British Association for American Studies


BAAS 2023 Conference Panel Review: Race and Reassessment in the Recent Past

Chaired by Keele University’s own Kristen Brill, the panel ‘Race and Reassessment in the Recent Past’ featured only two speakers, but the range of material presented was nonetheless extensive. Addressing thorny developments in the recent histories of American lineage societies and the poet Walt Whitman, the two presenters asked their audience: When we find new truths to expand our understanding of history, either personal or collective, how should we respond?

The first speaker was Shannon Combs-Bennett, who is both a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and an experienced professional genealogist. Her presentation, ‘American Genealogical Research and Lineage Society Membership: Public Perceptions and their Impact on the Field of Genealogy’, comprehensively drew upon her professional and academic perspectives to inform the audience of the popular and the technical aspects of genealogical testing and lineage tracing.

The Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate issued to Edward Roche and signed by George Washington, Wikimedia Commons.

Combs-Bennett’s uncontroversial starting point was to characterise the oldest lineage groups in America as exclusionary by design and as the institutional planks of a hereditary American aristocracy. Typically, these groups recognise as members those who can prove their ancestors’ place on the republican side in the revolutionary era. Most prominent among these groups are the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in 1890, and the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783.

As Combs-Bennett noted, many of these old-fashioned lineage societies require not only proof of the appropriate lineage but, further, proof of ‘legitimate’ lineage—that is, a direct familial tie to a relevant ancestor not breached at any generational step by the birth of a child outside of recorded marriage. This has been one of several ways in which non-white applicants to these societies have historically been barred from entry: records of marriages between the enslaved were by no means systematically made or kept, and innumerable births were the result of extramarital rape by enslavers. To admit a Black applicant into a prestige society like the DAR might have incurred significant and unseemly revelations. Not until 1977 was Karen Batchelor admitted as the first Black member of the DAR, and even then only after five years of trying.

The Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a 1929 marble sculpture by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney located at the DAR’s Washington D.C. headquarters.

The crux of Combs-Bennett’s intervention came at the point at which commercial genetic testing became common and relatively cheap, perhaps ten years ago. Should lineage societies, she asked, recognise the evidence that a genetic test can provide as proof of ancestry? In an era increasingly opposed to the perpetuation of power in the hands of an aristocratic few, can societies afford to ignore such evidence if they want to diversify and survive?

Combs-Bennett canvassed members and those otherwise affiliated with lineage societies, as well as those with no stake in such organisations, to gauge current opinion on these questions. Combs-Bennet thus convincingly illustrated both a willingness among society members to allow genetic testing to broaden membership pools and a generally favourable non-member view of such lineage societies, considered as much-needed links to an ever-receding past. Whether the data she presented reflected genuine enthusiasm for broadening access to genealogy or whether there was a methodological flaw in her study, Combs-Bennett did not yet feel qualified to determine.

Zélia Catarina Pedro Rafael, a PhD student at the University of Iceland, then presented on ‘Walt Whitman and Race in the Age of Cancel Culture’.

The cover of a 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Gross, Wikimedia Commons.

Rafael’s presentation began with a number of close readings from Whitman’s poems, letters, and written scraps that argued that while the poet’s famed universal humanism extended sympathy to the enslaved, this sympathy was limited by Whitman’s belief in social Darwinist conceptions of racial hierarchy. Whitman’s ever-changing magnum opus Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855. Throughout its many incarnations over the following three decades, a section of ‘Song of Myself’ evidences Whitman’s identification with the “hunted” or “hounded slave”, who is depicted as newly fugitive from a vicious regime of “hell and despair”, with dogs and gunmen on his tail. Whitman’s vision of common humanity thus explicitly stretches to the enslaved. This vision must also, however, extend to the enslaver, as it does in the poem ‘The Sleepers’, in which the source of power and its instrument are brought together in a bond of understanding and respect: “The call of the slave is one with the master’s call, and the master salutes the slave”. Distasteful as this latter suggestion might be to contemporary readers, Whitman’s vision is consistent: he proposed to be the voice of a species, not of one faction within it. The limits of his sympathy must have been broad indeed.

Rafael, however, also illustrated how the position Whitman privately expressed was not so fraternal. In records of statements made at the end of his life to Horace Traubel (a writer and friend who would go on to be Whitman’s literary executor and first biographer) we find that Whitman was quite certain of a future in which white supremacy would be established naturally—not necessarily as a matter of preference, but simply as a consequence of the weak succumbing to the strong. “The n*****, like the Injun, will be eliminated”, he said: “it is the law of races, history, what-not”.

A sculpture of Whitman in Philadelphia, designed by Jo Davidson (1883-1952). Wikimedia Commons.

Renewed attention to statements and contradictions such as these has recently led to campaigns, particularly on US college campuses, to erase the legacy of Whitman. The most prominent of these, said Rafael, was the circulation of a 2020 petition to remove a statue of Walt Whitman from the Camden, New Jersey campus of Rutgers University. This campaign, led by student activists, forced a reckoning from the university’s governing bodies, and, following consultations, the statue has been moved from the centre of the campus to its quieter perimeter. Whitman’s legacy has not been cancelled, then, but it has been muted.

After outlining this history, Rafael put it to the audience: How do we deal with the complicated legacies of legendary figures? Is “cancellation” another extreme act, adding fuel to a burning fire? Or is it a necessary tool in a healthy culture?

These two ostensibly disparate papers together generate a pressing inquiry. If we are to be serious about historical investigation and the implications it may have for the shared illusions inherent in all national cultures, are we prepared for the consequences of public re-evaluation? Do we have the will to break and remake our conceptions of ourselves and our nations?

I am not confident, at least in the short-term, that the answers to any of these questions will come clearly, and if they do, they won’t make me happy. And neither revisions to the admission policy of the Daughters of the American Revolution nor the future brightness of Walt Whitman’s star will furnish us the answers to these broader questions. But from these two scholars, at least, and from others with similar expertise, I think we can expect slivers of clarity all the more precious when set against the tumult of half-truths that typically crowd the opaque surfaces of our vision—on TV, on the radio, on our phones. I read a column on The Spectator website this morning, and I only remember that it made me angry. I heard these two papers more than a month ago, and I have been thinking about their implications ever since.

About the Author

Samson Thozer is a first-year PhD student in American Studies at the University of Manchester. His research concerns the formation of Black identity in interwar Detroit. He has a BA in English Literature and American Studies, and an MA in English, both from the University of Manchester. Between 2017 and 2021, he lived in the USA, teaching at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College and working with kids at the YMCA. He recently self-published a book called Halfway to Everywhere.