How much have you thought about slavery? I’m guessing, for African Americans, it might be quite a lot. For me, other than some occasional historical fiction, the answer is: not all that much.
I read to fall asleep at night, and especially when I’m struggling with anxiety or discouragement, I read so that my brain doesn’t get carried away thinking about things that are going on. It’s one way to help me “take captive every thought.” I just finished a the Divergent series and needed something new. I wandered around Target and saw, The House Girl, by Tara Conklin. It caught my attention, because I assumed it had something to do with race relations, which are obviously on my mind. It was a wonderful book – I devoured it in just a few days. Probably on my All-Time Top Ten.
It’s about slavery, of course, and the ancestors of slaves, and got me really thinking about my own family history. I remember reading in some of our adoption literature that we need to find out if we have ancestors who owned slaves. It only took me a couple of hours at Ancestry.com last night to figure out that one branch of my paternal grandfather’s side of the family did, in fact, own slaves.
I feel really conflicted. In some ways, it feels like it changes everything. It altered the way I perceived every African American I saw today. But in other ways, just the fact that I haven’t thought about it that way before is a bit shameful. I guess it’s sort of how we white people think we shouldn’t talk about race because we might embarrass a non-white person; when really, the only people we’re embarrassing are ourselves. Not talking about slavery doesn’t make it something that didn’t happen, and doesn’t make it any less significant.
It makes me physically ache to think about having to tell our African American child about slavery someday, and to share that her great, great, great, great grandparents and their families owned slaves. I wish I could have more information, and maybe I’ll be able to find it.
Today I bought two books that Tara Conklin recommends at the end of, The House Girl. They are, The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed and, The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. They’re both Pulitzer Prize winners and about slavery. The next ones on my list are, Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball, and, All Souls’ Rising: A Novel of Haiti, by Madison Smartt Bell. Those will keep me busy for a while. A big jump from the teen dystopian kick that I’ve been on for a couple of years!
PS – I emailed Tara Conklin to let her know how much I enjoyed her book, and to tell her what I had found out about my own family’s history. She wrote back this morning – very cool! Her reply was:
Hi Megan, thank you for your message and kind words about The House Girl. I’m so glad you’re enjoying (enjoyed?) the book! I’m also glad it’s provided some inspiration for searching out your own family history – I always think it’s better to know the truth about a family past, even if it might be painful.
Thanks so much for getting in touch and best of luck on your adoption process!
All the best, Tara