One of the pleasures of reading family history is the way it skips across boundaries. Instead of one thing, you get two: family and history. Read this way, the story of your clan can be thrilling. All at once, you find your ancestors hobnobbing with French Impressionists, corresponding with poets, or dodging the Gestapo. It’s hard to believe that you and Uncle Fred could share such gallant forebears. Continue reading
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Long before family historians begin formal research, they pass through an informal stage of inquiry. This casual phase, in which an outwardly passive child or adolescent absorbs lore handed down through the generations, is nearly universal. Most of us do it at one time or another. In some cases, that child or adolescent ponders those stories and formulates, over the years, a surprisingly pointed series of questions and tentative answers. Then comes the formal research and, if we’re lucky, an astute and graceful account of one family’s origins.
In Mariann Regan’s case, we’ve been lucky. Her memoir Into the Briar Patch explores the legacy of slaveholding as it plays out in one American family. Mariann–we’ve become friendly through our blogs and on Twitter, so I’ll use her first name here–opens her story with an account of a catastrophic fire that tore through the family home in 1915. Her mother, then an infant, was thrust into the arms of her seven-year-old sister Ansie, who ran from the flames, carrying the infant to safety. Save the baby, the adults cried, save the baby, and Saving the Baby becomes thereafter a recurring metaphor in Mariann’s chronicle.
Mariann pursues this theme through the labyrinth of her family history. The metaphorical baby being saved varies with each episode. We witness strenuous, even heroic, efforts to save the family farm, wayward children, individual reputations, and the family’s collective self-concept. Baby-saving becomes an endless task for this family, which seems fundamentally compromised by its slaveholding past.
In Mariann’s view, America’s odious trade in human beings had far-reaching effects, not only on its practitioners and victims, but also on their descendants. Among the practitioners, guilt and fear were the chief burdens–guilt arising from an awareness of slavery’s intrinsic immorality, fear from a realization that numerically superior blacks could, if aroused, easily wipe out their white overseers. These two primal emotions lead to an endless and contradictory search for expiation and justification, as well as a need to display courage and cultivate physical strength.
Mariann’s research is impressive. Drawing on historical accounts, courthouse records, family papers, interviews, and correspondence, she traces the lives of her forebears as they wrestle with their complex family legacy. We meet strong-willed landowners and sharecroppers, an intrepid sheriff’s deputy, a missionary, teachers, and doctors. Augmenting her research with insightful analysis, Mariann draws on the writings of Montaigne, Alice Miller, Langston Hughes, Henry Louis Gates, and others to sketch an insightful and compelling theory of white racism and black resistance.
These last two qualities are in the end the most gratifying. While some writers and readers may see the memoir as a vehicle for catharsis, there is something overrated about blowing your stack, or having it blown for you. With her mix of deep research and keen analysis, scrupulous honesty and emotional restraint, my friend Mariann has created a moving account of one family’s experience with America’s peculiar institution.
As I move more deeply into the effort of writing a family history, I find myself reading more widely in the genre. You can’t work without taking stock of the precedents in your line. To write a family history, I have to come to grips with the genre itself, to learn lessons from those who have come before me and to keep up with current offerings. So today I set up a new blog category, Readings, to capture my thoughts on other family histories. Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is the first entry in this category. There will be others. Continue reading