The Ledger

Virginia: the mouth of the cave.

Ten years ago I was living in the Old Dominion. I’d grown up in Baltimore and worked in Washington and was pivoting back down South, where my family had made its start long ago. In Richmond the experience of living off of a street with monuments that attempted to revive the Confederacy stirred a passion, a sense of history in me. I went looking for my father, a native to the state, like all my other people. On my dad’s birthday in June, I drove down Route 316 to his hometown, shooting 35mm film of the regal barns bestriding the old tobacco road. A couple of weeks later, I thought it appropriate to fetch his birth certificate from the state’s vital statistics bureau. The torn old record contained a trove of personal information, including the street in Danville, Virginia on which my father had been born. I later found a writer’s description of the area as consisting of “tumbled-down Negro shacks” and the “poor little Providence Hospital for Colored.” In the hard times of the Depression, black women from nearby Poor House Hill were thought to eat dirt.

But the index card also contained a minor revelation. My grandfather had included the names of his parents, “Ned Jackson” and “Less Hundley Jackson.” I’d never heard of them before and found, to my surprise, that I had never quite imagined them before either.

For ordinary black Americans, there seem remarkably few opportunities to know about the antebellum past. Your ancestors might have been vicious desperados who were tried before the bar of justice and had their deeds exposed by the press, generating a paper record for posterity. A wealthy, well-organized planter might have owned your family, so an ancestor’s name may have been jotted down 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, your family might have stewarded an African legend of some kind, passed down orally, whose provenance might be traced. But since most blacks merely tried to survive slavery, and most served out that sentence with something like ten or fifteen fellow captives on a small farm, and many on these farms were children, and since so many black Americans are as uneasy toward Africa as are American whites, the chances for uncovering enslaved forebears are slight.

Of course, the real trouble was in my uncommonly ordinary surname. Mr. October. The King of Pop. Jesse, Samuel, and Bo. In 2000, the census reported 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. There are more black Washingtons and Jeffersons than white Washingtons and Jeffersons — but there are more black Jacksons than all of the Washingtons and Jeffersons, black and white, combined.

Some of these surnames were simply the names of the slaveowners: in 19th-century America, African Americans were overwhelmingly owned by English descendants. Several surnames include significant percentages from among a population group that had no legal right to any for the greater part of the 19th century. They are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, and Jackson.

But some of these names were freely chosen, the connections to them invented. At the conclusion of the Civil War, many newly freed people very naturally chose surnames like Freeman or Washington or Jefferson or especially Lincoln — revered national figures who seemed to embody the ideals of democracy and the franchise. The Democrat Andrew Johnson was President when the emancipation became irrevocable and widespread. Johnson believed in a country and government for white men, but picking Johnson as a surname must have been classy. The choice said, “Hey, look at me! Last week I was on the block with a mule, and this week I have the same name as the man who runs the White House!”

Thinking of himself and others he knew who were named after prominent historical figures, Ralph Waldo Ellison once praised the complex adaptation that African Americans made after slavery:

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.

Ellison was trying to defuse the absurdity and comedy that had hounded black naming practices, but even Ellison’s legendary powers of reason couldn’t account for the reformation of black Americans into those tribal nominal categories.

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