The end of the semester means I get caught up on some of my reading. I finished The Autobiography of Ben Frankin (good stuff) and David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." (The footnote on the necessity of formal wear would have been very useful to read before we crossed the Atlantic on the QM2 last September).
But more relevant to this blog, I read Lawrence P. Jackson's excellent My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War. This is a historical ethnography about a man who decides to trace his family's Virginia roots back to ante-bellum days. Jackson tells us that blacks in America generally only have have
their accounts recorded for posterity if they were very good, very bad
(criminal records), or sold in slavery (and not always then). Jackson's
family seems just about average for the time and place, which makes his
ability to delve into the past and bring it to life all the more impressive.
It doesn't help that Jackson is a common name. It also doesn't help that Lawrence Jackson, an introverted academic, doesn't actually seem to be very good at talking to people. But Jackson is great in the library and the county records office. And he can write. Before you know it, you're tasting the red dust of unpaved roads and hoping the good guys win the war. My Father's Name is a bit detective novel, a bit Roots, a bit Fox Butterfield's All God's Children (but without the homicides), a bit Ta-Nehisi Coates (they're both self-reflective and perceptive men from Baltimore), and all with a pleasant meandering pace of Twain's Life on the Mississippi.
Jackson also writes with what I can only describe of a pleasant undercurrent of anger. This is not unjustified blind rage but rather controlled anger which is the inevitable result of unearthing the horrors of chattel slavery not in some abstract historical sense, but in the very real way of how it defined your kin and our country and continues to do so in the present day.