Follow Friday: Ancestry Inspired Reading

Ever since I started this journey to trace my family’s history, I’ve broadened my reading tastes.  I’ve been inspired to read books that I might not otherwise and have even reread some books with a new eye.

Here are some of the books I’ve read in the last few months that have enlightened me about the south, bettered my understanding of conditions for my slave ancestors, and given me compassion for the many genealogists who come up against a big family secret:

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs – I first read this book touted as fiction, but based on a real slave’s life when I was in college.  I decided to reread it this summer when it came to my attention that my family is connected to the real story.  The master that Jacobs escapes from, Dr. Flint, was based on a Dr. James Norcom.  If I’ve followed the history correctly as outlined in Joel Brink’s book, A Tale of Two Families, Norcom was related through marriage to the family that owned my great, great-grandmother Tempy Burton. The genealogy world is very, very small.

One Drop by Bliss Broyard – Broyard’s discovery of her father’s black ancestry sends her on a journey to learn more about her family’s history.  Like mine, Broyard’s paternal family hails from New Orleans and her search takes her to my ancestral home, the heart of her father’s secret identity.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flag. This novel offers a slice of Southern American life centering around the owners of Whistle Stop Cafe in Alabama.  The L&N railroad line also plays a dominant role in the novel as it did in my family’s life.  At least one of my ancestors worked on this train line and as a child my father used to make spending money by selling fish to its passengers when the train would stop in his town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Genealogy, science and ethics intersect in this fascinating story of a poor, black woman whose cancer cells are used for the benefit of science unbeknownst to her or her family and long after her death. My book club had a robust discussion on the ethics of using her cells without her or her family’s knowledge and if her descendents should benefit from the profits that some companies have gained from said usage.

Annie’s GhostWashington Post editor, Steven Luxenberg tries to uncover his mother’s motivation in keeping a family secret in his riveting journey to learn more about the disabled aunt he never knew he had.  A lot of the story takes place in Detroit, his hometown and I smiled when he mentioned a place I recognized from my own ancestry research:  Mount Clemens, Michigan.  None of my maternal family has roots in Michigan to my knowledge, but my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton and her daughter, Josephine Burton Ford seemed to have visited there in 1905.  My cousin  has two decorative glasses inscribed with their names, the date and Mount Clemens.  At the time, it was known as a resort town.

Next on my ancestry-inspired reading list are Buzzy Jackson’s, Shaking the Family Tree and Pulitzer Prize-wining poet Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Beyond Katrina.

What ancestry inspired reading can you recommend?



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11 responses to “Follow Friday: Ancestry Inspired Reading

  1. Fascinating post! I’ll have to think about how much my family history has influenced my reading. There’s my love of Lee Smith’s Oral HIstory (set in the Virginia mountains my great-grandfather came from). And Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family had a huge impact on what I research. I’m sure there are more. Food for thought. Thanks!

  2. Oh, thanks for the reminder about the Henrietta Lacks book. It’s been on my to-read list for a while!

  3. Just received a copy of Al Green’s biography, Take Me to the River. Family oral history is that one branch of Al Green’s ancestors were from Union Church, Mississippi, that Mr. Green has a connection to the family. Hoping to find enough genealogy in the book to research to confirm or refute the family claims.

    I love reading historical novels, biographies and fiction with a family theme. I am currently reading The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks.

  4. Another great book that genealogist and family historians would appreciate is: The Sea Captain’s Wife
    by Martha Hodes. I wrote about in last March 09:

  5. allison

    i know this is obvious but finding Oprahs roots and there is a book listed on Nicholas Sparks website about Slavery.

  6. Weevils in the Flour, by Wendy Lowenstein (Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne, 1978). It is a collection of stories that form an oral record of the 1930s depression in Australia. Great background for those wanting to consider their family in the context of local and national history!

  7. I was going to mention Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” but someone beat me to it! Also the latest book on the Hemmings by Annette Gordon Reed “The Hemmingses of Monticello” was a good (but long) read. I just read “Founding Myths” by Ray Raphael on my vacation, and it has inspired a few future blog posts I’ve started working on. Stay tuned!

  8. Since I renewed my research efforts, I have a renewed reading appetite, too. Although I had for the most part stopped reading ficition ages ago, I still find myself reading books I would have never thought about reading.

    And looks like I have even more to read after seeing your list. The only one on your list that I have read is One Drop by Bliss Broyard.

    And of course, thanks for the idea of doing this for Follow Friday. 🙂

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