The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Slavery on 2009-11-05 21:25Z by Steven

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (review)

Henry Wiencek. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Xx + 361pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-19277-8.

H-Net Reviews: in the Humanities & Social Sciences
April 1999

Catherine Clinton


It was with joy and fear that I finished Henry Wiencek’s breathtaking saga, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Joy, in that I was introduced to such a compelling cast of characters, set within riveting contexts, drawn with insight and erudition, illuminated by vivid, narrative that pulls the reader toward the important reckoning slavery continues to create for us all. Fear, in that the resonance of this story, the compelling quality of the author’s prose, the superior level of his research, both with oral histories and archival digging, may set too high a standard for future work.

But we must all swallow our fears, and let Wiencek’s remarkable confrontation with slavery wash over us. The author allows us to make a journey along with him, by letting us know how he innocuously began his investigation of a North Carolina plantation, and then spent seven years tracking down the remarkable Hairston family from its colonial roots to the present. On the brink of the Civil War the white Hairstons owned forty-five plantations in four states, with combined slave holdings of over ten thousand slaves: Samuel Hairston of Oak Hill, Virginia had land and slaves worth nearly five million dollars–reputedly the largest slaveowner in the South. But Wiencek also began his quest by attending an African American family reunion of Hairstons, with nearly a thousand in attendance from all over the country. His curiosities, his hesitancy, his reverence all interlace his analysis. He joined up on the amazing trek toward their African-American past, guided by the voices of blacks forced to keep counter-accounts, unabashedly determined to restore some balance to whitewashed tales of a plantation past dripping in nostalgia…

Over the past twenty years, numerous scholars have been able to demonstrate the way in which shadow families and white male sexual coercion could and did shape conficts within southern culture, in particular I am thinking of Carol Bleser and Drew Faust on James Henry Hammond, Kent Leslie, Jean Yellin, Adele Logan Alexander, Deborah White, Jacqueline Jones, Mary Frances Berry and Darlene Clark Hine, among others, on African American women’s responses, and Nell Painter, Peter Bardaglio, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and this reviewer, among others, on white women’s responses.  Although much of this scholarship has become conventional wisdom within southern women’s history, it has been resisted mightily by many scholars working on slavery and on the nineteenth century more generally. The fact that rape, coercion and concubinage were institutionalized within ante-bellum southern slavery remains a contested issue.

The passionate opinions exchanged in late 1998 over DNA testing of descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s female slave, Sally Hemings, has created more than a tempest in a teapo–more like a hurricane, gale winds creating havoc and bluster among historians of early America.

So much of the evidence” concerning interracial heritage, short of DNA testing, remains dificult to dig up. Much of this evidence remains within the realm of oral histories passed down in families–most often black families. It is stumbled upon by modern historians, in the majority white scholars, who have limited access to African American family lore. I am reminded of the white southern scholar who confided to me that when he went to interview a black family in the 1980s he was surprised to see a large portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, hanging in their home–but was informed Forrest was an ancestor!

The issues surrounding mixed race legacies are topics that I believe academically trained scholars continue to stumble over and continue to stumble around. So it should be no surprise that the most compelling books dealing with this constellation of concerns have been produced by those outside the academy: Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White and Edward Ball’s National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family

The way in which black and white Hairstons are able to confront or deny their mixed heritage becomes a running theme of the book as well. Does Peter W. Hairston, the white patriarch with whom the author began his quest, really want to know the truths about his family, especially his grandfather? How are Ever Lee Hairston, an outspoken black woman, and Lucy D. Hairston, a white southern lady of the old school, able to make their peace?…

Read the entire review here.

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The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2009-11-05 20:56Z by Steven

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White

St. Martin’s Press an imprint of Macmillan
February 1999
ISBN: 978-0-312-25393-6
ISBN10: 0-312-25393-1
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
400 pages, Plus 16-page b&w photo insert

Henry Wiencek

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

The Hairstons is the extraordinary story of the largest family in America, the Hairston clan. With several thousand black and white members, the Hairstons share a complex and compelling history: divided in the time of slavery, they have come to embrace their past as one family.

The black family’s story is most exceptional. It is the account of the rise of a remarkable people—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of slaves—who took their rightful place in mainstream America.

In contrast, it has been the fate of the white family—once one of the wealthiest in America—to endure the decline and fall of the Old South, and to become an apparent metaphor for that demise. But the family’s fall from grace is only part of the tale. Beneath the surface lay a hidden history—the history of slavery’s curse and how that curse plagued slaveholders for generations.

For the past seven years, journalist Wiencek has listened raptly to the tales of hundreds of Hairston relatives, including the aging scions of both the white and black clans. He has crisscrossed the old plantation country in Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi to seek out the descendants of slaves. Visiting family reunions, interviewing family members, and exploring old plantations, Wiencek combs the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from members about their ancestors and piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. He expertly weaves the Hairstons’ stories from all sides of historical events like slave emancipation, Reconstruction, school segregation, and lynching.

Paradoxically, Wiencek demonstrates that these families found that the way to come to terms with the past was to embrace it, and this lyrical work, a parable of redemption, may in the end serve as a vital contribution to our nation’s attempt to undo the twisted historical legacy of the past.

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Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States, Women on 2009-11-05 02:08Z by Steven

Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants

University of Minnesota Press
280 pages, 6 halftones, 10 tables
5 7⁄8 x 9
Paper ISBN: 0-8166-4790-9
Paper ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4790-3
Cloth ISBN: 0-8166-4789-5
Cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4789-7

Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain, Lecturer in Sociology
National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Examines the question, Who is Japanese American?

With a low rate of immigration and a high rate of interracial marriage, Japanese Americans today compose the Asian ethnic group with the largest proportion of mixed-race members. Within Japanese American communities, increased participation by mixed-race members, along with concerns about overassimilation, has led to a search for cultural authenticity, giving new answers to the question, Who is Japanese American?

In Pure Beauty, Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain tackles this question by studying a cultural institution: Japanese American community beauty pageants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Honolulu. King-O’Riain employs rich ethnographic fieldwork to discover how these pageants seek to maintain racial and ethnic purity amid shifting notions of cultural identity. She uses revealing in-depth interviews with candidates, queens, and community members, her experiences as a pageant committee member, and archival research—including Japanese and English newspapers, museum collections, private photo albums, and mementos—to establish both the importance and impossibility of racial purity. King-O’Riain examines racial eligibility rules and tests, which encompass not only ancestry but also residency, community service, and culture, and traces the history of pageants throughout the United States. Pure Beauty shows how racial and gendered meanings are enacted through the pageants, and reveals their impact on Japanese American men, women, and children.

King-O’Riain concludes that the mixed-race challenge to racial understandings of Japanese Americanness does not necessarily mean an end to race as we know it and asserts that race is work—created and re-created in a social context. Ultimately, she determines that the concept of race, fragile though it may be, is still one of the categories by which Japanese Americans are judged.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction: Negotiating Racial Hybridity in Community Beauty Pageants
  1. Race Work and the Effort of Racial Claims
  2. The Japanese American Community in Transition
  3. Japanese American Beauty Pageants in Historical Perspective
  4. Cultural Impostors and Eggs: Race without Culture and Culture without Race
  5. Patrolling Bodies: The Social Control of Race through Gender
  6. The “Ambassadress” Queen: Moving Authentically between Racial Communities in the United States and Japan
  7. Percentages, Parts, and Power: Racial Eligibility Rules and Local Versions of Japanese Americanness in Context
  • Conclusion: Japanese Americanness, Beauty Pageants, and Race Work
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Mestizaje: Critical Uses of Race in Chicano Culture

Posted in Books, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2009-11-05 01:43Z by Steven

Mestizaje: Critical Uses of Race in Chicano Culture

University of Minnesota Press
272 pages
15 halftones; 5 7⁄8 x 9
Paper ISBN: 0-8166-4595-7
Paper ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4595-4
Cloth ISBN: 0-8166-4594-9
Cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4594-7

Rafael Pérez-Torres, Professor and Chair of English
University of California, Los Angeles

A major reassessment of how mixed-race identity affects Chicano culture and politics.

Focusing on the often unrecognized role race plays in expressions of Chicano culture, Mestizaje is a provocative exploration of the volatility and mutability of racial identities. In this important moment in Chicano studies, Rafael Pérez-Torres reveals how the concepts and realities of race, historical memory, the body, and community have both constrained and opened possibilities for forging new and potentially liberating multiracial identities.

Informed by a broad-ranging theoretical investigation of identity politics and race and incorporating feminist and queer critiques, Pérez-Torres skillfully analyzes Chicano cultural production. Contextualizing the history of mestizaje, he shows how the concept of mixed race has been used to engage issues of hybridity and voice and examines the dynamics that make mestizo and mestiza identities resistant to, as well as affirmative of, dominant forms of power. He also addresses the role that mestizaje has played in expressive culture, including the hip-hop music of Cypress Hill and the vibrancy of Chicano poster art. Turning to issues of mestizaje in literary creation, Pérez-Torres offers critical readings of the works of Emma Pérez, Gil Cuadros [1962-1996], and Sandra Cisneros, among others. This book concludes with a consideration of the role that the mestizo body plays as a site of elusive or displaced knowledge.

Moving beyond the oppositions—nationalism versus assimilation, men versus women, Texans versus Californians—that have characterized much of Chicano studies, Mestizaje synthesizes and assesses twenty-five years of pathbreaking thinking to make a case for the core components, sensibilities, and concerns of the discipline.

Table of Contents


PART I. Creating Mestizaje
1. The Critical Mixture of Race
2. The Mestizo Voice

PART II. Fashioning Mestizaje
3. Popular Music and Postmodern Mestizaje
4. Land and Race in Chicano Public Art

PART III. Challenging Mestizaje
5. The Transgressive Body and Sexual Mestizaje
6. Narrative and Loss

Works Cited

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