First Person Singular: ZSun-nee Miller-Matema, slave descendant

Correction: Earlier versions of this feature iabout ZSun-nee Miller-Matema incorrectly referred to her having a 6-year-old daughter. She was discussing her 6-year-old granddaughter. This version has been updated.


ZSun-nee Miller-Matema in the slave quarters at Mount Vernon in Mount Vernon, Va. (Benjamin C Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 1, 2011

I was working for Arena Stage in the late ’90s, and as part of doing multicultural programs and community outreach, I went to the Alexandria Black History Museum. I see this photograph hanging over the entryway of Robert Henry Robinson. I asked the archivist if he was related to my great-grandfather, Magnus Lewis Robinson. She says that’s his father, then tells me to sit down, goes and gets piles and piles of papers, plops them on the desk in front of me and says, “Enjoy!” All this very personal history is in my hands suddenly, and all these images of my people start to swarm. All senses were engaged. Needless to say, no community outreach for Arena Stage was done that day.

When I learned that my great-great-grandfather, Robert Henry Robinson, was the grandson of the personal maid of Martha Washington, Caroline Branham, I was immensely proud. For the next nine years, I ate, drank and slept Caroline. I became a historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, playing the part of Caroline, literally walking in her footsteps. I know that people think this is crazy. They ask, “Why in the world are you pursuing your ancestor’s history when you know she was an enslaved person? Why don’t you and everyone else like you just let go of this slave history and be done with it?” I try to tell them that there is a higher order to things. It’s spiritual. My Caroline could have been in the home of any white master in the country. But somehow she found her way to the first president of this country. I know she was not a free person. I know it is wrong for anyone to own my ancestors, but I also know she was part of the family. She is part of the fabric of this nation’s history, and so am I. The morning that General Washington took ill, they sent Caroline out to get the doctor. She was the first one to light the fire in the morning in their bedroom. She knew what she had to do in that environment to get what she wanted.


This story was featured in The Washington Post Magazine’s Civil War issue. (Illustration by Nancy Harris Rouemy/Go for It Design Ltd.)

When I took my 6-year-old granddaughter to the unveiling of the Mount Vernon slave quarters, she started asking me questions on the drive, about what “slave” is. She doesn’t have the connection to Caroline that I do, and as I’m explaining this, she is getting angry. She says: “That’s not how you’re supposed to treat people. Those people should be punished.” I’m looking in the rear-view mirror and realizing that is how many slave descendants feel. There is room for many feelings around where we come from. I have to let her have her own.

All this has made me realize how incredibly, undeniably connected we all are. Regardless of ethnicity or man-imposed, societal class structures, human beings have found a way to interact with each other as people.

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