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Several years ago after seeing Kara Walker’s show at the Whitney, “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” and its address to the complications of the familial history between afro and euro americans, I came back to my mother’s apartment to find an accordion folder belonging to my recently deceased grandmother containing the will of Hugh Elmwood Caperton where slaves were listed as property he bequeathed to his children. Until that time, though I knew my mother’s family to be from Maryland and Virginia, I did not consider that my heritage included enslavers. I had been sensitive to and even obsessed with issues of race since I was a young child but did not really understand why.
A year after finding the will I found, again accidentally and not something accounted for, an old marbled book that contained pressed flowers sewn into it with written entries such as, “Gotten, May 12th, 1861 Sunday evening at the Deaf Dumb and Blind Institute;” “Given me by Aunt Emily my ‘Black Mamy’ as a token of ‘Especial Regard’ June 19th, 1861 Wednesday evening.” For probably another year, I dismissed it as the diary of some relative who had been a frivolous, southern girl.
In my studio, I had two coffee table books I had bought at Goodwill for unrelated source material, a Ken Burns book of images from the Civil War and a book on plants and gardening. It was seeing these books out, putting together family names I had hastily listed in my sketch book, and looking at the dates of the diary again, that I realized this was the diary of my great, great grandmother when she was 16 and this was the first year of the Civil War.
I suppose that my interest in the relationship between afro and euro americans comes from memes that I saw in my grandparents and that, as a child, I conflated them with what I saw as afro American culture; and, that the genes and memes from the historical period of several hundred years based in the social and economic institution of slavery, are deeply unresolved in many families. I am ambivalent about caring about the particulars of my own family and yet I think using the particulars to get to the larger issues that feel urgent right now, in this year of an election, may be the way for me. I am curious about the possibility of relatives that were not acknowledged or recorded because of racism and what, if anything, digging into that would stir up.
My friend Gretchen says that our ancestors animate us and I have been thinking that I have to go to this place I don’t know. Alice Caperton wrote the name of Union (Monroe County), West Virginia in her diary and online it says she is buried in the Green Hill Cemetery there. So much of this has been about encounter and it seems like a most appropriate next encounter would be to go to Union with a witness companion like you.
Olympia, WA and NYC