My great grandfathers were white men. Both of them loved and married black women at great peril to themselves and all they possessed. Miscegenation laws in America forbade interracial marriage until the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case of 1967 (the year I was born). So, if they wanted to marry the women they loved, they could not remain in the deep South. They had to flee to border states or free states in order to marry and survive.
My paternal great grandfather, Joseph Bardsley Nelson, was an Irishman from North Carolina. He met and fell in love with a mixed race (African American and Cherokee) woman named Ida from South Carolina. How they crossed paths is unknown, but “pop,” as we called him, was a soldier in World War I, and likely underwent basic training in South Carolina. Word of their forbidden relationship spread in the community, and family oral history says they had to flee in the night and make their way to Philadelphia and then to New Jersey, where they lived until they died.
Pop worked along with his brother Elliot as a bricklayer for the famous Kelly family in Philadelphia. Yes, that Kelly family (as in Grace Kelly). Great grandmother Ida was a seamstress and homemaker. She had two children, my paternal grandmother Dora and her brother, Bardsley. Nana, as we called her, could “pass” for white; her brother Joe looked more Indian and could not.
Then there is the more interesting open family secret on my maternal side going back to slavery. Great great great “grandpa” Henry Alford, as we called him, ran off with his father’s property—that is, my great great great grandmother Viney. Just before the Civil War. They left Georgia and went first to a border state, Oklahoma, and eventually ended up in California, where they had 12 children. Their union was not a badge of shame in our family. Quite the contrary. It was crucial to understanding who we are and where we came from.
For me, as for many African-Americans, having a white ancestor or two—or more—is not uncommon. Slavery as an institution made that fact so. Of course, if many of us have white ancestors, then it stands to reason that many white Americans have some African blood. Many white Americans, however, simply do not accept that they, too, could be of mixed race--that they too are impacted by this legacy of race, racism, and white privilege.
As nativism and anti-immigration sentiment are rampant in America right now, and as we continue to struggle with who we are and how we define “American,” I cannot help but think that we must dare to embrace the fact that we are more interrelated and more alike than we may want to admit. America’s complicated racial history of slavery made that a reality that we can never escape.
I came across an article recently that underscores my point. Aaron Burr had a secret family of color. A son named John Pierre, whom he fathered by a woman of color. Then of course there’s Thomas Jefferson’s six children he fathered with his mulatto slave Sally Hemings, and surely more that we do not know among the founding generation. It all makes clear that just as my white great great great grandfather Henry ran off from a Georgia plantation with his beloved, a slave girl, interracial relationships were commonplace.
Don’t take my word for it—science and DNA tell the story of our unique human connection. For example, the average African-American genome, for example, is 73.2 percent African, 24 percent European, and 0.8 percent Native American. Latinos, meanwhile, carry an average of 18 percent Native American ancestry, 65.1 percent European ancestry (mostly from the Iberian peninsula), and 6.2 percent African ancestry.
At least 3.5 percent of European-Americans carry African ancestry, though the averages vary significantly by state. In South Carolina and Louisiana, about 12 percent of European-Americans have at least 1 percent African ancestry. In Louisiana, too, about 8 percent of European-Americans carry at least 1 percent Native American ancestry. I could go on, but the point is this: we are more alike, even down to our bloodlines than we are different. All of this, particularly here in the United States, dates back to our beginnings as a nation, as The New York Times’ 1619 project showed.
Part of our healing as Americans will only come when we share these stories. When we find our bloodlines and the ties that bind us together. Ancestry.com had a commercial last year that was literally my family’s story. In it, a white man, in love with a black woman, was asking her to flee the South with him and start a new life together in the North.
It was pulled because of an uproar that suggested such an ad was disrespecting the brutality of slave history. African-American activists and “black Twitter” were not pleased. I disagree. The ad tells another story—the one of men and women who fell in love despite the horrors of chattel slavery and segregation. It tells the story of us. The story of America.
But for my ancestors I would not exist. Both African and Irish blood courses through my veins on both sides of my family tree, mixed with a quarter of Native American. Both sets of my great grandparents lived the American paradox: one of hope and promise, limited by the odiousness of racial segregation and dehumanization.
And yet, theirs was a love story. It had to be, or why else would grandpa Henry have fled his father’s plantation and run off with a slave girl, leaving his inheritance behind and being a fugitive of the law for running off with his father’s property (my grandmother)?
As we stand in this dark and perilous moment of our nation’s history, 400 years removed from the shadow of our shameful beginning, living under a president who has set us back decades in terms of race relations, we must begin to tell the truth. The whole truth. That we are a mixed, diverse people who have in many cases the same bloodlines, and that we need to learn to honor the ties that bind us versus those that seek to divide us.
History is not something that we should run from. We should learn from history—because history is in people like me and you. It was real, It happened. We should talk about it and we should build a more perfect union upon on it.