By Tom Robotham
I know a lot of people who’ve ordered ancestry test kits like 23andMe, but I’ve never felt compelled to do so, since I already know a great deal about my family history. My mother, especially, was interested in genealogy, and when I was still very young, she showed me a family tree that she’d drawn out by hand, with clean ruled lines and impeccable penmanship. The details of my dad’s side of the family aren’t as extensive, although there’s still quite a bit of information. Several years ago, I even visited the granite quarry in Leicester, England, where my paternal grandfather worked as a stonecutter from the age of 16, before coming to the States three years later.
My mother’s side, on the other hand, has been in this country since before the Revolution, and I know a lot about those folks. I’ve always had a lot of information, in particular, about three of my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I have original copies of letters written by two of them, and their photographs hang on my living-room wall.
One of them has always been especially intriguing because he predates me by just three generations—my maternal grandfather’s father, John Deskin Wheeler, born in Tennessee in 1827. For a long time, it made no sense that somebody born that long ago could be so close to me generationally. Recently, though, I came across a Wheeler Family History among some papers I took from my mom’s house after she died, and the math added up.
Two things in that document raised my eyebrows. First, it appears that he was quite prolific, shall we say, well into old age. He and his first wife had eight children, and after she died, he remarried—at the age of 52—and fathered another six, including William Wheeler, my grandfather.
Another line in the text was even more of an eye opener: “According to William Wheeler, John D. Wheeler owned a store in Alexandria (TN) before the Civil War. At the time he had two slaves.”
THERE’S NO FURTHER MENTION of those slaves in the text, nor do I have any of his letters. Those that I mentioned earlier were written by two other ancestors, and they never mention slavery at all. They all address, “My Dear Wife,” and they simply express a weariness and desire to be home again.
Thus, I am left to wonder what J.D. Wheeler—captain in the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry—was like as a man. How did he treat those two slaves? And what did he think about the institution in general? Was he of the same mind as John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who began arguing notoriously in the late 1820s that slavery was a “positive good”? Or did he adhere to the older notion in the South that it was a “necessary evil.” Moreover, since he lived until 1901, I can’t help wondering whether he ever changed his mind about having owned two human beings as property.
I’ll likely never know. But I find myself contemplating it. There’s a tendency in this country to think about slavery as a feature of our ancient past. My discovery drives home the point that slavery—and its legacy—lies so close to my own lifetime. The legacy was certainly ever-present in my own mother’s early life, since she was born in Florida in 1922 and therefore grew up at a time when lynching was still common in that part of the country.
I was born, moreover, just six months after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Indeed, when I visited my grandparents in Tallahassee in the early ‘60s, the reality of the Jim-Crow South was still pervasive. One vivid memory is of a young black woman my grandmother employed as a part-time housekeeper. At the end of her shift, my father would drive her home to what was referred to as “colored town,” and sometimes I would go along. The neighborhood was filled with dilapidated shacks. It was a far cry from my own neighborhood in New York, with its modest but well-constructed houses and neatly manicured lawns—farther still from the idealized world I saw on Leave it to Beaver.
THOSE TRIPS to Florida ended in 1965, when my grandfather died, followed by my grandmother six months later. But my early awareness of our racial divide was still very much on my mind in 1970 when I entered an integrated high school at the height of the “busing” era. My own neighborhood was entirely white, except for one black kid who lived on the outskirts, and the black kids in my new school had by and large grown up in entirely black neighborhoods. Initially, at least, there was a lot of racial tension, and very little integration outside the classrooms themselves; in the cafeteria, in particular, there was a stark line between where the black kids and the white kids sat.
Times have changed dramatically since then. Among the Gen-Zers at Old Dominion University, where I teach, people freely mingle, regardless of race, ethnicity or any other social demarcation that once divided us so starkly.
The danger is that many white people, in my experience—particularly people of my generation—see such scenes and conclude that racism is a thing of the past; or, at the very least, something that exists only among the extremist fringes of society.
I’m left to wonder, then, what is my role in all of this? What is my responsibility? And what is yours?
A common refrain I’ve heard when discussing our racist legacy with other white people is, “My ancestors weren’t even here when slavery existed.”
The fact that mine were—and at least one actually owned slaves—does not impose on my conscience any special sense of responsibility. I obviously had no say in the matter. But that latter fact in no way negates my responsibility, either. Nor does the fact that someone’s grandparents didn’t come to this country until the early 20th century negate his or her responsibility to understand the degree and nature of racism that remains abroad in the land.
I’m not talking about “white guilt,” whatever that is. I’ve never felt “guilty” for being born white. That notion is absurd to me. I’m simply talking about my responsibility as a person and a citizen.
It is not enough to decry the racism of the Klan and like-minded groups. As citizens of this country, it seems to me, we all bear responsibility for trying to understand and address the realities facing our nation. And this gets to the very heart of the matter. When I hear people protest, “I’m not racist!” I’m struck not only by the defensiveness but also by the underlying attitude that it’s somebody else’s problem. This seems to me to be very much related to a common attitude that I’ve heard expressed since the Covid outbreak: that the decision to wear a mask and get vaccinated is to be weighed solely in terms of one’s own safety.
The general “looking-out-for-number-one” problem that has eroded our society since the 1980s is, of course, a much larger problem. I’m not sure there’s any way we can ever get back to a time when citizenship and the social contract seemed to matter.
But we can address more specific problems like racism, and we can do so by talking about it across racial lines. I was reminded of this recently when I began the new semester teaching Media and Popular Culture. I organize it chronologically, so I always begin with a prologue that looks at popular culture prior to the rise of mass media: in particular, the minstrel show, which dominated popular culture in America for much of the 19th century.
This year I only have eight students in my class—and six of them are Black. None of them protested about having to watch the short video I showed about the history of blackface. But the expressions on their faces after it ended suggested to me that some of them were pained by the visuals. I asked for their reactions, then asked whether they think such realities should be studied and discussed or simply hidden because of how offensive they are. They all seemed to agree that the subject should be confronted, head-on, as Margo Jefferson eloquently argued at the end of the video.
As I prepared to wrap up the discussion, I reiterated that while I understand how offensive these images are, I—as a white man—can never fully feel what a Black person does while viewing them. Nevertheless, I must try.
Isn’t it incumbent upon all of us to do so? After all, to say, I never did anything to oppress anyone misses the point. The sins of our fathers are not our fault. But they remain our responsibility.