Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Benjamin Banneker and Us' traces generations of descendants of the mathematician

Henry Holt & Co.

When poet and creative writer Rachel Jamison Webster attended a cousin's wedding, she was surprised to discover that her family is related to famed mathematician and naturalist Benjamin Banneker.

This news was unexpected, not only because of Banneker's place in history as the first Black person in the U.S. to publish an almanac and for his role in surveying the boundaries for the District of Columbia — but also because the author is white. Thus began an exploration into family, race, and history that would culminate in a memoir-cum-biographical-sketch, Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family.

In the Author's Note, Webster determines it would be "impossible... to tell a story of Black genius and resistance without questioning [her] own position as a white woman and studying the origins and ramifications of whiteness itself." Conveniently, four of her newfound Black cousins, Edith Lee Harris, Robert Lett, Gwen Marable, and Edwin Lee, play critical and collaborative roles in helping her trace the story of their shared ancestry, ultimately giving the book its "proper form as a conversation between the present and the past." Webster fittingly shares a byline with these cousins, whose oral histories go back generations and inform much of what she writes about the family. They trace their line back to 1683, when an Irish indentured servant named Molly arrived in what would become America and, after completing her term of servitude, "was said to purchase two male slaves from Africa. She married and had children with one of them." According to Banneker-Lett family tradition, the man she married was named Bana'ka and their eldest daughter Mary became Benjamin Banneker's mother.

The conversations between Webster and her cousins are among the more compelling parts of the book, providing a platform for the cousins to share the implications of their ancestry as Black people. As Edwin Lee notes, theirs "is a mixed family, but it is also an African American family that goes back to before the founding of the country. There aren't hardly any African American families that can do this kind of documentary verification." The talks regularly expand beyond their shared genealogy, however, and they include everything from Black people deciding to "pass" as white to what's happening in national politics.

Aside from these moments between cousins, the book at its best when Webster interrogates what it means to be white. She is unflinchingly self-reflective after learning of her Black ancestry, and she realizes how infrequently stories about race have been told in her family. Having been born white, she recognizes that she is a member of a group "who did not realize that our category of whiteness was a historical invention that had been weaponized to remove people of color from the guiding myth of America, and from its ongoing safeties and privileges."

Webster also notes that the historical record in this country contains comparatively little about the Black experience before Emancipation. Enslaved people were forbidden to read or write, and most Black people didn't appear in censuses by name before 1870. As such, she explains in the Author's Note, "I allowed myself to imagine their thoughts and feelings, because I wanted them to live on the page as more than just names and dates."

While this will surely work for some readers, I found it challenging. For example, among the highlights of Banneker's life is an eloquent letter he writes to Thomas Jefferson, assailing the man "on his hypocrisy as an enslaver who wrote about freedom." Webster imagines the creation of the letter, writing that Banneker "had felt that he was not merely himself, but his people — a channel connecting to his father and his father before him, and even to those 'brethren' to come." It's a beautiful sentiment, lyrically expressed, but it is still a little off-putting for me. Similarly, when Webster imagines Molly during her indenture trying to give a show of support to Adaora, an imagined enslaved Black woman, it feels like an effort to affirm Molly's goodness. We know that the family's oral history suggests Molly taught Banneker how to read, but when Webster maintains that Molly "raised four girls to honor the African traditions of her husband," it's unclear whether that comes from family tradition, documented history, or Webster's imagination. These uncertainties meant the invented thoughts of the characters ended up being more distracting than illuminating for me.

Further complicating the story, historians are split on whether Banneker had a white grandmother at all. The family also encounters research suggesting that Molly may have simply been a slaveholder, rather than someone who saw the person she purchased "as a man and not property." Banneker-Lett family history suggests a loving relationship, and I hope that was the case. However, references from the era and present-day research, like They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers, suggest "white women were some of the most vindictive and violent enslavers of all."

In the end, I found Benjamin Banneker and Us more satisfying as a memoir than as a biographical sketch. I'm open to Webster's declaration that their "ancestor Molly was one of the good white women." But I'm not convinced of it, which is surely influenced by my being a Black descendant of slaves. That only makes sense. As Webster says, "Of course, we cannot know the details of Molly and Bana'ka's relationship, but we can learn something about ourselves in the way we imagine it." This book, and our responses to it, serves as a reminder of the extent to which "history — even well-researched history — is subjective and alive. It's always being seen through the lens of the present."

Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, Willow Springs and Yes! Magazine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ericka Taylor