When I visit Martha's Vineyard, I usually wander by the plaque commemorating "Rebecca, Woman of Africa" on the trail to Great Bight. It's hard to read the historical text in the shadows; here is what it says:
The marker is on an "African American Heritage Trail"; more beach-goers than tourists likely trek by the plaque. According to trail information, Rebecca actually bore two boys, Cato and Pero, as well as Nancy Michael -- and land holding and inheritance records suggest that none of them were the offspring of Mr. Amos, though that is not completely clear about the boys. It also appears that Rebecca continued in slavery as the property of farmer Charles Bassett and his heirs until her death. There is no record of her emancipation despite the text of the plaque; records show her children Nancy and Pero were sold off after Bassett's death to another farmer.
I wonder, did Nancy Michael, Pero and Cato have children? If so, do any descendants identify as "African"? Or do they think of themselves as members of the local native tribe, as "Indians," since their mother's marriage, if not their paternity, was widely acknowledged?
All this reminded me of questions raised in the fascinating story of Michelle Obama's white ancestors. DNA testing and intensive study of old records are revealing that throughout U.S. history the "races" have never been so rigidly separated as the old "one drop of blood makes a Negro" standard that we lived under so long would have suggested. Recognizing our kinship is not simple.
The article reports that Black folks -- including the apparently violated women -- were no more willing in the years after emancipation to talk about what had happened under slavery than were the children of the white masters. Is this a bit of exploring that we need to do as a nation, now that the research has become somewhat more possible? I like that idea; it could sure make us let attached to rigid racial categories.
This offering nestled in a tree next to Rebecca's marker.