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Maud Newton’s Ancestor Trouble

Maud Newton's upcoming book, "Ancestor Trouble," explores the problems of family, how we define who we are, and how to truly reckon with our pasts.

There’s no book quite like Ancestor Trouble, Maud Newton’s exploration of family, how we define who we are, and how to truly reckon with our pasts. Her genealogical research includes marvellous stories; her exploration of the role of popular genetic websites asks some big questions; and her thinking deeply about what repair means goes in unexpected directions.

Newton was born in Texas and grew up in Florida in the 1970s and ’80s, attending evangelical schools as a child, then heading to college and law school. She now lives in New York. I have long been a fan of her writing about where she comes from, and was delighted to find the book so excellent and powerful.

Ancestor Trouble is being published by Random House in March and can be pre-ordered now. Because pre-orders are good for books, she took time out of her busy December schedule to talk to me via Zoom. Our conversation has been edited.

Maud Newton's grandparents, Martha Rebecca Johnston and Robert Charles Bruce, around 1940 in Dallas. He was rumored to have been married 13 times.
Maud Newton's grandparents, Martha Rebecca Johnston and Robert Charles Bruce, around 1940 in Dallas. He was rumored to have been married 13 times.

Carolyn Kellogg: Congratulations on Ancestor Trouble. Could we start by talking about where the story began for you, with some of the colorful figures in your family, particularly your grandfather, who you didn't know?

Maud Newton: Definitely. He supposedly had been married 13 times. My grandmother did not like to talk about him, but she would say things like: he ran around with other women and he drank all the time, spent all his money on booze and I couldn't even buy your mother a toothbrush. My mom was more moderate about him, really enthusiastic about how charming and fun he was. I don't think that the 13 number came up until I was a little older and I was like, really, 13? That’s impossible. But knowing my family, somehow not unlikely. 

CK: As you write in the book, so far you’ve found evidence of 10 marriages to 9 women. The book has three threads — genealogy, genetics, and seeking a (non-Christian) spiritual connection to your ancestors. How did that develop for you?

MN: When I was younger, my attitude was kind of like, wow, no wonder my family is so fucked up, all this history. And then I was worried about mental illness, for myself, how that was going to manifest. This seemed like a situation where there was clearly some mental illness involved, based on the fact that he had supposedly been married 13 times, had a bunch of different jobs, was an alcoholic. I started from this somewhat nihilistic but curious place when I was young. Over time it became a more emotional journey and seeing how my family fit into the broader culture became interesting to me. The spiritual part definitely emerged later.

CK: You write about your parents’ unusual, mismatched marriage. Your father was openly bigoted at home. I’m not sure ... do you use the word “racist” to describe him?

MN: I'm honestly not sure, but he is overtly racist. I mean, he was a white supremacist. I'm not in touch with him now, but I think he would have accepted that label.

CK: And your mom has this big personality. She wound up becoming an evangelical lay preacher while your dad was going to a church in your neighborhood in Florida. Why was that such a big conflict between them?

MN: My father and mother both grew up nominally religious, my father much more than my mother. My father's family said grace before dinner. They lived in Mississippi. That was pretty normal. My mom's mother told me that she herself had always been an atheist and I'm not entirely

"Yes, I've found enslavers in my father's family. I felt very — I think correctly — judgmental about that. I wanted to condemn them, in a fundamentalist way; acknowledge that history and view them as irredeemable. And [then] associate myself with my mother's family, who was fun and cool and kind of crazy, but sassy and great. Then I found enslavers on my mother's mother's line as well. That was a really upsetting moment. But also a really interesting one: Oh yeah, I don't get to get away from this."

sure if that's true, but my mother lived across from a Presbyterian church. My father was the kind of person who really gravitated toward the Presbyterian church when my mom started going there because of the idea of predestination.

He really liked the idea that our family was chosen by God for success, that he was chosen by God. He liked the idea of God. And he liked the idea of being involved in a community of Christians. It was definitely an upper middle class, wealthy church. It was down the street from the house where I lived for most of my parents' marriage. So he was very cool with being part of this affluent, Protestant, recognizable denomination that told him, you're doing well because God chose you. And my mother was really not into any of that. She became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of predestination. My mother grew up pretty poor, partly, so she was really annoyed and disturbed by, as she saw it, the airs that the people at the church were putting on. The classist assumptions. The boring dinner parties. 

She started reading the Bible, and the Bible, as she saw it, didn't jibe with what the church was saying. She was the one who had gone to the church, had become, as they said, born again, had brought the religion into our home. As a family, we had all signed on. And then she was like, this is really not what I'm looking for; I'm looking for this bigger thing. I want God to be the center of my life. And I want to evangelize to other people about God. And she started speaking in tongues, casting out demons. My father was not okay with any of this. The fervor of it was not cool. The socioeconomic aspects of it — not cool. The spectacle of it — definitely not cool. So it was this real schism in our household. In the book I write about one fight that my parents had in the front yard as people were driving to church on Sunday morning. But it wasn't one time, actually, it was multiple times. There were screaming arguments between my parents in the front yard as my mother tried to stop us from walking down the street to my father's church. The fervor was all on her end and his attitude was like, why are you being so crazy about this? Why are you making such a spectacle? Why can't you just be the charismatic, fun, sorority girl I married?

Eventually, he divorced her. My sympathies were almost always entirely with my mom. But I don't think most people would be cool with having a church in their living room. Most of the people who came to her church were hippies and drug addicts. There were people who were into sex work. So it was not a group of people my father wanted around or wanted his kids around.

CK: Just to clarify, he was a white supremacist lawyer.

MN: He was. 

CK: You deeply researched your family trees. In your father's family, the one from Mississippi, you knew that you would find people who had enslaved people. As someone who has discovered this in your family history, and I think so many people have in their family history and may not want to look at it, what for you have been some steps for repair?

MN: Yes, I've found enslavers in my father's family. I felt very — I think correctly — judgmental about that. I wanted to condemn them, in a fundamentalist way; acknowledge that history and view them as irredeemable. And [then] associate myself with my mother's family, who was fun and cool and kind of crazy, but sassy and great. 

Then I found enslavers on my mother's mother's line as well. That was a really upsetting moment. But also a really interesting one: oh yeah, I don't get to get away from this. I was always willing to acknowledge this on my father's side, so I don't want to make it seem like I was trying to deny it, but I was like, oh, this is everywhere. This is in my family. I don't get to have a part that didn't have that history. That is the history of my family. And, you know, I adored my grandmother. So I had to reckon with that, what does that mean? I worshiped my grandmother when I was a child, and she came from this history and I came from this history through her.

I also became aware that she came from a settler colonizer in Massachusetts who was instrumental in killing, cheating and displacing the Nonotuck and other people of that area. I didn't even know I had any New England history in my family. 

This is real. This is in my family. This is something that I come from, and this is our whole culture. I'm not saying that every single person in this country, that all of our ancestors were instrumental in enslaving people, or participating directly in colonization, but it is a huge part of our country's history that we need to acknowledge. And what better way to do that than to research and acknowledge it in our own families? To me, especially at this time when every acknowledgement of slavery is being classified in some places as Critical Race Theory and outlawed, what could be more powerful than each of us who knows we have this history stepping forward and saying, my ancestors did this. I come from this. 

By “us,” I'm speaking broadly, and I'm also particularly talking to my fellow white people. Maybe our ancestors weren't here at that time, but we've still benefited from the privilege that has been afforded to us because of that system. Coming forward and saying, I come from this and I feel a responsibility to think about what that means for me, how I can be an ally to people who are descendants of people that my ancestors enslaved or oppressed or cheated. And how I can work against those white supremacist underpinnings of our society. I know that using the term “white supremacist,” some people find it problematic, some people find it offensive. In my case, because of my father, it was so explicit that I may be more comfortable using it. 

I think what happens sometimes when we get in this Critical Race Theory thing is that we’re  lecturing and talking down to people instead of dealing with the emotional reality, you know. A little more than 150 years ago, my ancestors were enslaving people. That's something that I need to acknowledge. 

CK: What if someone just wants to say “OK fine, my family had enslavers,” and that’s the end of it?

MN: I definitely don't have all the answers. I think of it as acknowledgement genealogy: we begin by acknowledging first within ourselves and publicly, and then we think creatively about what that means, how we might acknowledge it more broadly and what our responsibilities are. One way of acknowledging it might be within our own families — to initiate conversations with our aunt or whoever to say, This really wasn't that long ago, do you ever think about the fact that our family did this? Do you ever think about what responsibility we might have to the people who are descended from the people our ancestors enslaved? 

There are various organizations. I really like one called Coming to the Table. They have a long history of bringing together descendants of enslavers and descendants of people who were enslaved in dialogue and trying to facilitate ideas around reconciliation and reparations. Organizations that explicitly work against the harms created by all of this — Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative — are really important.

I used to think, wouldn't it be great if somebody created a database where we could all step forward and put our information there for descendants of enslaved people who aren't able to track their families back? And then, about a year ago, I thought, well, I'm already on ancestry.com, I can just start making entries: [so and so] enslaved this number of people, these are the genders of the people, these are the ages, based on the information in the census. I've started thinking about how we can work within existing systems.

CK: You’ve been working on this book since 2014. But so many things that you touch on are really coming to the surface of the American dialogue about what our country is, where it came from, how we can create a future.

MN: As I say in the book, there were definitely a lot of times when I was young when I would talk about my family's history of enslaving people, and people, especially white people, would act like it was weird that I was thinking about that. Over the years that I worked on it, this subtext of white supremacy in our culture that a lot of us were trained not to see really came out, and there's no denying it now. 

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