The Ethics of Writing About Race as a White Woman
Rachel Jamison Webster on Oral Traditions, Racial Ancestries, and Confronting Shame
I am a white woman who has just published a book about race. Sometimes I wake up startled in the night, wondering how I could have done such a thing.
When I first had the idea, my then-agent dropped me. She said no one would publish a book about Black figures by a white woman. “But these are my own ancestors,” I said. “It could be a way for me to examine familial and national denial. And a way to look at the way race was constructed in law, through women’s bodies.”
“The only books about race now need to be by Black writers,” she said.
I had learned about this ancestry during the panicked election season of 2016. I was afraid we had reached the beginning of the end of the American experiment, and I was amped-up with a foreboding anxiety. Journalists I knew were covering Trump rallies and seeing red hatted crowds chanting Lock her up! Lock her up! about Hilary Clinton.
Those chants echoed with a chilling familiarity. My own ancestral story included a woman named Molly who had been locked up in England in 1680, apparently for stealing a bucket of milk. Those considered witches—often midwives, widows, or strong-willed young women—were colloquially known as “Milk Thieves” and prosecuted harshly. Molly was sentenced to hang, but she saved herself from execution because she read from the Bible during her trial. According to oral histories, her literacy saved her life, and Molly was granted the lesser sentence of indentured servitude in Maryland.
Molly survived her indenture, then partnered with an African man named Bana’ka and had four daughters. Their union was not as unusual as it may seem to us now. Female indentured servants worked alongside African men in the tobacco fields and were so likely to couple with them that the very first Chesapeake law naming “whiteness” made these unions illegal, as as a way of reserving “white” women for “white” men.
Women were outnumbered by men by three to one in the colony, and British lawmakers wanted British men to have to benefit of female partners and offspring. They also wanted to increase their investments in the slave trade, and these new laws naming “whiteness” as a prerequisite for marriage and civil rights would further disempower African men and set the stage for legalized slavery.
Molly and Bana’ka’s daughters were indentured for 31 years, simply for being born of the union between an African man and British woman. After she was released, one of these daughters, Mary, married a free African man named Robert, and they had children in the 1730s, including my ancestor Jemima and her brother, Benjamin Banneker. Benjamin received a few years of formal schooling before embarking on a lifetime of self-study.
Then, in 1791, Benjamin was hired by his Quaker friends the Ellicotts to help survey Washington, D.C. After he returned home, he began compiling and publishing almanacs based on his astronomical calculations. He famously corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, writing an eloquent letter that chastised Jefferson for his hypocrisy as an enslaver who wrote about freedom.
Any writer learning about these ancestors would want to write about them, if only to understand how they kept resisting and surviving. But my branch of the family had “passed” as white generations before and had not known of these stories. And because of our ongoing cultural conversation about who can and cannot write what, I did not know how I could write about these Black ancestors ethically.
It wasn’t just that I imagined agents and editors rejecting the project. It wasn’t just that I was afraid of the critique of me as a white woman. It was also that, to a large extent, I shared this critique.
Throughout my twenties, I had run creative writing workshops with the Urban League, and in Chicago Public Schools, so Black culture was not an abstraction to me, or a general idea gleaned from pop culture. I had enough sense of its variance, history, community, faith, and vibrance to respect Blackness as “a way of being,” as the poet Kevin Young says, and to understand that Black culture is neither monolithic, nor my own.
I also knew that the conversation about who gets to write what is not just about empathy and the capacity of the human imagination to comprehend those with different identities and backgrounds. It is also about power. It is about who has had the structural power—of publishing, media, and textbooks—to frame our cultural narratives.
Stories do hold power—social power, personal power, mystical power—as well as the pragmatic power to determine the parameters of our perceptions and lives. To be a marginalized person is to be treated, on some level, as a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Because of this, the stories of marginalized people are especially sacred because they have been safeguarded as a means of spiritual, physical, and emotional survival.
I see ethics and aesthetics as inextricably linked.
And any stories that are familial and ancestral have an especially powerful charge, a kind of protective, talismanic quality. Our identities are intricately interwoven with these stories. We feel a sense of ownership over them, and a defensiveness when others try to tell us what they mean.
Because of this, the conversation about who gets to write what story is heated. It feels intensely personal, and yet it is not really about individual offenders, or individual artistic successes or failures, as much as it is about the tangled intersections of imagination, empathy, experience, history, and power that give rise to a work of art. “I don’t know you personally, but I know you historically,” James Baldwin said in an interview in 1979. And in 2018, the comedian and author D. L. Hughley tweeted that “the most dangerous place for a Black person to live is in the white imagination.”
I keep both quotes above my desk to remind me that we do not just come to stories as individuals, who hopefully are always expanding our capacity for empathy and imaginative understanding. We also enter stories as participants in structural inequities and historical traumas, and we belong to a shared cultural imagination that does much more harm to some than others.
When white Americans write about race or colonization, we need to acknowledge these underpinnings. We enter a history in which people of color’s stories have been sidelined, co-opted, appropriated, misconstrued and exploited. We enter a present that is actively revising structures of power while experiencing a backlash of racial violence. And we reignite the historical trauma of slavery—of white people owning Black bodies—every time white people assume that we can tell, and own, and profit from Black stories.
Knowing this, I wondered if there was any ethical way for me to write a book about my Black ancestors. I was not trying to pass as Black, but I also did not want to suggest that I felt disconnected or “other” from these ancestors, including my Black forebears who did not have the renown of Benjamin Banneker. When I learned about them, I had experienced a sense of centeredness and recognition—that quiet relief we feel when something that has been denied and repressed has finally been acknowledged.
But I did not know how to write a book, so I wrote a short Op Ed in 2018, asserting that the denial of these ancestors in my family line was mirrored in our wider culture’s denial of the presence of Black people and Black genius in our country’s origin stories. I continued to research and educate myself about the legal construction of race, and to read Black histories that I had never been taught in school. Then, two years after my Op Ed was published, one of my distant cousins, Edie Lee Harris, was doing a Google search of one of our ancestor’s names and she came across my essay.Examples of punishment abound in our culture, and we have few public examples of public dialogue that can admit to mistakes.
“I’d love to talk to you about our family,” Edie messaged me, and we began a conversation that extended over hours, weeks, and years. She put me in touch with other Black descendants of the family who had done their own research and had preserved the family stories. Our shared conversation became central to my life. It allowed me to listen more than I spoke, and to find the appropriate form for this book about our ancestors. Now the book is a collaborative telling that shuffles between historical chapters and present-day conversations with my Black cousins.
My cousins and I acknowledge that we are only a few of the 5,000 documented descendants of the Bannekers, with many more thousands yet to be connected. Moreover, we enter a long line of family griots who have discovered, protected, and shared our family histories. I wanted the book’s form to acknowledge this collectivity and to suggest that it is absurd to think about ancestry—and stories—as individual acquisitions or creations. Ancestors and their stories are shared inheritances, and we are better off thinking about them as living relationships rather than documents of ownership.
In this way, the book may have more in common with oral history than with written history. Literature began orally—as poetry, stories, songs, lineages, and mythologies told around fires. The later move toward written culture was largely a move away from this fluid relational understanding and toward objectification and the management of information. Writing began as a way of preserving objects through contracts and bureaucratic lists to record food rations, marriage dowries, and the ownership of land and belongings, as evidenced in the ledgers found in Mesopotamia.
Anyone who has researched their African American ancestors has felt the chilling connection between writing and objectification when they see the old “land records” that listed the ancestors as objects, alongside livestock and ploughs. Most African Americans were not even recorded as people until the 1870 census. Writing, in other words, does not always recognize humanity.
The oral history, on the other hand, imbues the teller and listener with humanity and flexibility every time it is told. Listeners and speakers come together in relationship, and the inherited story of the past is riffed upon, shaped, and revived according to the needs of the present.
“In oral culture no one believes that they own a story, or wrote it themselves,” explains the writer Sophie Strand. “Everyone understands that everything they do is relational. You’re a compost heap of all of your kin.” She also notes that “there is an incredible honoring of the elders in oral cultures. You always want the elders to be telling their stories, so you can understand them, adapt them, compost them, and so that you can keep the knowledge alive.”
And so, even as we keep asking who gets to tell what stories, I think it is time to widen that question to ask how our stories may depict more diverse, multigenerational, and humane modes of storytelling itself. Is there a way for us to talk about stories, and even books, less like objects of individual authorship and more like channels to relationship? It seems fitting that as our representation in stories continues to diversify, many of us are writing polyvocal books, and reaching toward more collective forms.
The interweaving of the oral tradition into my own book was a way for me to sit at the feet of my elders, to honor the African American oral tradition, and to preserve and share beloved stories that were passed through generations of the Banneker family. I wanted to upend the “Great Man” model of history, so I included all of us and wrote about Benjamin’s mother, grandmother, sisters and father as much as I wrote about him.
I had to think hard about shame and punishment as I wrote my own book. I was writing it, in part, to expose denials in my family and in dominant white culture, and it was important that I call out those denials with sharp honesty. But I was a loved child, raised in a close extended family, and those relationships with my white elders set the foundation for me to relate with my newly connected Black cousins. How could I hold my white relatives and myself accountable without falling into a litany of self-flagellation or mutigenerational punishment?
In my struggle to get the balance right, I remembered another quote from Baldwin. “I love this country more than any other,” he wrote, “and so I reserve the right to criticize it repeatedly.” I love my family and country more than any other, and I believe that criticism can also be a form of love, because it can invite us into fuller understandings and humanity. But I realized that I was not interested in cultivating a punitive relationship to my white ancestors, or to living people either. Blame can temporarily adjust or reverse structures of power, but ultimately it inflames defensiveness and shuts down more sustainable growth.
And growth is, ultimately, what interests me as a writer and thinker: writing as expanding our notion of what it means to be human. Writing as a way of imagining more just futures. Writing as a way of making more and more room for the truth—in myself, and in the story of my family and nation and humanity, without throwing parts of ourselves away.
I heard a talk with the writer Jess Row last year. He writes about whiteness and asks why accountability is so frightening to white patriarchal culture. He talked about what he has learned from contemporary abolitionist writers like Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis and said that, as he sees it, abolition means is finding forms of truth and accountability that are not based on punishment, shunning, or shaming.
How we can be held accountable in a way that allows us to continually revise ourselves, our stories, our society? How can people be held accountable and not disdained, understanding that the disdain falls short of our best humanity? What does this look like in terms of literary ethics? What does this look like in terms of our personal and national reckonings with history?
Examples of punishment abound in our culture, and we have few public examples of public dialogue that can admit to mistakes and direct the collective toward self-reflection and growth. When we turn this kind of reform to the realm of storytelling, it looks like widening representation and authorship, and also like revision, understanding and education. It looks like asking writers to cultivate a practice of listening within their practices of asking and telling.
It looks less like telling writers to stay in their lane, and more like demanding that writers acknowledge that we inherit diverse and imperfect collectivities, privileges, and power structures. It looks like acknowledging that we are always more than simply ourselves.
The entire time I was writing the book, I was asking, should I be writing this book? I was constantly checking myself and occasionally censoring myself. And while all this looking over my shoulder undoubtedly hemmed-in some aspects of my writing, it also expanded the book’s social and listening space. It forced me to write my own questions into the text.
And ultimately, it allowed me and my family and my book to evolve. Now I see ethics and aesthetics as inextricably linked, and I will never again imagine that they are separate. Now I am interested in how our evolving conversations about literary ethics can help to evolve our aesthetics. And I am wondering if we are ready—personally, familiarly, and culturally—to move past punishment, and into evolution.
Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family by Rachel Jamison Webster is now available from Henry Holt.