I Named My Mixed-Race Daughter for a Slave-Trading Town

I Named My Mixed-Race Daughter for a Slave-Trading Town

The New York Times

Susan Fales-Hill

An oil painting of Susan Fales-Hill’s great-great-great-grandfather hangs in her apartment in Manhattan. He turned out to be not as upstanding as she once thought. Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times

FOR nearly 20 years, my great-great-great-grandfather’s portrait has watched over me from my red dining room wall. With his high collar, ruffled cravat and black waistcoat, Samuel Fales, 1775-1848, is the very image of the upstanding 19th-century New England gentleman. An eminent merchant and alderman of Boston, he was the founder of the family’s shipping business. I’ve known his face and taken comfort in his smile since I was a child attending Sunday lunch at my grandmother’s in the 1960s.

Samuel Fales seemed utterly unperturbed by the changes the 20th century had wrought, among them his great-great-grandson’s unorthodox choice of bride: my mother, a black Haitian-American actress, and my brother and me, his mixed-race descendants. His portrait has stood as an emblem of our family’s pride in its history. “You have relatives on both sides of your family who fought in the American Revolution,” my mother would frequently remind me.

To honor my forebears, my husband and I named our only child Bristol, after the town in Rhode Island where some of the Faleses first settled in the 17th century. A year ago, I learned through new historical research that Bristol had in fact served as a main hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This gave me great pause. Had I done my daughter a dreadful disservice? Upon reflection, I decided that naming a multicultural African-American after a slave port was in fact redemptive, the ultimate act of reclamation.

It never occurred to me that my family might have participated in the port’s inhumane commerce…

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