A guy from Sonoma County who I know mostly through Facebook posted an item last year about a modestly famous relative from the Revolutionary War era. I was surprised, because this also happens to be a relative of mine.
I contacted my Facebook friend and we spent several days comparing family notes. We had a great time determining that our families had diverged back in England sometime around the turn of the 18th century, making us something like 12th cousins.
It was hardly a close connection, but it certainly bonded us – I started the week with a Facebook friend that I know only slightly and I ended the week with a newfound cousin and a better understanding of the more distant branches of my family.
Enjoyable as it was, however, the experience was tinged with sadness. To understand why, let me back up a bit.
My paternal grandmother came from an old Virginia family, the Tuckers (the same one my new cousin is related to). They married into the Washington family (yes, as in George), and therefore were deeply entangled with colonial and post-Revolutionary aristocracy of the state.
That aristocracy derived its wealth from two sources – land and slaves.
I grew up not far from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, an area where my family was deeply connected throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of the older black families that sent kids to my high school traced their own ancestry back to the slaves that worked Mount Vernon and other plantations throughout Northern Virginia. There were a few that even still bore the name Washington, since it was not unknown for slaves to take the last names of their masters.
I didn’t give much thought to the connection in high school, but as I have gotten older and thought more deeply about the history of that era – and my family’s place in it – it seemed more and more likely to me that those well-established black families were probably connected to me by more than geography.
We know that it was not uncommon for slaveholders to exploit their slaves sexually. The most famous example, though hardly an unusual one, is probably Sally Hemings, slave of Thomas Jefferson. It had been longed rumored that Hemings’ children had been fathered by Jefferson, but it was not until 1998 that genetic tests confirmed that their father was definitely a Jefferson, most likely the president himself.
There is no evidence that George Washington fathered any children by his slaves (in fact, it is possible he was unable to father children at all; he certainly never had any by his wife), but it seems plausible, even likely, that other members of the family, or other slaveholding relatives of mine, did father the children of enslaved black women.
In other words, I was probably going to high school with my cousins – cousins far more closely related than my Sonoma County friend – and I never knew it.
Because of my heritage, the question for me is one of black and white people, but I am sure my story is not uncommon in other ethnic communities across the country. I am sure there were many families where children could not be acknowledged for who and what they were because the sex between their parents was taboo, scandalous, forbidden, or even dangerous and illegal. The ties of kinship between those people, families, and communities have therefore been lost to history.
And that’s what made me sad – even angry – as I enjoyed getting to know my long-lost kinsman over in Sonoma County.
Slavery was a monstrous system, a historical evil perpetrated on Africans and, in many parts of the New World, on Native Americans. As a white Southerner, I have always felt the weight of that historical injustice heavily, but like many Southerners—at least the white ones – I tended to think of it as something that is done, over, consigned to history.
But if you think about the history of slavery, and of racism and oppression in general, in terms of those unacknowledged children, the hidden and lost bonds of kinship, then that awful stain on our history is still very much with all of us. It affects how we live and who we define as family every day.
It’s quite likely that I have known and worked with black people throughout my life, maybe even here in the Bay Area, who were in fact my biological relatives. Because of slavery, however, we were denied the bond that my Sonoma County friend and I enjoyed.
We are denied the simple pleasure of discovering that we are family.