Last year I talked some about doing some initial genealogical research. At that time, I mentioned an amateur genealogist who contacted who thought we might be distance cousins. The gentleman was white. The notion of white relatives, distant or near, is not particularly shocking to black people. We've always known about it.
My genealogist friend and his mother got plugged in with a distant cousin of mine and did some digging into our old line--all of us, white and black, have ancestors from the same small-town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, bearing the name Smack. Yesterday he sent me an update. I'll offer an excerpt.
In my family, there had long been rumors of white blood somewhere in the hazy past. Like a lot of black people, I had images of some white rapist plying his trade under the cover of night, in slave cabins.
Not so much, it turns out:
I'll start as close to the beginning as we can now get, with Lambert Smack, your great-great-great-grandfather. As you'll remember from my email last autumn, we knew that Lambert had been free before the Civil War, but little beyond that. Here's the first record we have of him: there is a record in the "Orphan Court Proceedings for Apprenticeship" in 1829 that records that describes "Lambert Smock, age 8, illegitimate mulatto, with consent of mother Ann Smack, apprentice until age 21 to Ebenezer Powell as a farmer (will also be taught to read and write), surities by Isaac Holland and Esme Bowen."
We know that Ebenezer Powell is a somewhat well-to-do white farmer living in Worcester County at the time. We know also that Holland and Bowen are in the area -- I don't have a note regarding their race, although my recollection is that they also are white. We'll be looking into their identity further. We have no information about whether it is significant that this is an "orphan" court record, or whether that was standard practice for any child considered "illegitimate". The court record also indicates Lambert's birthday -- March 26, 1821. Ann, his mother, is not given a race: it has been our experience that, in later census records,
Ann is listed as "white" when living on her own or with other whites, and as "black" when living with Lambert and his family. My mother believes, but cannot be certain, that Ann was a white woman disowned by her family after giving birth to Lambert -- we'll see what we can find about that, if anything.
A few points:
1.) There is obviously more to be known here. The disowning portion is theoretical, and admittedly speculative. I'm more confident in Ann's racial identity, because the pattern is familiar. Moreover my ancestor was, evidently, born free, though apprenticed with the stipulation that he would be taught to read and write. I don't know what the laws were in Maryland in the 1820s, but there is a longstanding notion in American slave-law of the child's condition following that of the mother. That liminal space--apprenticed till 21, learning to read and write, something slaves were forbidden from--hints at some degree of power and negotiation.
2.) The brevity of American history is shocking and something which in this era of rockets, microwaves, and alleged eternal democracy we don't really reckon with. To ground this, understand the following. My grandmother got to know my son pretty well, before she passed. She also knew her own grandfather--Ebeneezer, son of Lambert, who in turn knew Ann, my white ancestor. Ann was born while Thomas Jefferson was still alive.
The "greats" can confuse things by giving an illusion of distance. In fact, in the long reach of time, there is so little. I didn't spend much time with my grandmother discussing the past. I don't know if her grandfather spent much time discussing it with her. But the knowledge of race in our family was right there to be apprehended, and the pathway was pretty direct.
The ideology of progress blinds. As Louis C.K. says, it's just two old ladies back to back. That's how recent you could buy a guy.
3.) My mother would often remark that while her family was poor, they were not poor in the same way my father's family was. My mother grew up in the projects. But in the summer her mother could send her away to the Eastern Shore, where the family owned some land, and had a community. People knew that going to college was something to be aimed for, and were prepared as such. My Dad--who is, perhaps, the single smartest person I've ever met--had no such sense of the world.
Throughout the e-mail, I found myself marveling at the generations of wills, the fact that these people actually had things to deed to their kids. It was not a story of share-cropping. Indeed, it was barely a story of slavery. And I wondered how much this relative privilege was connected to the initial condition--apprenticed, till 21, to a well to do farmer, with the stipulation of learning to read and write.
Forgive me, I am thinking out loud here. None of this is firm. It's all possibility.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power