I’m sitting on the horns of dilemma. As you’d suspect, it’s not a comfortable place to sit. It all has to do with two late 18th Century marriages on my maternal line between white men and free women of colour in one of America’s southern states. And the years that followed these marriages; which is to say their children and descendants claiming, and then having, a white identity.
Writing about these two couples would mean disclosing the racial identity of these two mulatto women. So where’s the dilemma?
- There is a chance that the descendants of these 2 couples have no idea that (however many) great grandma Jane Doe wasn’t white;
- Continuing on from Point #1, this may cause upset; and
- Some descendants may know this but not want it publicly disclosed.
Publicly writing about family ancestry and history carries certain burdens. This is one of them. Well, okay, this specific burden largely applies if you’re writing about American genealogy and family history and your audience is, not unsurprisingly, American.
Which brings me to my question. What is the etiquette in writing about inter-racial marriages in America in general and the Antebellum South in particular?
I know my motivations. There are 2 stories that I would like to share because they offer a very interesting glimpse into an aspect of American history that really isn’t discussed. Why interesting? Well, were marriages like these really as poorly received by society as we’ve been taught/led to believe? Were they as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe?
Then there is the legal side with inter-racial marriages up to and including the early 1960s. I’m still not certain when inter-racial marriages became illegal in the US. The second marriage in my wider family tree certainly happened when such marriages were illegal. This second couple didn’t hide it – their marriage certificate is proof enough of that. Nor did they immediately leave the town they were born and raised in to get married either – so everyone knew the racial identity of the woman, including the groom’s family (so what on earth did they think and feel about it?).
I’d also like to write about these women simply because their respective families have very interesting histories. Both come from mid 17th Century African American lineages that were indentured servants (and not enslaved) and then free thereafter.
I’m also a professional marketer. And I diligently measure the analytics for this site. I know what stories and themes are popular and which ones aren’t. My all-time top two posts cover inter-racial relationships and ‘passing’ (Beyond the Pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America https://genealogyadventures.net/2012/12/31/beyond-the-pale-interracial-relations-in-colonial-america/ and Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line https://genealogyadventures.net/2012/02/14/passing-for-white-ancestors-who-jumped-the-colour-line/) . To quantify ‘popular’, each of the posts cited above get read around 350 times a week. Combined, that’s a lot of reading on these two subjects.
So there’s an obvious interest in both topics. I have two stories that cover both. Naturally, I’d like to add these to the canon of posts I’ve already written on the subjects. Both would provide deeper insights and a new take on both subjects.
Now if I were back home in the UK, and this involved black British ancestors, I’d write these stories in a heartbeat. Believe it or not, there is a healthy segment of British society that would wear black ancestry as a badge of honour. Amongst Millennial, it’s something that would give them ‘street cred’. In short, they’d embrace it. Not everyone. I know that. However, on the whole, the British are far more chilled on the subject of diversity than Americans.
But I’m in the US. And in the 16 months since I’ve been on this side of The Pond, a ceaseless flow of news stories involving race has stayed my virtual pen when it comes to publishing these two stories. My experience with a few white relations from my maternal family lines on Ancestry.com and Gedmatch have definitely stayed my hand . To be fair, a small handful of newly discovered white relations from my maternal lines have been superb, stellar human beings; accepting, fun and helpful with my family history questions. The majority, however, have not. They were not pleased to discover a blood connection with African Americans. Could you imagine what others from the another branch of the same family would feel if they were to discover that they were actually descended from a person of colour? These are the things I have to be mindful of.
And before this looks like bashing southern people, I’m merely relaying my own experience. The numerous white relations I’ve met from my paternal Virginian lines have all been incredibly positive and brilliant people.
I suppose if those from my maternal lines had been as overwhelming positive as those from my father’s lines, I’d have my answer. I’d just go ahead and write and publish what I think would be two more interesting and positive stories that provide a glimpse into America’s past.
So what do you think? When sharing family history stories in America, what is the etiquette in outing an ancestor’s race? Leave a comment below.
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