Some News Stories: Essie-Mae Washington-Williams
Back in December I blogged
about Essie-Mae Washington-Williams's revelation that she was Strom Thurmond's illegitimate and oldest child, and how the wider Thurmond family reacted to that revelation in a New York Times article by Jeffrey Gettleman. An interesting post-script to that story is today's story in the South Carolina The State
"Essie Mae" is now etched just below the names of the late Strom Thurmond's other four children on the State House monument honoring the long-time senator.
This morning, a worker sand-blasted her name beneath those of Nancy Moore, Strom Jr., Julie and Paul — Thurmond's children with his second wife, Nancy Thurmond. The inscription on the monument saying he was the “father of four children” also will be altered with epoxy
: My mother just showed me today's fascinating NYTimes article
by Shaila Dewan and Ariel Hart about how Ms. Washington-Williams is applying for membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy and Daughters of the American Revolution:
Ms. Washington-Williams is joining the Confederate organization not to honor the soldiers that fought for a Southern way of life dependent on slavery, but to explore her genealogy and heritage, her lawyer, Frank K. Wheaton, said yesterday. In applying, she claims an honor that can be bestowed only on someone of her lineage, he said, and she hopes to encourage other blacks in a similar position to do the same.
In a statement, Ms. Washington-Williams said: "It is important for all Americans to have the opportunity to know and understand their bloodline. Through my father's line, I am fortunate to trace my heritage back to the birth of our nation and beyond. On my mother's side, like most African-Americans, my history is broken by the course of human events."
. . .
Dr. Cleveland Sellers, director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, said that interest in genealogy had burgeoned among blacks in recent years, despite gaps in official records.
"There was a time when it was argued that there was little or no culture that was able to transcend the middle passage, and that African-Americans actually brought nothing but their bodies to the new world," Dr. Sellers said. "That myth has been exploded."
But he called Ms. Washington-Williams' quest to lay claim to her white roots "novel."
This reminded me of two things.
The first is a story about Jean Paul Duvalier, the longtime dictator of Haiti, which Professor Eric Smoodin told me once in the context of a class about social problem films. I found a public health article
Asked by a visitor how many Whites lived in his country, Papa Doc responded that nearly everyone was White. "The perplexed questioner asked for clarification, as most Haitians are dark skinned. "How do you define White?" he asked. "Well," responded Papa Doc, "how do you define Black?" The visitor explained the one-drop rule. "We use the same definition," replied Papa Doc."
The second thing it reminded me of is an amazing book my high school American history teacher, Phil Garone, had us read ten years ago: Roll, Jordan Roll--the World the Slaves Made
, by Eugene D. Genovese. I was just telling Tyler about this book, which I wish I still had a copy of. I might be mistaken, but I believe that Genovese is known for recognizing and always keeping in mind the complex and entangled relationship between the slaves and the slaveowners.
In a very odd way, this book and Richard Wright's autobiography Blackboy
, describing as they did some of the very worst chapters of the American story, ripened and seasoned my patriotism into a real part of my life. The tenacity with which the slaves forged themselves a new culture, and with which Wright forged himself a new life, is to me a great component of the American spirit. Defying convention, defying nay-sayers, defying oppression or blind tradition--not to be a knee jerk reactionary, but to deliberately try to make something new and better.
I don't really believe in the phrase As American as Apple Pie
(though As American as Pumpkin Pie
might hold more cachet with me) and the culture such comparisons try to delineate. Instead, I rather like as American as the Next Great Pie or Your Own Personal Classic
. Explore, try something old, try something new, and don't hold back just because something "simply isn't done". And even if you waited until you were 78 to do so, that's no reason not to start.