Black Author Examines 'Confederate Kinfolk'
GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.
When poet and playwright Thulani Davis started digging into her genealogy during the 1970's, she found more than a black family's roots stretching deep into the Southern American past. Davis learned that a significant part of her family was white. In her new memoir, My Confederate Kinfolk, Davis describes her decent from a Civil War era union between a black former slave and a white former slave owner. Davis remembers first looking through photos from the other side of her family.
THULANI DAVIS (Poet and Playwright):
Oh my God, that was very shocking, very shocking. I had a visceral reaction to seeing pictures the first time. I received some newspaper clippings, very old ones, from Missouri and I opened this envelope and there's a woman who's my great-great-grandmother, and I thought, I hope I'm not related to her. On another page there was a woman who was photographed at 19 years of age, and I looked just like that when I was that age. These people have their traits throughout my immediate family. I don't know what I expected, but I found it shocking to find my eyes, my hairline and my nose on these faces from the 1850s.
GORDON: It's interesting, the further and further away you get from a time, of course, those memories and stories kind of fall by the wayside. The further and further you get away from the confederate years, people tend to not talk as much about, quote, "their white ancestors" and the like. Do you recall at all in coming up, anyone in your family talking about, quote, "the other side of the family"?
Ms. DAVIS: Not at all. I remember my father telling a story about a cousin of mine and saying that her father was a white man who was in the railroad business, and had a private railroad car that she rode in as a child. It was a vivid story to me, but it was common in my hometown for people to say they had had or probably had white ancestry. But even in my father's generation and certainly before, they knew the names. And because as a people, we sort of stopped talking about it, I had to go dig it out of the records, so to speak.
GORDON: What of the idea of family members that you discussed this with, particularly during the research, what was their reaction?
Ms. DAVIS: They were pretty surprised. They, I think, had some encounters with why didn't I know this, or why didn't I ask somebody. There was a little bit of discussion about why none of us really quizzed my grandmother enough, and some shame I think that we all feel for not having been more curious, because the story was so incredible. And then also I wonder if my grandmother even knew all of what it was that I ended up finding out.
I don't know if she knew there was lynching at this plantation where her mother arrived at the time that her mother arrived. And that that lynching was by her own biological uncle as it turned out.
GORDON: We spoke with Henry Louis Gates earlier and talking about his series on PBS about ancestry. And he talked about the importance of genealogy, knowing where you came from. His main focus was on Africa, for African Americans. But talk to me on how you changed your view, if at all, or perhaps seen it in a different light since doing the research and then writing the book.
Ms. DAVIS: I was empowered by it the same way I've been empowered by finding my Davis family, the black family over the years I've learned more about them, which was very empowering. But I grow up with there lure. So this has given me a sense of greater belonging and a greater claim on a wider range of places, not only in America, but--because I too did my DNA, I feel some connection now to a specific spot in Africa, Sierra Leone. So it's made me feel like a much more effective person, like I'm going to be effective and more understanding.
GORDON: Finally, what do you want the reader to come away with at the end of the book?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, I think one of the things that I hope people will consider is that we really need to have a greater sense of kinship, even if it's not literal. Certainly, we need greater compassion. And I believe kinship is a way into that. We here have in this country a unique kinship that really represents a significant portion of the population.
So that if a Hurricane Katrina happens, and people are left sitting outside the Superdome, it's very strange that in this country we'll even hear news people speaking in an alienated way about those people who are sitting outside a stadium with no where to go; and those people are the descendents of possibly our cousins.
They are family. Black people in many cases look at it that way. But the entire culture really needs to see that we're very, very--our destinies are co-mingled and maybe our hair lines.
GORDON: In fact, in the end, we're all linked together in some way, shape or form. The book is called, My Confederate Kinfolk, a 21st century freed woman discovers her roots. Thank so much for joining us.
Ms. Davis: Thank you.
GORDON: That was poet and playwright, Thulani Davis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.