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 Ghost – Washington 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?