The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America [Review: Eubanks]

The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America [Review: Eubanks]

The Washington Independent Review of Books

W. Ralph Eubanks, Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress
Author of Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road

Julie Winch, The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. pp. 424.

In spite of the prominent role of race in our culture, American society has spent more than 200 years trying to find a way to downplay the role of it—whether through proclaiming our society color blind or a melting pot—with varying levels of success. Consequently, there are numerous stories of how race manifests itself as America’s original sin, many involving families that crossed and bridged racial lines, including my own family’s story. Few of these stories are as complicated and fascinating as the one Julie Winch tells in The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America.
Through the life and times of one American family, the Clamorgans of St. Louis, Missouri, Winch traces the evolving role race has played in family life, the law and broader American society, from slavery to abolition, to Reconstruction and beyond. Today’s millennial generation would label the Clamorgans as multiracial. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, and well into the 20th century, the one-drop rule marked them with a taint of African ancestry, in spite of appearances to the contrary. Still, the Clamorgans challenged traditional notions of race and identity and carefully negotiated a way through society’s complicated racial maze. To do this, they used the same confusing twists and turns used to define them as a means of furthering their own interests. As the author notes, the Clamorgans’ story is one of money, land, power and race. But at its core this is the story of a family with a scrappy survival instinct that transcends race, which is why the reader gets drawn into this saga quickly….

…Money was a means of whitening, since “a dark-skinned individual with money often made the transition from ‘black’ to ‘mulatto.’ The Clamorgans and other mixed-race people took the next step, moving from ‘mulatto’ to ‘white.’ ” Sometimes it was for a reason, other times it was because the census takers were confused by a person’s appearance or last name. In St. Louis, some names were exclusively “colored,” while others were exclusively white. Certain names existed in both communities, making the census taker’s job more complicated…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , ,