Harvey G. Cohen
Duke Ellington's America
“I Knew My Father”
I can’t remember exactly why I had wanted to see my father’s birth certificate around the time I published my first book. I had written a biography of the writer Ralph Ellison, and it was a demanding struggle to obtain the man’s public records. But with my own father’s records, I presumed I would have unfettered access as next of kin. Thinking it would be a simple matter, I went to the Virginia bureau of vital records, which was in Richmond, just down the street from where I then lived.
The occasion turned into a miniature odyssey filled with surprises. Because of the commonness of the surname Jackson, the clerk asked me to look at the original record to help the computer distinguish my father from one or two other men. Th e tattered index card that the clerk eventually produced gave my father’s birth year as 1932. As long as I had known my father, I thought he was born in 1933: that date was on his passport, social security card, driver’s license, and gravestone.
The torn old record contained a trove of additional personal information, including the street in Danville, Virginia, where my father had been born. I had never known that before. I later found a writer’s description of that area as consisting of the “tumbled-down Negro shacks of Jackson’s Branch” and the “poor little Providence Hospital for Colored.” In the hard times of the Depression, women from Poor House Hill close by were thought to eat dirt.1 But most revelatory on the unusual card was my grandfather’s inclusion of the names of his parents, Ned Jackson and Less Hundley Jackson, both of them aged but still living in 1932. When I indicated that this was the correct Nathaniel Jackson record, the clerk asked me to return the card, and a minute or so later gave me an official birth certificate bearing the state seal. But none of the precious information about my father and his grandparents was included on the computerized form. I asked to see the original record again, but he refused to show it to me a second time.
I had to insist on a meeting with an assistant to the registrar, and then had to entreat this woman for another chance: that I was actually a credentialed research professional in addition to being my father’s next of kin, and that I had a right to at least take notes from this pertinent family information. Her first response was to refuse to admit that I had seen an original form. Then she denied any qualitative difference between the computer-generated certificate and the original index card from 1932. The scene struck me as odd, my having to importune and supplicate in a cloying kind of way so that I could see a dynamic living record scribed by a human being. That the clerk and the assistant registrar, and indeed the registrar, were white, and that the bureau sits on Monument Avenue in Richmond, with its legendary marble statues of Confederate generals Lee, Stuart, and Jackson, and that I am black did not register in my mind on that day.
Like the great majority of Americans, like the Richmond assistant registrar I guess, I grew up in a world that still needed to believe the quaint, comforting Thomas Nelson Page image of slavery. Page, the best-known postbellum broadcaster of literature nostalgic for the plantation era, described the period of black servitude in Virginia as a time when “the heart was light and the toil not too heavy.” Page’s romantic view of slavery became a cornerstone of what might stand as the American national religion when Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind became a successful film in 1939. During my childhood, my family regularly watched the annually televised film Gone with the Wind with the same ritual devotion that we gave to the Easter pageant film The Ten Commandments. (By contrast, the television series Roots came on one time.) Gone with the Wind opens with images of black plow hands jostling with one another in the bright sun for the privilege of announcing, “It’s quitting time!” The strong undercurrent of the film is that slavery was a job, like any other, and devoted hard work produces success. It is not difficult to see why the movie would be popular not just with whites but with blacks too.
My grandmothers were both living in 1977 when Roots was broadcast. I don’t know if they saw the program, but even if they did I am fairly certain that all my grandparents had a more intimate relation with the film Gone with the Wind. All of them, born in the rural South, at one time or another, for some of or all their working lives, served in parlors and kitchens and sickrooms and in front of furnaces. The film’s key black characters, Mammy, Prissy, Pork, and Big Sam, must have presented as interesting a challenge to them and their memories of their grandparents as it did to my own conception of what slavery would have been like. The film embodies three powerful concepts about enslavement: black people were childlike (Pork and Prissy), they were faithful (Mammy and Big Sam), and mixed-race people did not exist. In other words, if you have lived several hundred years in a country known all over the world for the ethnic range of its population and the possibility of accumulating fantastic wealth, what being a member of a powerless but highly visible minority group descended from ex-chattels means is to look at yourself, your past, through the myths, the joys, the guilt, and the fear of someone else. It is possible to identify with that person and his or her point of view, but whether or not it is your own, or is one that the people who have created you would recognize or acknowledge, that is something else. Under such circumstances, looking for yourself might not be impossible, but it is a task with stalwart and jagged obstacles.
It can take a while to achieve your own vision. At my Catholic high school on the same day that Martin Luther King’s birthday became a federal holiday, the Irish-American class president stopped me in the hallway and said that he and some of the athletes thought that Booker T. Washington should have received the recognition instead of Martin Luther King Jr. My scholarship to the school notwithstanding, my classmate told me that Washington, not King, “really did something for black people.” I had been to the US Capitol with my dad, my sister, Stevie Wonder, and others to gather for a day in King’s name. But as the seventeen-year-old president of my high school Black Student’s Union, I didn’t really know enough history to counter my schoolmate’s unflattering point. I simply dismissed his remark, because I knew that what he meant was that he opposed the national holiday.
And honestly, when I was in high school during the early Reagan years, I accepted King’s struggle and work as largely complete. The success of the civil rights movement, as I understood it then, was that my racial background would not hinder me if I lived an immaculate, cautious life. The hallway conversation took place immediately prior to some quite ordinary events that I had been sheltered from that would pierce the myth that slavery was like a job, and that being black in America amounted to the same kind of difference as being of Mexican, Irish, or Jewish descent: a white American called me “nigger” to my face; a white American in a position of power told me my background was inadequate to be admitted to a school; and white (at first) American police began to demonstrate precisely how cheap to them my life really was.
In college, when I learned that American slavery was a genocide involving tens of millions of people, I became prouder of my heritage, because I understood more about what my ancestors had survived. I doubted if I could have survived it myself. I was also confused, because it had never been a topic of much conversation among the black people I had then known. In spite of the magnitude of American slavery, since it was more than a century in the past, I was forced to conclude that my slave-born ancestors would ever remain a complete mystery to me.
An ordinary black American had three chances to learn about the past, I thought. You could have ancestors who had been vicious desperadoes tried before the bar of justice and had their deeds transcribed in a court and exposed by the press, generating a paper record for posterity. Or, wealthy planters who left extensive farm books, correspondence, or diaries might have owned your family. An ancestor might have been jotted down by name in a record when he or she received a peck of cornmeal, a blanket, a visit from a doctor, or thirty-nine lashes. Finally, and least probably, a black family might have stewarded a phenomenal African legend of some kind that had been passed down orally. But since most blacks merely tried to survive slavery, and served out that sentence with something like twenty-three fellow captives on a small farm and many of the group were children, and since so many black Americans are as uneasy toward Africa as are American whites, the chances for uncovering enslaved forbears seemed slight.
But really the profound difficulty to the entire prospect of finding my ancestors was in my surname, one of the terribly common ones among African Americans. In 2000, the US census reported something like 353,046 black Americans sharing the surname Jackson, almost one in every hundred. Black people made up 53 percent of all Americans named Jackson: only Washington and Jefferson had higher percentages among black Americans, though there are more black Jacksons than all the Washingtons and Jeffersons, black or white, combined. In the roughly century and a half since slavery, these common names, evidence of “unrecognized and unrecognizable loves,” have become tribal. Even when they are ordinary, we make something of them and the story that they tell, because human beings are past-making machines.
In the eighth grade, a friend had impressed me with his own sense of past-making when he presented his Scottish forefathers’ coat of arms to our class. I had not considered something like that, a remote but heralded lineage for my own English surname. I had grown to adulthood on a city block where black Americans with English surnames surrounded me, and having one seemed only a matter of course. My neighbors carried names like Carrington, Blow, Watkins, Travis, Parrot, Rawlings, Barber, Miller, Anderson, Smith, Jones, Holeman, Tubman, Grant, Speers,
Shelton, Sampson, Thompson, Hopkins, Washington, Dallas, Brown, English, Taylor, White, and Clayborne.
Of course, when you think about the whole of human history, surnames themselves are fairly new. In the English-speaking world, the common surnames came into fashion as people escaped from (or were pushed out of) the lands they had worked under feudal lords. This process confused genealogies and took the common man away from the landowners’ church to a town or parish church that had to record men, their marriages, and their issue on rolls and keep them distinct, one from the other.
The most regular surnames evolved from the custom of being known as the son of a certain person. The custom gained in importance as people had something they wanted to make sure went from one generation to the next during the nasty, brutish, and short phase of English history. So the son of John, the most popular first name in England, took off and never looked back. John in fact was so popular a first name that it drew a derivative, Jack, and the sons of that family too clapped a mighty sound. The relation must mean something, because I once received a speeding ticket from a completely sober Baltimore police officer who wrote my name as “Lawrence Johnson.” It’s hard to even call it an error.
More typically, and arguably with more certainty, since the axiom “mama’s baby, papa’s maybe” cuts across race and time, English common folk took last names based on what they could be absolutely certain of: what they did for a living. The “smythe” of the early modern world was a “can-do” operator. Village life and early industry gave rise to all kinds of construction and merchant engineers and, consequently, surnames: archers, sawyers, coopers, carvers, carters, turners, joiners, tinkers, rogers, fullers, tuckers, and so on. Some people left the places they were born and called themselves after the region, the town, or my favorite, the general landscape of the places they’d left: hill, brown, green, blue, river, ford, brook, forest, and field.
Jack in English can of course be either verb or noun, a tool, money, or a lever to help lift something, or it can be the lifting itself. In the eighteenth century when the trade in men and women between Africa and the Virginia colony was regular, it was not unknown for the English masters to practice rough transliterations in naming their slaves. Jack also seems to have been an Anglicized version of Quacko, or the Akan name Kweku, for a boy born on a Wednesday. I was born on a Wednesday.
African Americans were overwhelmingly owned by English descendants in North America by the nineteenth century. Several surnames register significant percentages from among a population that had no legal right to any for the greater part of the nineteenth century. They are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, and Jackson.
Perhaps the simplest hypothesis is the best. At the conclusion of the Civil War and the reality of the general emancipation, let’s just say by 1866, newly freed people would very naturally choose a surname like Freeman or Washington or Jefferson or especially Lincoln. Excluding Freeman, these names recalled revered national figures who seemed to embody the ideals of democracy and the franchise. Democrat Andrew Johnson was president of the United States when the emancipation became irrevocable and widespread. Johnson believed in a country and government for white men, but picking Johnson as one’s surname must have been classy. The choice said, “Hey, look at me! Last week I was on the auction block with a mule, and this week I have the same name as the man who runs the White House!”
That is precisely the kind of noisy exuberance and merriment black Americans have been known for. Booker T. Washington was born in Franklin County, Virginia, in the later 1850s, and he claimed to have invented his own last name in a moment of classroom anxiety and inspiration. After hearing other children proudly recite two or three names, young Booker decided to join himself to the founding father of the United States. This was a boy with grey eyes and kinky red hair, who had worn mainly a rough flax shirt, gone barefoot all his life, and been known to the world heretofore as merely Booker. And of course, since black Americans continued to live in the South, Jefferson, Johnson, Washington, and Jackson were more strategically savvy choices than Freeman or Lincoln.
Thinking of himself and others he knew, Ralph Ellison once praised the complex adaptation that African Americans had made after slavery, naming themselves, like the educator Booker T. Washington, for presidents and the like.
Perhaps, taken in the aggregate, these European names which (sometimes with irony, sometimes with pride, but always with personal investment) represent a certain triumph of the spirit, speaking to us of those who rallied, reassembled and transformed themselves and who under dismembering pressures refused to die.
White masters in the eighteenth century had mocked the enslaved by giving them the names of Roman senators and consuls, but in the nineteenth century, with the pedestrian regularity of enslavement, blacks increasingly had exactly the same given names as whites. When the century changed and a generation of blacks came to lose the ties they had had with Southern whites, some of these whites being masters who had undoubtedly sustained particular African Americans during slavery, a pretentious ambition crept in that countered the miserable social reality, the era that the historian Rayford Logan called “The Nadir” in race relations. Thus, Ida and Lewis Ellison named their son Ralph Waldo Ellison. Added to this, eastern and southern European immigrants coming to America in large numbers assisted in a remarkable shift in ethnicity among white Americans. Consequently, given the opportunity to choose, black Americans took the most widely recognized English surnames, and in the process the holders of the names Jones, Johnson, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, Brown, and Williams became remarkably dark in hue.
There were blacks in Pittsylvania County named for the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis—that was irony—but even Ellison had diffi culty revealing all the outlandish practices connected to black naming. When giving names to their children, African American farmhands and cooks, wet nurses and woodcutters resorted to a conspicuously divergent symbolic terrain that appeared to be casual and extemporaneous, but which was deeply defiant. So they named themselves Sukey and Doctor, Febby and Boocey and Morning. A tradition determined to resist white norms and arguably the legacy of bondage at the hands of English people themselves persists in such modern-day names as Lakeisha and LeBron.
Another moment of nominal differences between black and white occurred at the first full census in 1870. The white officials in the rural places where Negroes had served out their enslavement began to record surnames and given names as they seemed to be pronounced, spelling in official documents the English words spoken by black Americans the way that they sounded, and often enough using minstrel shows and print culture doggerel as their phonetic guides. Lighthearted perhaps, the practice complicated tracing the old lineages, the blood relations and the nominal evidence of the people and place where bondage had occurred.
Ex-bondman Martin Jackson described his own unique passageway to the common surname. He decided to name himself Jackson because his father had carried a tradition that the family stemmed from an African forebear who had been named Jeaceo; at the general emancipation, young Martin picked Jackson for himself.7 There was also Andrew Jackson, popular president from the 1830s, frontiersman, and slave owner, who was rumored to have had some African and Indian blood. He appeared on the Confederate one thousand dollar bill. Moreover, he had addressed black troops and breastworks contractors at New Orleans in 1815, a deed that might have gotten around. Jackson embodied the ideal of the vigorous common man unequaled in the presidency to this day. To top it off, his wife, Rachel Donelson, was born in Pittsylvania County. I don’t like to think of black people actually naming themselves for Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but I am sure that some did. I suspect, however, that most newly freed people took the name of either their former owner or a nearby person, white or black, who commanded personal respect. I doubt if, with the exception of the name of the proudest of them all—Freeman—they wanted to be genuinely unusual in the new practice. I would be surprised if a goodly number of people didn’t keep the names of their former owners, which had, for good or ill, become their identity by the general emancipation.
As I pondered the idea of finding my ancestors, the details I had secured from my dad’s original birth record were, in fact, a bit deflating. If I was going to take advantage of Virginia archives and Pitt sylvania County records to find my enslaved relatives, I needed more than the damningly popular Jackson surname and given names like Ned and Less. I knew the latter to be foreshortened proper names, but of what full versions, I could not imagine.
And yet, my grandfather’s cryptic message—his own parents’ names on my father’s birth certificate—had stirred in me a delicate seed of curiosity. In the subsequent years, I would grow determinedly ambitious. I started to believe that I might uncover a figurative meeting place or switching station from the past where a very definite number of actors and episodes would collide. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining about my ancestors, about what they must have done and known to survive, and the human beings who crowded their world and profoundly shaped the possibilities of their lives. I thought that with some sweat and some luck, I might even reach my family’s last generation in slavery.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 25-32 of My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War by Lawrence P. Jackson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)