The interracial mixing of American families dates back to colonial times, but the history of slavery and racism in the American South made public discussion of the subject taboo—so shameful for whites that they long repressed facts that challenged their fantasies of racial purity, so painful or politically incorrect for African Americans that they suppressed the details of their mixed ancestry. In the 1970s the popularity of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), and the television miniseries that followed, sparked an interest in genealogy among many African Americans, who had long given up hope of tracing African roots severed by the middle passage. Even when Haley’s fame was marred by charges of plagiarism and fictionalization of facts, many African American readers continued to embrace the cultural truth of his book. While a few began to search for African ancestors, even more sought cultural connections to Africa. Although some African Americans may have privately acknowledged a white branch or two on their family tree, tracing those roots held little interest in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement (unless perhaps they led to Jefferson’s Monticello). Such lack of interest was understandable. While most African Americans did not know the identity of their white ancestors, those who did wanted nothing to do with a kinship begun by rape on southern plantations, or with white relatives who refused to acknowledge the family relationship. Some did not publicly admit mixed ancestry because they resented the white racism that persisted after the legal gains of the Civil Rights Movement; others did not want to appear as if they, like some light-skinned African Americans in the past, were ashamed of a black identity (Njeri 37-39).
Copyright © 2016 Oxford University Press. This chapter first appeared in The Oxford Handbook of the Literature of the U.S. South.
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Jones, Suzanne W. "Their Confederate Kinfolk: African Americans' Interracial Family Histories." In The Oxford Handbook of the Literature of the U.S. South, edited by Fred Hobson and Barbara Ladd, 399-412. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.