Maud Newton couldn't ignore her family's racist history. So she published it
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Everyone's family tree has some gnarled branches. In the author Maud Newton's past, there are ancestors who committed violence, extremism, racism and worse. Rather than shove that inheritance under the bed in a locked box, she excavates it in her new memoir, "Ancestor Trouble."
Maud Newton, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
MAUD NEWTON: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Where do you think your impulse to confront the darkness in your family's past, rather than push it out of sight, comes from?
NEWTON: You know, because I grew up with a father who was very explicitly a racist, I didn't really have the option that a lot of people had to sort of ignore those histories in my family.
SHAPIRO: When you say explicitly racist, he thought you shouldn't watch "Sesame Street" because it showed Black and white kids playing together. He thought slavery should not have ended. I mean, this is really extreme.
NEWTON: Yeah. I mean, he was a very explicit white supremacist. He literally defended slavery and felt that it was a benevolent institution that was working for everyone until northern bleeding hearts got involved. So when you grow up with someone like that, you have to have a relationship to it. And luckily, my mother was not on the same page. And I grew up in Miami. So it wasn't an environment like the place where he grew up in the Mississippi Delta in the middle of the last century, where these kinds of ideas were probably more prevalent.
SHAPIRO: And yet I could imagine some people upon reaching adulthood saying, well, thank goodness I'm done with that, and running as far away from it as they could instead of, what other skeletons might be in this closet?
NEWTON: Yeah. I am just a really inherently curious person. And I always did feel a responsibility to reckon with that history in some way. But what really drew me to researching my family were the over-the-top stories on my mom's side.
SHAPIRO: But one of the things that I found interesting about your process of research and discovery is that even some of the things that were initially sources of pride turned out to have a dark side when you dug a little deeper. Like, you discovered that one of your ancestors founded the city of Northampton, Mass. When you first learn that, what was your initial reaction?
NEWTON: I was so amazed because I thought my family was Southern on both sides. And I was also really proud. This was an ancestor. His wife was accused of being a witch in Puritan in Massachusetts, long before Salem. And she was criminally tried. And she beat the charges. So I thought, wow, not only do I come from a witch - well, an accused witch - but I also come from, you know, this person who managed to survive that.
NEWTON: So I was really excited at first.
SHAPIRO: And then you dig a little deeper. And what did you find?
NEWTON: I found that, as you say, in founding the town of Northampton, my ninth great-grandfather was very deeply involved in displacing and killing Indigenous people on that land and taking their land. He was actually involved in negotiating between the really powerful people in the town and the Indigenous people. So it was a particularly troubling role that he played. You know, I think they thought that he was their friend. And then in Mary's case, my ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons...
SHAPIRO: The accused witch.
NEWTON: Yes. What I discovered was that when rumors began to circulate again that she was a witch, she and her family chose to make an example of a Black woman, to pin those rumors on her. And they orchestrated a trial in which she was sentenced to lashes.
SHAPIRO: As you discovered these dark things about even the chapters of your family history that you had thought would be a source of pride, what was your reaction?
NEWTON: I was particularly disturbed to find out that my mom's mother's family also had a history of enslaving people. And that was a real gut punch.
SHAPIRO: Because you knew that your father's side had this, but to discover it on your mother's side, too, was unexpected.
NEWTON: Absolutely. And at first, I was really taken aback. But it was really important because I realized that this is all over my family. And really this is, you know, the history of our country. And so it sort of redoubled my commitment to being very transparent about this and talking about it publicly.
SHAPIRO: As you say, this is more than the history of your family. Genocide of Indigenous people, enslavement of Black people - these are part of American history. So how do you relate the personal ancestry work that you're doing to the national movement going on right now to confront some of these issues?
NEWTON: I think it's very important for those of us who come from these histories to get really personal about them, to learn about what our ancestors did and then to talk about it so that we're not lecturing people about what needs to happen in a sort of theoretical way. But we're saying things like, you know, a little more than 150 years ago, my ancestors were enslaving people. And that's something I really think about. And here's how that makes me feel. The power of making things personal is really important in this moment.
SHAPIRO: You say we need to learn and think and talk about it. Is there also an obligation of restitution? I mean, what responsibility do you bear for the crimes in your family tree?
NEWTON: Absolutely. I believe that we need to have reparations. You know, as we begin to see how our families - people with histories like mine - overlap with the systemic problems that we still see in our country, we really need to advocate for change.
SHAPIRO: What would you say to people who think, look, I don't know those people. I wasn't around then. I didn't do that. I'm a different person. This is not my problem.
NEWTON: I think that's a common reaction. And I would ask people to think really carefully about the ways that what their ancestors did led to privileges for them that other people don't have. And I also believe making it about our own feelings and talking with people like that, rather than trying to force them to feel a certain way, can be useful. So if I talk about how I feel, maybe that will crack something open for people who are resistant like that.
SHAPIRO: Maud Newton's memoir is called "Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning And A Reconciliation." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.
NEWTON: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE SONG, "PASSPORT RADIO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.