Family Secrets/ The Bleaching of American History
The Vance Legacy, my first novel, told the story of a family destroyed by secrets. At the time, I let my imagination run wild with the “what if” scenarios. More recently though, the issue of family secrets has been brought to the forefront of my consciousness. After reading and reviewing, Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau, I began to wonder just how prevalent miscegenation was in the south during and after slavery.
Most people have heard the rumors of George Washington’s son, West Ford, born to his mulatto slave named Venus. We’ve heard of Sally Hemmings, beloved slave of Thomas Jefferson who bore at least six of his children. More recently, we learned that Senator Strom Thurman fathered a black child with a teenage housekeeper.
I read an article published in UW Today entitled, “Secrets of famous 1930s ‘blonde bombshell of rhythm’ revealed with help from UW library” by Molly McElroy. The article was about Ina Ray Hutton’s Orchestra, dubbed the Blond Bombshell of Rhythm. In 2007, Phyllis Fletcher, who became an editor for UAOW, was looking for swing music to include in an upcoming program when she ran across photos of the infamous Hutton. She took one look at the photos and knew that Hutton was black. After some research, she was able to confirm her suspicions. Apparently, with the knowledge and consent of her family, Ms. Hutton’s racial identity was kept secret to further her career.
It happens more times than we’d like to admit. Some family secrets may be huge life changing secrets and others may be no more than the shrug of the shoulders when finally revealed. These secrets, however, were far more than a shrug of the shoulders. Such relationships were kept secret because revealing the truth would no doubt be disastrous personally, politically, and sometimes financially. How many families were willing to sacrifice relationships with their family members to save them from the stigma and injustice they would suffer if their racial identity were to become known?
These stories remind me of families who have a mentally ill member that they keep in an upstairs locked bedroom or the drunk that we want to deny is part of our family. When I hear the phrase “colorblind society,” I cringe. Our society is far from colorblind and if society were not so racist, these secrets would have never been necessary.
You have but to pay attention to the current political discourse to know that racism is alive and well in these United States of America. An October 2015 article in the New York Times entitled, How Texas Teaches History, tells how Texas text books distorts and sanitizes the history of slavery. The article stated that slaves were sometimes referred to as “workers.” If you can justify the capture and enslavement of several generations of humans, why then must you lie about it?
I believe that history is fascinating, in all of its gory details. Our country has come a long way since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 but we have not yet “overcome.” We will be able to call our society “colorblind” when people are free to be who they are and we can teach the true and accurate history, having learned from human mistakes. We are who we are because of our histories. Maya Angelou famously said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
The Keepers of the House
By Shirley Ann Grau
I chose to read this book after reading a number of wonderful reviews about the story and its author. After I started reading I went back to those reviews several times because it seemed as if this couldn’t be the book other readers were raving about. The author successfully draws you into this proud southern family and community but once there, I realized that it wasn’t a place I wanted to stay. Almost every emotion seemed subdued or dull, as if the characters were forbidden to feel. Anger, love, devotion, and even racism through most of the book was understated. I didn’t find a single character that I cared about, not even the African American female who played a prominent part in this story. This book was originally published in 1964, which may explain some of the things that most disturbed me about the story. I kept turning pages while expecting and explosive climax and when it finally came, I was disappointed.