Shaking the family tree: Thulani Davis traces her lineage back to the union of her great-grandparents, a black slave and a white landowner

By Lise Funderburg

January 15, 2006

MY CONFEDERATE KINFOLK: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots, by Thulani Davis. Basic Civitas, 320 pp., $25.

The desire to trace family roots is a globally popular undertaking, one that crosses racial, cultural and continental lines. But for African-Americans, that effort has long been thwarted by the lineage-cauterizing assault of bondage, the vehicle by which so many first came to this country. In defiance of this monumental obstacle is writer Thulani Davis’ monumentally ambitious family history, “My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots.”

Davis has written in numerous genres, but is perhaps best known for her novels “1959” and “Maker of Saints.” It was her journalist’s eye, however, that seized upon three irresistible resources that anchor her “Confederate Kinfolk” exploration – the unpublished memoirs of her white great-aunt and of her black grandmother, and the 1901 novel by that grandmother’s white aunt … or who would have been her aunt if anti-miscegenation laws hadn’t kept the two families legally estranged.

All three works, which she excerpts extensively, focus on family relationships prior to, throughout and subsequent to the Civil War; and at least two of the authors acknowledge, in their work or in letters, the interracial relationship between former slave Chloe Tarrant and white landowner Will Campbell that joined the two families.

What results is the tale of two Southern lineages, mostly in Alabama and Mississippi, in and around the years of the Civil War. Because whites were more closely observed by data collectors, journalists and through the informal archiving of the privileged – personal correspondence – that side of Davis’ family comes more fully and certainly into focus, especially before and during the war.

As evidenced in her extensive footnotes, in-text sourcing and exhaustive details of everything from particular battles to cruise boat menus, Davis has made a noble effort to test family recollections against recorded history. Keenly aware of the fact-distorting inclinations of emotion, family pride, prejudice and social convention, Davis presents much of her resource materials in a highly skeptical frame, including archival newspaper reports and U.S. Census Bureau data.

What results is that much of the book reads like annotated versions of those primary sources, a call-and-response interchange between the writings of Davis’ ancestors and her own current-day perspective, which can at times weigh down the narrative with its second-guessing and post-game analysis. And, in some cases, the details of Davis’ findings seem like information only someone personally connected to the story would love. Here is one of many, many references to the vagaries of census data:

“In 1870, both Chloe and her [black] husband were listed as mulattoes. In 1880 in Mississippi they were listed as black. In Alabama in 1880 the census taker created a mix that is confusing. Edmond and Caroline are listed as black. Their eldest son, Allen, is listed as black. The rest of the Tarrants are listed as mulatto. That’s interesting.”

Not really.

Sympathy goes to Davis, however, in her efforts to weave a narrative for the black side of the family with such scant available thread. She celebrates scientific advances that have helped bridge the Middle Passage – especially the development of DNA tests that offer matrilineal information (identifying, in Davis’ case, that her great-grandmother, Chloe Tarrant, was a descendant of the Temne people, from what is now Sierra Leone). “While in my youth we were told we did not know who we are and where we came from,” Davis writes, “that our history had been taken away, mine will be the last generation that needs to have that sensation.”

As satisfying as that DNA-sourced information is, the first few generations to live in the United States are largely invisible, an absence underscored by Davis’ many speculations about the what, where and why of her enslaved ancestors. The immediacy of their lives is greatly diminished by obligatory hedges: “probably … may have … I suspect … I imagine …”

As Davis notes, “My dogs have more documentation of their existence than most of my forebears. Considerably more.”

Another shortfall of the book is its extensive and eventually tedious detailing of Civil War battles. So many pages are dedicated to the war – which offers little illumination of the story’s central characters – that by the time Chloe and Will’s relationship comes into focus, the book is more than two-thirds over. Not only is the reader exhausted, but he may have lost sight of what all this background detail was intended to explain.

Davis attempts to profile each of her relatives in a clear-eyed fashion. Certainly, she shows no sympathy for the limited view of one white ancestor who thought of blacks as a form of loyal pet, but Davis also acknowledges that ancestor’s astonishingly progressive philosophical outlooks and her Reconstruction-era interest in Eastern mysticism.

What’s brave and courageous and exciting about Davis’ work is its aim not only for inclusiveness over partisan loyalties – of noble and irredeemable, black and white (and multiracial) – but for viewing all parties with a regard to their humanity and their dimensionality.