The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a family tree is rooted in racism

Maud Newton writes that her father wouldn't let her watch “Sesame Street” because it showed children of different races playing together, as in this 1972 episode featuring New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. (Harry Harris/AP)
7 min

Genealogy is a national obsession right now, and there’s no shortage of books about the family revelations uncovered by research and DNA testing. But genealogical accounts are almost always inward-looking exercises; few writers can offer a tale as riveting and timely as Maud Newton does in “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation.” This is testament not only to her lyrical writing and wide-ranging scholarship but to the story told by her family tree — one of profound intergenerational racism intertwined with the worst moments of American history.

Raised in Miami in the 1970s, Newton, a critic and a former lawyer, is a product of what she calls a eugenics project. Her dad, a lawyer and white supremacist who mourned the end of slavery, pitched marriage to Newton’s mom under the premise that they would make smart children together. As a father, he painted over the faces of Brown children in his daughters’ picture books and forbade Newton from watching “Sesame Street” so she wouldn’t see White and Black children at play. Newton’s mentally volatile mother, who met Newton’s father just a week after attempting suicide, eventually took a sharp turn into religion and started her own church in the family living room. She performed exorcisms and saw demons everywhere, including in her daughter. This marriage lasted 12 angry years, punctuated by loud arguments and Newton’s mother throwing kitchenware.

As she grew older, Newton wrestled with her own demons, including a tumultuous romance and anxiety about her mental stability. When she peeled back the layers of her parents’ and forebears’ lives, revealing patterns of violence, abandonment and mental illness, her genealogical curiosity became a decades-long quest to understand how her family came to be so screwed up and how its legacy may live on in her. She was able to confirm and flesh out the disturbing stories she’d long heard: One grandfather was married at least 10 times to nine different women; a great-aunt danced naked in the street, menaced her mother with a knife and died in an asylum.

But far more disturbing, Newton was able to document the “hundreds, if not thousands” of human beings her father’s forebears were responsible for enslaving. At its best, “Ancestor Trouble” becomes a kind of personal reconciliation project, one that tells of generations of White violence, cruelty and theft, as well as entrenched intergenerational brainwashing.

How is the poison of racism passed down? Along Newton’s paternal line, it was a grand project bolstered by stories of valor and hard work, convictions about the natural order of human beings, and the logic that material wealth must be proof of goodness. Newton found this whitewashing in many places, including family accounts of a great-grandfather named Big Joe who ran a sharecropping plantation in the Jim Crow South, a system that was notoriously exploitative. “No one I have ever known was held in higher respect than he was among the black people of the Mississippi Delta,” one relative wrote in the 1990s. In the 1960s, Newton’s great-great aunt, a schoolteacher, wrote a newspaper column advocating resistance to the Civil Rights Act, and a great-grandmother declared herself happy when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Such beliefs were buttressed by decades of mainstream eugenics, a profoundly flawed understanding of the science of genes that still contaminates aspects of our culture and politics.

The poison of these generations found toxic expression in Newton’s father, whose cruelty was writ large and small, and from whom Newton is now estranged. He mourned the end of slavery, applauded a 1927 Supreme Court decision upholding the forced sterilization of human beings and mocked the disabled; at home, he kicked the dogs and spanked his daughter when she was constipated. Newton’s bracing portrait of him and of her ancestors’ evil offers a reckoning that our culture at large still refuses to have. But the growing popularity of family history research may be changing that. In recent years, I’ve heard about a number of genealogical reconciliation projects, including efforts by Black and White descendants of the same enslavers working together to understand their shared pasts.

As she traces her family, Newton lays out her theory of the importance of genealogy, not just for setting the record straight on history and wrestling with how we can repair our ancestors’ wrongs, but also as a means of orienting ourselves in the world. Using scholarship in anthropology, history, religion and philosophy, she frames the hobby as a modern twist on an ancient practice that connects us to one another and to the Earth. She is captivated by cultures that revere the dead — worshiping ancestors, burying loved ones beneath family homes — and suggests that ours has lost a great deal in its distance from them. “Ancestor hunger,” as she terms it, “has often been cast as a narcissistic Western peculiarity. Historically, though, it’s far more usual for people to seek connection with their forebears than not to seek it.”

Newton uses findings from genetics, cognitive science and other fields to wrestle with ideas around inheritance — does knowing who gave us our eyes and (perhaps) our tempers trap us or free us? And she floats theoretical explanations for what she sees as “emotional recurrences in families” that our current science can’t explain.

But as “Ancestor Trouble” progresses, it shifts into a memoir of spiritual experimentation. Newton embarks on a journey to connect with her ancestors, working with practitioners of “Ancestral Medicine” who help her communicate with the spirits of the dead. She can see these spirits as figures or colored light; they give advice and offer insight into the dysfunction of her family tree.

Over time, she comes to find these connections deeply healing and begins to see “synchronicities” between generations. She is astounded by a parallel between her demon-obsessed mother and a ninth-great-grandmother “accused of consorting with spirits,” and to find herself booked at an Airbnb on Martha Avenue while attending a workshop to “heal” the spirit of her grandmother, whose name was Martha.

There is something moving about Newton’s efforts to honor the forgotten, and I found fascinating the idea that in literally attempting to know the dead, we better understand our place in the world. But her insistence on seeing intergenerational patterns, no matter how far back or far-fetched, threatens to undercut the nuance and rigorous research that characterize the rest of her book.

If Newton’s attempts to connect with the past are unusual, her clear-eyed look at her ancestors’ complicity is nonetheless a valuable and bracing portrait of one American family tree that we know represents many, many more. This is why we look back, and it’s why genealogy can be so powerful — because the past is still with us, because we can’t change the present until we’ve retraced the path that led us here.

Because, as Newton puts it: “I was born in 1971. The Civil War ended in 1865. A hundred and fifty years is nothing. It’s the blink of an eye.”

Libby Copeland is a former staff writer for The Washington Post and the author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.”

Ancestor Trouble

A Reckoning and a Reconciliation

By Maud Newton

Random House. 400 pp. $28.99