Writer Thulani Davis Chronicles Confederate Kinfolk

Review by James Pylant

My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots. By Thulani Davis. Hardbound (2006), 324 pp., indexed, illus., $25.00. Published by Basic Civitas, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 20016.

The prolific Thulani Davis, one-time senior editor of the Village Voice, has authored poetry, plays, novels—and the screenplays for those novels—and worked on several PBS documentaries. Ms. Davis tackles and conquers formidable projects, including the librettos for Amistad and Malcolm X. Now she’s completed another challenging task—writing a book about her ancestors.

My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots is borne out of Thulani Davis’s desire to complete the manuscript her grandmother was in the midst of writing when she died in 1971. Davis admits that, when she began the project “I started taking notes for what I thought would be a novel.” That intention morphed into an intense, four-year endeavor that added over 175 people to her family tree. “I have tried to stay close to the ground trod by some of the ancestors, clinging to them like a shadow and following through events large and small,” Davis writes. In this intention, she succeeds brilliantly. In My Confederate Kinfolk, Davis does not weave fact with fiction. She does not put words into the mouths of her ancestors or spin romantic tales. Instead, she relies on facts. Her book is carefully documented, with annotations detailed in full source citations.

My Confederate Kinfolk is the story of the lives of two Southern families—one black and one white. DNA testing reveals the author’s direct maternal line is Temne in origin; her earliest identified matrilineal ancestor is Caroline, born in 1827. The enslaved Caroline became the wife of Edmond Tarrant, born in 1812, and the mother of seven children. It is in Davis’s analysis of Caroline’s life that she captures a reality of the American slavery experience: the uncertainty genealogists face when conclusively identifying the father of an enslaved mother’s children. This is the question Davis found in reconstructing the family group of Edmond and Caroline Tarrant. “In Alabama in 1880 the census taker created a mix that is confusing,” notes the author. “Edmond and Caroline are listed as black. Their eldest, Allen, is listed as black. The rest of the Tarrants are listed as mulatto.” Then there is family tradition that three of the Tarrant children were of Choctaw ancestry. When Tulani Davis questioned a relative descending from one of the Choctaw Tarrants, he laughed and said, “Well, you know how things were.” Davis concludes that, based on the gaps between the children’s births, the couple may have been separated more than once. A question of paternity enters the picture with the realization that a child’s conception after a slave couple’s separation at the whim of their owner, whether that meant one was sold or “farmed out” periodically to others.

Caroline’s daughter, Chloe Tarrant (1850—1932), married James Curry, and they had four children before separating. Chloe’s youngest child, Georgia Campbell, was Tulani Davis’s maternal grandmother. Georgia was fathered by a white man from a prominent family in Springfield, Greene County, Missouri. His name was William Argyle Campbell (1852—1902).

Will Campbell was the youngest of ten children born to John Polk Campbell by his wife, the former Louisa Terrill Cheairs. His paternal great-great-grandfather, Robert Campbell (1724—1795), settled in what is now Charlotte, North Carolina. John Polk Campbell was the son of John Campbell and Matilda Golden Polk, and a first cousin to President James K. Polk. Louisa Cheairs came from a well-to-do slave-owning Tennessee family of Huguenot and Scottish descent.

Will Campbell was raised in a comfortable home in Springfield, though without his father, who had died the same year of the son’s birth. But given he was from a large family of privilege, Will’s life was uprooted during the Civil War and he was often separated from Louisa, a woman who comes across as emotionally distant, if not neglectful to her youngest offspring. “Of all her surviving children, Will certainly knew her least,” Davis writes. “He was raised by her only for his first eight years, and then was set on his own solitary path by the guns of the Civil War.”

Chloe Tarrant Curry was a freedwoman at the time she conceived Will Campbell’s child; she had never been his slave. Georgia Campbell had her mother’s short frame, medium weight, and thick waist. “But she looked like a Campbell—white, freckled with straight hair,” writes Davis.

In looking at the interracial relationship of Chloe Tarrant Curry and William Campbell, My Confederate Kinfolk, for some, may dispel a naïve belief that miscegenation happened in the days of slavery and abruptly ended at emancipation. In my interview with Tulani Davis, she commented, “I think it is more comfortable to both blacks and whites that it only happened involuntarily. It raises more questions. My grandmother certainly felt it was a love relationship, and I feel the same.” Indeed, Campbell’s will left all of his holdings to Chloe Curry.

Perhaps Tulani Davis’s greatest insight into the lives of her Confederate, slave-holding relatives comes from a collection of old letters and memoirs penned by the Campbells. And as presented in My Confederate Kinfolk, she’s amassed an impressive collection of old photographs of her relatives —both Campbell and Tarrant.

I asked Davis about the reaction of her distant Campbell cousins to her book. “They’ve been great; very genuine,” she said.

Davis does not use historian or genealogist to describe herself. “But I am a journalist who is, like many in my trade, very curious, very stubborn, and able to push keys on a computer for several hours. So this text is not a history nor a genealogy but built from my own great interests: how we define being American, how we deal with race, and human character.”

My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots is also available from amazon.com (affiliate link)

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