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A Story is Never Just a Story: A Follow-up to a Washington Post article
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It is a strange feeling to publish a novel and have it take on a life of its own. The Washington Post ran a story yesterday profiling my novel Wench, a story that explores the complexities of the sexual relationships that existed between slave women and white men.  It mentions the people who have shared their own family histories of such unions in the context of reading the book. I do not know much about my own family's slave history, so I never imagined that such stories would come forth from readers of the book.

The article includes the story of my friend Margretta Browne, whose family traces its lineage back to President Andrew Johnson. This is the first time her family has gone public with this, and I had to receive permission from the family to share it. I have known her over ten years, and Margretta had never told me this.

 

Since our initial discussion--inspired by her experience reading the book--we have been attempting to sort out the details together. I have a historian's curiosity, and I immediately felt an urge to trace this line via historical documents. It is also coincidental and more than a bit ironic that Margretta's brother is a well-regarded geneticist. My hope is that what we don't find in the documents, we will ultimately be able to confirm with science. 

Once I received the green light from Margretta, I made a phone call to a museum curator in Greeneville, TN to inquire about the local historical narrative.  I was a bit nervous because I remembered stories of how some white descendants of President Thomas Jefferson had been resistant to the Hemings family claims of ancestry. I also know that "remembrances" of southern history can often be deeply divided along racial lines. I left a detailed message about why I was calling, and after I hung up, I wondered if he would return my call.  He returned it within the hour.  Furthermore, he was very pleasant and helpful.  He confirmed that there were rumors that Johnson fathered slave children but no proof.  He also gave me the name and number of another local historian who could be helpful. Of course, I am certain that my pleasant tone and light southern accent helped to warm the man to me.  Yet I still felt it was a gentle reminder to me to be careful of generalizations.  I was also struck by how wonderful it felt to hear his narrative of Johnson and discover the parts of it that fit with Margretta's.

I learned another lesson that day. In Margretta's family history, the first Margretta married a slave named Edward.  Based on my initial digging, I thought there was a possibility that she had married a slave named Sam. I also thought Margretta might have been a bit older than sixteen years old when Johnson freed her.  When I shared this with Margretta, she said that the family was certain Margretta was sixteen.  That part of the story had been one of the firmer bits of memory they had preserved.  I pressed a bit and said that the age of a slave was often slippery.  Slave births may or may not have been recorded in a timely manner. Slaves may have been mistaken about their ages.  Also, an owner might lie about a slave's age when placing him or her up for auction.  "I don't think so," Margretta said firmly.  I backed off. 

 

It occurred to me that for the families, these stories are more than just narrative. They define a family's sense of itself.  Margretta's family has six generations of women that carry this name, and every one of them has been a teacher just like the original Margretta.  That's powerful stuff. And it also helped remind me that this tangled legacy of our country is bound with emotion. This year, this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I will be thinking about how closely connected to one another we are as a nation, and I will remind myself to listen and remember that a story is never just a story.

 

To view the Washington Post article, click here: http://wapo.st/hTyt4K

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Comments
  • Joyce Evans-Campbell

    A very touching story, touching because of my and my family's history of rape, child sexual abuse, etc. I often think and have empathy for others. I think these stories don't get enough attention. And it's healthy to read about them, especially, if it makes you feel you're not alone. Sometimes, as you've mentioned, it prompts other women to tell their stories. This is uplifting when I help people uncover their own history.

  • Dawn Davis

    I'm biased but I thought it was a fascinating piece.

  • CeCe Harbor

    Dolen -- I just ordered your book on Amazon. It sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Alisha

    VERY interesting follow-up, Dolen! I didn't expect the WaPo story to include accounts of family histories by readers. Good stuff! I hope something can come of this story with your friend, Margretta. Your blog post title is dead on. A story is never just a story.