I have to tell you all about this book that I am reading and finding positively mesmerizing. There’s no other word for it. Now, I read alot of books on slavery. Alot. I was already a voracious reader before the genealogy bug hit, so now it’s just insane. There are many that stand out in my mind, but I was just sitting down reading this and I felt compelled to tell you all about it. Literally, to get out of bed and come tell you about it.
I read Annette Gordon-Reed worked on it for 10 years. It shows. She’s now won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and another big award a few weeks ago I can’t remember. That’s something. She has a terrific interview up on Amazon.com that you can read.
This is what strikes me about the book: Her depiction of the system of slavery, as it was lived, day by day. The intricate laws and customs that developed around it. The family dynamics it created. How 17th and 18th century Virginia society was irrevocably shaped because of it. I think as a genealogist I tend to think about individual slaves and their stories, but the pictures Gordon-Reed paints and the narratives she weaves often make me just stop in mid-sentence. She makes me think about aspects of slavery I have never thought about before. I didn’t think that was possible.
I want to quote a passage from her chapter called “The Children of No One”, a tour-de-force of a chapter about interracial mixing between slaves and slavemaster:
The fictions and presumptions about bastardy and marriage served definite purposes in a legal system seeking easy ways to determine who was eligible to inherit property, who had the right to a child’s labor and who could be liable for support of a child. …why would slaves have known who their fathers were when those men were black, but not know when the man was white?…When demonstrably mixed-race people speak of their white father or forefather, at most the white man is portrayed as the “alleged” father or the “said to be” father, as if there had been some white “Mr. Nobody” out there impregnating all the enslaved women in America.
I love that! There is something about her analysis of the entire Hemings family, going through several generations that paints a more complete picture–a more complex picture of the diabolical nature of it all.
This is a great book and I hope you’ll run out and get it. (I’m enjoying reading her footnotes too, like any good genealogist I am interested in her sources;))