By Martha A. Sandweiss
Sunday, July 19, 2009
THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE ROAD
The Story of Three Generations of An Interracial Family in the American South
By W. Ralph Eubanks
Smithsonian. 206 pp. $26.99
W. Ralph Eubanks's family memoir tells a double story, one about the past and the other about the author's efforts to uncover it. This has become a familiar kind of literature, the search for family roots that becomes a search for one's own identity. But Eubanks has an unusual story to tell. His maternal grandparents, Jim and Edna Richardson, lived on a remote rural road in a black community in the now deserted town of Prestwick, Ala. According to family stories, they married in 1914 and by 1929 had seven children. Jim was a white man, a "boisterous adventurer" and bootlegger who ran a logging business. Edna's racial heritage was mixed, but she thought of herself as black. In Jim Crow Alabama, where the courts had repeatedly upheld the state constitution's ban on interracial marriages, the Richardsons constituted an unusual sort of family, and they defied the social rules that governed the segregated South. After Edna died in 1937, Jim remained in Prestwick with his light-skinned children. They could have moved away to start life anew as a "white" family. After all, Eubanks says, the children were so fair that a federal census agent once categorized them as "white." But the family "made a conscious choice to identify as black people, in spite of skin color and features that would have allowed them to move seamlessly into the white world."
Eubanks sees this act as both radical and heroic. As a black man married to a white woman, he finds in his grandparents' lives valuable lessons for his own. "Sometimes it even felt as if they had forged a path for the life my wife and I shared, occasionally guiding us on our way." He thus crafts a progressive tale of social improvement, with his grandparents' and parents' lives in the Jim Crow South paving the way for his own youth during the civil rights era and eventually leading to his 11-year-old daughter's vision of a world "where race matters less and justice and our common humanity matter more."
Like all memoirs, this book puts the author's perceptions front and center, asking readers to see the past through the author's understanding of it. It is at once a history and a more personal, literary recreation of a set of experiences. How, then, to judge the truth of a memoir? Does truth reside in the author's description of the external world, an account that might be corroborated through other sources? Or does it rest in the author's perceptions of that world, the accuracy of which can be known only to the writer? Every memoir describes a life without and a life within. And every memoirist walks an ill-defined path between history and literature, tackling the past unfettered by the historian's rules of evidence, but not quite free to embrace the novelist's absolute freedom of imagination. It's a tricky undertaking.
In relying on personal memories and family stories, Eubanks wrestles with a particularly problematic form of evidence. Family stories have staying power when they serve a purpose, whether or not there is evidence to support them. To acknowledge this is not to suggest that what the family believes is necessarily "untrue." Anecdotes and handed-down impressions may be true to a family's understanding of itself, even if they are at odds with other sources, and the stories that Eubanks gathers from his grandparents' families and neighbors speak eloquently to the difficulties of the Richardson family's life. Embraced at face value, the stories make Eubanks's larger point: These people might have had their personal flaws, but they behaved heroically in the face of enormous social pressures.
At a few points, however, Eubanks turns to more conventional historical sources, the sort that curious readers can consult for themselves. A check of these records shows that they do not correspond with the author's account of them. In fact, the historical data contradict the author's memory. Eubanks claims, for example, that the 1920 federal census documented Jim Richardson as the head of household for a white family, but listed no children. And he notes that the 1930 census recorded all seven of the Richardson children as white. But that's not the case. The 1920 census taker documented Jim living with Edna in a household with three "mulatto" children, while the 1930 census categorized the seven Richardson children as "negro." Does this matter? Yes, to the extent that it challenges the author's account of a particular historical situation. If outsiders perceived the Richardson children as "mulatto" or "negro" instead of "white," Jim's decision to remain in Prestwick after his wife's death and to raise his children as black may have been less a defiant choice than an acknowledgment of how the family was already perceived. Nothing in the census data suggests that observers saw the Richardson children as white or that Jim was truly free to remake his family's identity.
Nonetheless, the family's faith in Jim Richardson's heroism is in itself a powerful force and an historical fact. In that context, the census data matter less because they can do little to alter deeply held perceptions of the past or the ways in which people have acted on them. Buoyed by his understanding of his family's past and encouraged by his children's obliviousness to old racial categories, Eubanks narrates a larger story about the decreasing importance of race in American life. That story has many starting points and many heroes, and the particulars of Jim and Edna Richardson's lives -- as understood differently through census documents or through the proudly partisan memories of descendants -- cannot alter the moral of the tale.
Martha A. Sandweiss, professor of history at Princeton University, is the author of "Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line."