I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
A stray browse on Ancestry.com turned up the white ancestor on one side of the family yesterday. Most black people in America have a white ancestor. When black people were enslaved, slaveholders asserted full dominion over black bodies, and children produced from rape were endemic. For many of us, the trail goes cold at 1865, as individual slave records were much less common. After all, no one reports the names of their cattle even today.
It was appropriate that I found this ancestor around now, as it’s the time America celebrates its rebellion and creation of a new country. My 5 times great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. He also owned slaves. His son, who carried his last name and was my 4 times great grandfather, was listed as “mulatto”, or mixed-race. My 5 times great grandmother is not documented by name.
Once I found the white ancestor, my automatically generated hints went from a trickle to a flood. Hundreds of clues about colonial settlers, landed gentry, and nobles appear. This is also unsurprising. As most white people who don’t want to face race conversations will point out, the majority of white people didn’t own slaves, and as such wouldn’t have likely had interactions with black people to produce children once racial caste was codified. If you are black and your white ancestor was a slavemaster, it’s thus likely that your ancestor was a person of means.
I traced that section of family to Welsh nobility and English gentlefolk. I even discovered that B. F. Goodrich, the tire manufacturer, is a distant cousin. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fascination and yes, a bit of pride in knowing these interesting stories behind these portions of my family. It also made me sad.
I think of my 4 times great grandfather William. Under what circumstances did he leave home? Was he sent with resources? Was his father’s wife kind or cruel to him? And I think of the family rich enough to have named land within the town they lived. What did they pass on to their “legitimate” children?
This is the balance, the contradiction, that Langston Hughes talked about in his poem “I, Too”. A Revolutionary War soldier, descended from Quakers, owned slaves, likely forced himself upon my ancestor and produced the line that ultimately made me. I’m descended from enslaved people and nobles. I am a product of documented history and secrets.
When I was in 8th grade, I was talking with a white friend about heritage. I said I didn’t know what mine was, but I knew on one side of the family I had some Creole ancestors. She went on a rant that would have made a white nationalist proud. She said, “you know what Creole is? A mixture. That doesn’t mean anything. My ancestors were Irish and Polish, and came over on X boat X years ago. That’s a heritage!” Being young and not especially versed in self-esteem, I made the mistake of allowing that to make me feel ashamed.
There’s an unmoored, lost feeling many of us as black Americans feel when it comes to ancestry. The trails stop cold in 3-4 generations usually. People disappear due to lynching or rapid moving away under duress. Families uprooted and fled north in patterns that we would call “ethnic cleansing” today. With resignation, we see it as another thing taken from us, like wealth under Jim Crow and what came after, like dignity under enslavement.
I’m still learning how to navigate the genuine feelings of pride I have in America and the anger and disappointment I feel toward it. And as I imagine my ancestors near, I wonder how old Reuben Roberts navigates an afterlife alongside those he enslaved, witnessing who I am becoming, and who my sixth cousins on the other side of the racial line have become.
I’m thinking of going to his grave to ask, but the dead are notoriously difficult to get answers from.