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How a writer found healing in the story of her enslaved ancestors

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Dig deep enough into your family history, and you're guaranteed to find uncomfortable questions with unsatisfying answers - especially in the U.S. where the family tree for many Black Americans includes white slaveholders. But journalist Dionne Ford dug in anyway. Her new memoir is titled "Go Back And Get It: A Memoir Of Race, Inheritance And Intergenerational Healing." It opens with an old family photograph - her great-great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, sitting on the step of a porch flanked by her daughters. Sitting in the chairs above them is the white couple who enslaved them, Elizabeth Stuart and Colonel W. R. Stuart, Ford's great-great-grandfather. Ford told me that when she discovered the picture, it was a whirlwind of emotions.

DIONNE FORD: Shock and amazement is what I felt. First of all, to find a picture of my enslaved great grandmother just seemed completely beyond the realm of possibility. I sat there in my little office in shock for quite a while trying to figure out if I was hallucinating, if this was real, and then what to do about it.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I mean, throughout the book, it seems like it's Tempy who you form this deep connection with. What was it like getting to know her, trying to figure her out?

FORD: It was really remarkably moving and also really empowering. I think I, in my mind, sort of only considered the aspect of her as someone who had been oppressed as a, you know, enslaved woman. But that was half of her life, and seeing this other aspect of her life was just so empowering to me - that she would go on to be a property owner, that she would, you know...

LIMBONG: Have agency, make decisions, like, do...

FORD: Yes, exactly...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

FORD: ...That she did all these things to make decisions not just for herself but for her children.

LIMBONG: Yeah. This book weaves in your personal recovery - right? - from, like, alcohol abuse and coming to terms with your own sexual abuse as a child. And the sense I get from your book is that the path to healing is nonlinear, right? Like, you try a couple of different things. You try, like, different forms of exercise, spirituality, therapy, and they all work a little, right? Nothing works 100%. And how did this project of looking back into your family tree factor into all of that?

FORD: Yeah, I guess just this idea that if I could kind of tap into how someone who really is experiencing the ultimate form of oppression could continue, you know, and could do things that totally demonstrate hope - like raising children, you know? - it would be, I guess, a talisman for me. So, yeah, this honor to go back and explore absolutely gave me, I guess, like, a...

LIMBONG: Inspiration to keep going, right?

FORD: Inspiration, but yeah, also just, like, something to - like, a touchstone for sure.

LIMBONG: You quote Chinua Achebe at one point in the book. You say, or he says, we do not pray to have more money. We pray for more kinsmen. And you found some, right? I'm thinking in particular of a cousin.

FORD: I did.

LIMBONG: You found Monique, right?

FORD: Yes.

LIMBONG: Can you tell me a little bit about her - how you found her?

FORD: Yes. Oh, my gosh. This was, like, so exciting. After working on finding this information for so long with my lovely family, who really is not that interested in this kind of thing, it was just, like, such a thrill to find somebody who was as obsessed about their family's history as I was. I found Monique through, like, ancestry message boards but also through the picture because we had both found this picture and were trying to find information about our relatives. And once we connected, we realized that we both lived in New Jersey less than, like, 40 minutes from each other.

LIMBONG: Oh, wow. Yeah.

FORD: And we began meeting with one another and finding these stories of our people together. So, yeah, that was a wonderful ride.

LIMBONG: Do you have the book with you? Do you have the book handy?

FORD: I do.

LIMBONG: I was wondering if you could read the opening to chapter 14.

FORD: Sure. OK. (Reading) If you are going to recover the rest of your enslaved family, you will have to get a Ph.D. in the history of their enslavers. It takes the average student 8.2 years to earn a doctorate degree, so you will need to practice persistence and patience. You will also need to forgive yourself daily. Spending this much time with people, even people who are dead, even people who enslaved your ancestors, will inevitably open you to their humanity as you consider their brutality. Forgive yourself for laughing when they poke fun at each other in their letters, for your heart pangs when they lose a child to yellow fever, or your awe at the care their descendants took to preserve their 200-year-old diaries, correspondences and hand-drawn maps of their land grants. Forgive and proceed.

LIMBONG: I was wondering, was it hard to let yourself be slightly charmed by people who enslaved your ancestors? Did you, like, catch yourself, like, becoming too enamored by them?

FORD: You know, I think - yeah, I guess I did...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

FORD: ...Catch myself a couple of times being, you know, very sad for the losses. And, you know, there's nothing wrong with me feeling my humanity for someone who's died. And just catching myself ultimately was where those stories would take up space in my story in this book. That was where I had to kind of do my work of remembering, you know, what I'm trying to do and putting those other stories into their proper perspective.

LIMBONG: One story that you uncover is that of Warren Stuart Matthews, who was lynched, and it kicks off this period of mourning. Do you think in some ways that a part of this project, a part of your work is creating space to sort of name and celebrate and mourn members of your family?

FORD: Oh, absolutely. Particularly someone like Warren who was killed in such a violent way, and I imagine wasn't really able to be properly mourned by his immediate loved ones - so, yeah, this is definitely a testimony and a memorial.

LIMBONG: You started this project in earnest when you started a family. Have your daughters read the book?

FORD: That's a good question. They've read so many iterations of this book.

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

FORD: I'm not exactly sure they've read the final...

LIMBONG: The final version. Yeah.

FORD: ...This final copy. But they - I should say they've also done some of the research with me as kids.

LIMBONG: Oh, you put them to work, right? Yeah (laughter).

FORD: I did put them to work, and we would kind of often couch my research trips as family vacations, so they...

LIMBONG: And they fell for that, huh? They...

FORD: They fell for it to a degree. After, I think, the oldest turned 13, they started insisting on - every trip to an archive, there should also be one to Disney, so...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

FORD: We had to come up with some other, you know...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

FORD: ...Some other ways of doing that. But yes, I mean, I couldn't ask for more supportive and loving children.

LIMBONG: Dionne Ford. Her new book is "Go Back And Get It." Thank you so much for your time.

FORD: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.