December 26, 2006

Article at Jordan on Authory

Neil Henry. Pearl's Secret: A Black Man's Search for His White Family.

Neil Henry's Pearl's Secret: A Black Man's Search for His White Family (University of California Press, 2001) is the story of journalist/professor Henry's search for, discovery of, and encounter with the white half of his family.

The book goes into a surprising amount of detail about Henry's own life, education at Princeton, and work as a journalist. I found myself at times wondering what had happened to the genealogical mystery.

At the heart of the book, though, is the paradox that over the century during which the white and black families were estranged — and indeed had formed myths about one another — the black family had risen economically and the white family had fallen. The black side of the family now has doctors, lawyers, engineers, librarians, and journalists, while the white family has predominantly blue collar workers.

Another paradox, and one no doubt responsible for much of the rise of the African-American side of the family, has been their willingness to move to where better opportunities were available. The author grew up, for instance, in suburban Seattle, WA, where most of his schoolmates were white. The white family remained in rural portions of the deep south, where economic opportunities have not been great. Even aside from the obvious racial equity benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest vs. the deep south in the late 50s through the late 60s, it's simply a fact that the Pacific Northwest has afforded more opportunities for all races during that time than rural Louisiana.

Henry is an exceptional writer, and manages suspense and multiple story-lines well. The mystery of the book — whether the white side of the family still flourished — was something that the author answered in a couple of genealogical discoveries that took a significant amount of legwork, but which are deftly described in the book. It's fair to say that Henry was both lucky (stumbling across a gravestone he was looking for in a cemetery without a map, and just as dusk was settling in) and simple dogged hard work — reading issue after issue of the local paper looking for clues to the fate of the white Beaumont family.

I recommend this book for a number of reasons. It poses significant questions about race in America, for which the author admits he has no facile answers. It demonstrates that there remains a difficulty on both sides of the racial divide in accepting the other. And the book is also poignant and moving, especially in its ending which demonstrates that despite deep-seated animosities, a white family held onto keepsakes of their black relatives for 60 years, irreplaceable photos of their matriarch.

One side note: When the white family reveals to Henry that members of their family, including an uncle Henry had just met, had been members of the KKK, the 9-year-old son of one of the white women asks, "What's the KKK?" It's clear to this white reader that, though no one could say all the healing has been completed, or that white folks have done all they need to do, that major changes have occurred, and that the off-camera discussion with the 9-year-old will be one that expresses shame at connection with the KKK, which, in it's heyday was, of course, for most families with members a source of macabre pride.

Pearl’s Secret by Neil Henry 26 December 2006,