My Family Tree: In Black and White

The descendant of a master-slave union faces an unexpected challenge: how to relate to the people whose ancestors once owned hers

by Dionne Ford
Tempy Burton photo
The author's great-great-grandmother, Tempy Burton (center), with her former enslavers, Col. W.R. and Elizabeth Stuart. The girls may be two of the children Burton had with the colonel. Photo courtesy of the Renee Smith Collection, McCain Archives, University of Southern Mississippi

I was wrong to think that the key to my identity lay solely in reclaiming my African ancestors. After all, to know Josephine, I had to learn not only about her black mother, Tempy—so full of faith that three ministers spoke at her funeral—but also about her white father, Colonel Stuart, a planter who was audacious in all his pursuits. In the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson declared that we should start calling ourselves African Americans, I clung to the term black. Africa was a huge continent with people as diverse as Egyptians and Ethiopians. It had been more than a century, maybe even several, since any of my relatives had actually lived there. African was my ancestry, but black was my experience. It had taken me so long to feel comfortable in my own skin and unashamed of my color that I wasn’t going to let the word go, even if it was not PC. Now even black seems too small a container to hold me. These days I think of myself as a member of various African and Celtic tribes. In the same way, researching my ancestors has broadened my understanding of family. I define it now as not just the people with whom I share blood but also those with whom I share transformative experience.

Monique and I have been to the graveyard where our ancestors are buried. Tempy, the colonel, Elizabeth, Josephine and Alfred all rest in the same cemetery, the way families do. I’ve had lunch with Elizabeth’s cousin twice removed while the colonel stared down at us from a portrait that hangs in her living room, and have spoken by phone with this woman’s brother, who met Tempy when he was just a boy; I felt as if I’d reached out and touched my great-great-grandmother via his memories.

I’ve even found that new AA, the Ancestry Anonymous support group I longed for. It’s called Coming to the Table. Started by the descendants of enslavers, including a relative of Thomas Jefferson’s, it is dedicated to healing the wounds of slavery. When I was invited to speak at one of its events, one of my good as cousins, Renée Monrose, came to support me.

“Thank you for doing all of this research,” she said. “It is something that we all need to face.” We both wore, pinned to our shirts like badges, the photograph of our ancestors that had brought us together. That night, whenever anybody asked, I pointed to the picture over my heart and introduced Renée as my cousin.

My relationship with all of my good as cousins continues to evolve. Recently I met Joel’s wife, Joan, for the first time. Now she and I have begun our own conversation about our complex connection.

There’s nothing we can do about our mean and messy history, but there is something we can do about our legacy. We can acknowledge our past, be one another’s present and live.

To see pictures of Dionne, her family and her good as cousins, plus portraits of the Stuarts, visit My Family Album: In Black and White.

Dionne Ford is at work on a memoir about her slave and master ancestors and her immediate interracial family. For more about her research, check out her blog, Finding Joesphine.

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First published in the September 2013 issue

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