young white man growing up in that town has more options, but, if not a planter's son, his destiny is hard work and the comradery of a male crowd that might require that any intimate ties to blacks be private. Those are just two examples, but the people in this story all had similar overlapping ties with a range of loyalties to each. The slaveholding class clearly enjoyed the expectation of loyalty and love from the majority of their ties. The African Americans knew that support from all their ties could be severed by brute force, or merely by the power of making a decision to vote or act on one's agency in any way. All thoughts of autonomy and self-reliance were dangerous, not only to one's own existence but to loved ones.

From the earliest months I spent working on this book, the characters I was discovering so fascinated me that it became a secondary matter that most of them are relatives of mine. That fact was, at first, hard to truly digest. I had already been fully shaped as an African American woman, in part by the very fact of not knowing most of the specific history from which my own family emerged. Like many other people my sense of self and my blackness were constructed by the living example of parents and people I knew early in life and their stories, which almost always contradicted the history I was taught. My version of blackness was also shaped by their reliance upon me to construct myself in defiance of what was said about my possibilities -- and what had been said about theirs. My eight years of training in French were a defiance begun by my father when he was told his lips were too big to learn the language. He defied his instructor and became fluent (and a Phi Beta Kappa), but I also made a point of defying his instructor. My lack of shame at having no singing voice is a privilege he handed me after having to sing spirituals for his supper at Grinnell College in Iowa, and Lord knows, he was no singer either. My belief in myself was a product of family propaganda -- we were told we could do whatever we chose (except perhaps play pro football!) -- and learn whatever we needed to learn, and learn it fast.

And I was shaped by many people I didn't know -- black American icons in every sphere -- scholarship, political leadership, the arts, sports, and entertainment. They all represented some realization of ourselves still incubating. Somewhere inside my nonathletic, movie-watching body was Wilma Rudolph. Somewhere in me when the old man wasn't looking was a backup singer for Aretha Franklin. In some ways, to later find out who your own family catalysts are is to learn something you can't act on much. For example, as an African American adult who has had the chance to visit five or six African countries, I also was able to see that my idea of my Africanness was polycultural, polyglot (and polymusical), and so fluid that I could identify with most any African culture I encountered. I had no particular biases that one culture among the continent's fifty-two nations was better or worse than another. I was of all of them. I still feel that way. African Americans can do this so easily with the freedom to mix jazz drumming and African drumming as Max Roach has done, or to mix kente cloth with choir robes and leave the church with mudcloth on the head. African American weddings these days are an absolute celebration of pan-African appropriation, mixed with Baptist, Buddhist, or even Hindu flavors. In December newscasters will politely inform you that Kwanzaa, a holiday invented in Los Angeles, is a traditional African celebration. Blackness is an invention unlike any other cultural expression for its breadth of sources and its constant reinvention.

Finding out that the black women in the book, my matrilineal African forebears, are descended from the Temne of what is now Sierra Leone grounded me as a human being, even though starting out I had no idea I could even learn such a thing. In the late 1700s when my first Temne were brought here, they were rural people who raised rice and would have been astounded by a place like Charleston, South Carolina. They had probably been caught up in someone else's struggle for dominion. This bit of information arriving in the mail knocked my butt into the bottom of a boat that moved from Sierra Leone to Barbados to one of the Carolinas. Temne is very concrete.

Having the word Temne as part of my identity is in itself a new journey. Now I will mix it with the tales of those who left word of their history on these shores. The word makes me feel more like a Freedwoman, someone who knows life did not start in 1865. Someone who is still trying to stitch together a new whole on behalf of a Temne and her children, born in rice fields there, but who died in rice fields here.

Excerpted from My Confederate Kinfolk by Thulani Davis, Copyright 2006 by Thulani Davis. Excerpted by permission of Basic Civitas Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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