The New York Times Book Review, March 20,2016
From Civil War to Civil Rights With One African American Family
By Gail Lumet Buckley
Illustrated. 353 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $26.
In The Black Calhouns, Gail Lumet Buckley displays a particularly panoramic view of American society. Daughter of the legendary entertainer Lena Horne, she was raised among show-business royalty. But as the descendant of a privileged and lucky line of well-educated African-American professionals, she also grew up related to or knowing nearly every major figure in the movements for racial, gender and economic equality, from Reconstruction onward.
The name Calhoun is mostly remembered today in association with our ardently secessionist seventh vice president, John C. Calhoun, a fiery orator who fashioned his conviction that slavery was a “positive good” into the ideology of states’ rights. His nephew was Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun, a wealthy doctor who owned the slaves whose descendants include Buckley’s and Horne’s maternal line. This link between history’s white founding fathers and the slave families who carried their names into freedom is a story with which most African-Americans are all too familiar, but one that has remained remarkably suppressed as a matter of general public knowledge. Only in recent years have some stories come to light, such as Annette Gordon-Reed’s excavation of Sally Hemings’s genealogy and Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s revelation that Strom Thurmond fathered her by a black family maid.
To some extent, The Black Calhouns is a revisiting of Buckley’s 1986 biography of her mother’s lineage, The Hornes: An American Family. That earlier work focused on the personal lives of specific family members. This book is more occupied with the historical events and political movements that shaped those lives.
Written in the style of a sweeping historical novel, The Black Calhouns deals with broad themes of property and politics, duty and determination; it follows the family’s profound engagements with the founding of “missionary” schools that educated a few but not nearly enough of the new black citizens recently freed from slavery; the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau; the rise of lynching and Jim Crow; battles to vote, work, buy homes and serve in the military; the daily confinements of “blood,” color and phenotype. In the last chapter, Buckley turns a worried eye to the cyclical nature of such struggles and includes a caution about “21st-century Republicans,” whom she casts as “secretly 19th-century Democrats, citing recent efforts to constrain voting rights, citizenship and the 14th Amendment.
That might sound polemical to some ears, but Buckley meticulously documents how many present-day racial and economic struggles are still framed by habits of thought that have changed little since the Civil War. This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress, but that the battle is so very slow precisely because the terms of debate have deep and often forgotten roots.
Remembering lessons that ought to have been learned long ago is hard and deceiving terrain. One of the enduring costs of racial segregation–either de jure or de facto–is how knowledge itself has been segmented, pieces of the puzzle sealed away within subpopulations, so that privilege and pain might never meet. If there are those who don’t understand the complexities of current student debates about the significance of buildings named for Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and John Calhoun at Yale, the intimate history in this book is unequivocal: President Wilson actively despised black people and counted Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, upon which the film Birth of a Nation was based, among his close friends. The federal government had been integrated since Reconstruction, but Wilson, determined to put blacks in their place, resegregated all jobs, freezing thousands out of the public job market. This massive and traumatic expulsion into unemployment not only dashed the aspirations of the author’s ancestors but also signaled a virulent uptick in the spread of Jim Crow laws throughout the land. It is one of those historical turning points that are remembered to this day among many African-Americans but remain nearly invisible to most white people.
Indeed, The Black Calhouns makes for particularly interesting reading against the backdrop of today’s culture wars, from Donald Trump’s disingenuous claim not to know anything about white supremacy to efforts in Texas to cut all mention of Jim Crow and the Klan from social studies textbooks. In the 1930s, as Buckley reminds us, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi wanted to send all blacks–not full citizens in the eyes of most white Southerners–back to Africa. The rhetoric was remarkably similar to some present-day calls to expel all Mexican or Muslim migrants. And in the 1940s, Lena Horne’s scenes were routinely cut from the movies in which she appeared when shown in the South. (There were only two roles for blacks that Southern states would accept for distribution: servant or jungle “primitive.” Horne refused to be cast as either.)
This is history from the inside. Her family was cosmopolitan, well educated and well placed. They interacted with a cross-section of American trendsetters, policy makers and cultural icons: W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, the Tuskegee Airmen, Frank Sinatra, James Baldwin, Robert Kennedy, Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart to name but a few. Headlines often unfolded in their living room.
Buckley charts the generational branches of black Calhouns painstakingly, as though making up for the lost stories of so many other African-Americans left on the cutting room floor. There is an insistence in her meticulously detailed recollections: We were here! We were there! Do not forget!
But we have forgotten, over and over. The Black Calhouns is a comprehensive reminder of how, even when not immediately visible, the burden of racial trauma is carried deep within the body politic. With so much of our collective national experience consigned to oblivion, we tread unknowingly on the graves of those whose lack of accorded dignity echoes with us yet.