Review of Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton

Raised in Miami in the 1970s, Newton, a critic and former lawyer, emerged from what she calls a eugenics project. His father, a lawyer and white supremacist who mourned the end of slavery, proposed marriage to Newton’s mother on the assumption that they would make smart children together. As a father, he painted over the faces of brown children in his daughters’ picture books and forbade Newton from watching “Sesame Street” so she wouldn’t see white and black children playing. Newton’s mentally unstable mother, who met Newton’s father just a week after he attempted suicide, eventually took a steep turn towards religion and opened her own church in the family living room. She performed exorcisms and saw demons everywhere, including in her daughter. This marriage lasted 12 angry years, punctuated by loud arguments and Newton’s mother throwing kitchen utensils.

As he grew older, Newton struggled with his own demons, including a tumultuous romance and anxiety about his mental stability. As she peeled back the layers of her parents’ and ancestors’ lives, revealing patterns of abuse, abandonment and mental illness, her genealogical curiosity became a decades-long quest to understand how her family came to be. to be so messed up and how her legacy can live on in her. She was able to confirm and flesh out the disturbing stories she had heard for a long time: a grandfather was married at least 10 times to nine different women; a great-aunt danced naked in the street, threatened her mother with a knife and died in an asylum.

But far more disturbing, Newton was able to document the “hundreds, if not thousands” of human beings his father’s ancestors were responsible for enslaving. At best, “Ancestor Trouble” becomes a kind of personal reconciliation project, chronicling generations of white violence, cruelty, and theft, as well as entrenched intergenerational brainwashing.

How is the poison of racism transmitted? In Newton’s paternal line, it was a grand project backed by tales of bravery and hard work, beliefs about the natural order of human beings, and the logic that material wealth should be proof of goodness. Newton found this whitewashing in many places, including family accounts of a great-grandfather named Big Joe who ran a sharecropping plantation in the notoriously exploitative Jim Crow South. “No one I ever knew was held in greater respect than he among the blacks of the Mississippi Delta,” wrote a relative in the 1990s. In the 1960s, the great-great-aunt of Newton, a schoolteacher, wrote a newspaper column advocating resistance to the Civil Rights Act, and a great-grandmother declared herself happy when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Such beliefs have been buttressed by decades of mainstream eugenics, a deeply flawed understanding of gene science that still contaminates aspects of our culture and politics.

The poison of those generations found poisonous expression in Newton’s father, whose cruelty was written large and small, and from whom Newton is now separated. He mourned the end of slavery, applauded a 1927 Supreme Court decision upholding forced sterilization of human beings, and mocked the disabled; at home, he kicked dogs and spanked his daughter when she was constipated. Newton’s invigorating portrayal of himself and the evil of his ancestors offers judgment that our culture as a whole still refuses to have. But the growing popularity of family history research may be changing that. In recent years, I have heard of a number of genealogical reconciliation projects, including efforts by black and white descendants of the same slaveholders working together to understand their shared past.

As she traces her family, Newton lays out her theory of the importance of genealogy, not only to set the record straight and ask how we can right the wrongs of our ancestors, but also as a means of orienting ourselves. in the world. Using insights from anthropology, history, religion and philosophy, she defines the hobby as a modern twist on an ancient practice that connects us to each other and to the Earth. She is captivated by cultures that revere the dead – worshiping ancestors, burying loved ones under family homes – and suggests that ours has lost much in its estrangement from them. “Ancestor hunger,” as she calls it, “has often been presented as a Western narcissistic peculiarity. Historically, however, it is far more common for people to seek a connection to their ancestors than not to seek it.

Newton uses findings from genetics, cognitive science and other fields to wrestle with ideas about inheritance – does knowing who gave us our eyes and (perhaps) our temperament trap us or release? And she offers theoretical explanations for what she sees as “emotional recurrences in families” that our current science cannot explain.

But as “Ancestor Trouble” progresses, it turns into a memoir of spiritual experimentation. Newton embarks on a journey to connect with his ancestors, working with “ancestral medicine” practitioners who help him communicate with the spirits of the dead. She can see these spirits as figures or colored lights; they give advice and insight into the malfunctioning of his family tree.

Over time, she comes to find these deeply healing connections and begins to see “synchronicities” between the generations. She is stunned by a parallel between her demon-obsessed mother and a ninth great-grandmother “accused of associating with spirits”, and finding herself reserved at an Airbnb on Martha Avenue while attending a workshop for ” heal” his mind. grandmother, whose name was Martha.

There’s something poignant about Newton’s efforts to honor the forgotten, and I found fascinating the idea that by literally trying to get to know the dead, we better understand our place in the world. But his insistence on seeing intergenerational patterns, no matter how old or wacky, threatens to undermine the nuance and rigorous research that characterizes the rest of his book.

While Newton’s attempts to connect with the past are unusual, his lucid look at the complicity of his ancestors is nevertheless a valuable and invigorating portrait of an American family tree that we know represents much, much more. That is why we look back, and that’s why genealogy can be so powerful – because the past is always with us, because we can’t change the present until we retrace the path that got us here .

Because, as Newton says, “I was born in 1971. The Civil War ended in 1865. A hundred and fifty years is nothing. It’s a snap. »

A settlement of accounts and reconciliation

Random house. 400 pages $28.99

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