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In 'Kinfolk,' another greatest generation

My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots
By Thulani Davis
Basic Civitas, 324 pp., $25

By the time Thulani Davis finished her latest work, ''My Confederate Kinfolk," there were, she writes, 175 new names on her family tree. Yet what began as a personal desire to unravel her family's racial ancestry became a gripping historical tale that is uniquely, tragically American.

At its core, this is the story of Davis's great-grandparents -- Chloe Tarrant Curry, a former slave, and William Argyle Campbell, the son of a wealthy white Missouri family for whom she worked in Mississippi. Davis's grandmother described her parents as ''contented companions" who remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, though they never married.

Within this context, Davis not only probes her family's history, which features both those who fought for the Confederacy and slaves who arched their backs against its tyranny, but she also brings to life what she calls ''the first generation out of bondage."

''The first women and men to walk away from bondage reinvented the race, redefined the terms of American citizenship, and spread the blend of African and Euro-American culture created in bondage in the American South," Davis writes. ''Never has one group of people acted on such a large scale in so many regions of the country at once to push the society to honor its foundational principles." They are, she says, ''freedom's 'Greatest Generation.' "

Davis's genealogical journey began with her grandmother's unpublished writings and two photo albums belonging to her great-grandparents, Will and Chloe. This relationship alone would make for a compelling read but has as its dramatic backdrop the era of Reconstruction, as a wounded nation struggled to find itself after the bitter, bloody Civil War. And while slavery had been abolished more than a decade earlier, racism, legally sanctioned and mob-fueled, remained as virulent as ever.

With scholarly research and her skills as a writer, Davis imagines her great--grandparents' lives, especially Chloe's, which began in slavery in Alabama, and she manages this without contrivance or cliché. And, as a ''freedwoman," Davis writes, Chloe was still shackled by ''the harshest legalized oppression that could be devised without reinstituting de jure slavery." In the process, Davis recalls a nation at one of its most acrimonious crossroads, as well as the failings of Reconstruction, during which blacks were regularly terrorized, brutalized, and lynched with little legal recourse.

Occasionally, Davis gets too involved in recalling the obstacles she faced unearthing her family's history, and this slows the book down. Yet, Davis willfully provokes a painful but necessary dialogue. Like Edward Ball, who in his National Book Award-winning ''Slaves in the Family" ended his family's generations-long silence about their slaveholding past, Davis doesn't present the findings about her family tree as unique. In fact, this book's gift is to underline a subject that tends to make people uncomfortable -- this nation's knotty racial ties.

Every few years the topic makes the news, whether in discussions about the descendants of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings or acknowledgement that the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who made his name as a race-baiting ''Dixiecrat" in the 1940s, fathered a biracial daughter in 1925.

''My Confederate Kinfolk" reminds us that these associations aren't merely the stuff of headlines but yet another hint of our own complicated bloodlines.

''Getting grounded in what one's people went through," Davis writes, ''is not to determine what one will be, but it is a reminder not to throw away what has been done, given, prayed, and paid for in human experience."

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