Some Free Faces of America

This week, three excerpts have one up online from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts.

Malcolm Gladwell, at The Root.
This means that Malcolm’s fifth-great-grandmother, a free woman of color, owned slaves. She even spelled one of them out by name, leaving her slave “Ruthie” to her grandson, Malcolm’s third-great-grandfather Benjamin Samuel Levy, another free man of color.

“Oh my goodness,” said Malcolm, stunned. “The kind of mental jujitsu you have to go through is quite remarkable. It was a class-based society, and so color was class, class was color. There it is. How far back in her history do we have to go, do we think, to find a slave? Her mother or maybe her grandmother?”

Malcolm quite correctly perceived Margaret’s decision to own slaves as a class issue. “I’m assuming it’s a way of underscoring your new status,” he said. “If you are a member of this special privileged class and you would like to heighten your position and assert your whiteness, having a slave is certainly one sign of doing that, isn’t it?”

The answer to that question is, of course, yes.

Mike Nichols, at The Daily Beast.
“I’ve never heard about these people,” Mike said, looking solemnly at the execution lists published in Russian newspapers, complete with photographs of the executed. “It all died with my father. But I’m so used to knowing that I’m beyond lucky—it’s like a joke, this luck. And what a putz to ever have complained of anything for even a moment.”

Elizabeth Alexander, also at The Root.
When Chambers died in 1832, the inventory of his estate listed all his slaves. On the list is a boy named Edward, age two and a half years, valued at forty pounds (which would be about forty-five hundred dollars today). Incredibly, this two-and-a-half-year-old boy is Elizabeth’s great-great-grandfather. “My God,” said Elizabeth, looking at the record. “When you see in black and white what it is to be valued as property when you’re a toddler — I’m sorry, but that’s hard to take.”

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