Angela Davis’s Family History Is Remarkable—and Unexceptional for Black Americans

Angela Davis’s Family History Is Remarkable—and Unexceptional for Black Americans

Angela Davis’s Family History Is Remarkable—and Unexceptional for Black Americans

Conservatives thought they’d won a round of “gotcha” when it was revealed that one of Davis’s ancestors was a passenger on the Mayflower. But within her genealogy lie truths about how racial hierarchy has always functioned in America.


The most recent episode of the PBS genealogy docuseries Finding Your Roots focused, in part, on the previously untraced family tree branches of activist and scholar Angela Davis. If you are on social media and have even a passing interest in this sort of thing, you’ve probably already watched the clip of host Henry Louis Gates Jr. announcing to Davis that she is “descended from one of the 101 people who sailed on the Mayflower.” The camera catches Davis reeling from the revelations, and the clip went viral, launching a million Twitter hot takes. But the snippet provides just one piece of the story of Davis’s ancestry unearthed by the show. Only in watching the rest of the episode is it made clear that her connection to that 10th great-grandfather was made during the Jim Crow era, through a previously unknown white paternal grandfather who had been her Black grandmother’s long-time neighbor. The episode also reveals that Davis’s mother, who grew up in foster care and never knew either of her biological parents, was fathered by a white Alabama lawyer, state representative, and senator named John Austin Darden. Through Darden, the show uncovered another of Davis’s ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War and later enslaved at least six Black folks in Georgia.

Perhaps because their existence was more expected, there has been considerably less online discussion about Davis’s enslaved Black ancestors, whose stories are also fascinating. Just one year after his emancipation, Davis’s paternal great-grandfather Isom Spencer and his two brothers dared to file a complaint against the white enslaver still holding their young nephews in illegal bondage. The judge ruled against Davis’s family, writing that continued enslavement was the “best thing that could be done for them,” dismissing the complaint as “frivolous,” and claiming that Isom and his siblings did “not know what is best for them or for the children.” It would take yet another year, but with aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau, Isom and his brothers succeeded in seizing their children’s freedom in 1867. Finding Your Roots was able to unearth that necessary contribution to the under-chronicled history of Black resistance, but even the show’s team of genealogists, historians, and researchers could not identify Davis’s maternal grandmother. Like so many Black folks looking to uncover the names of those who came before them, Davis’s search for her mother’s mother was stymied by a lack of record-keeping that, at least for now, has buried her grandmother’s name in time.

But it is the stories of Davis’s white relatives—the white liberty fighter cum Black enslaver, the Plymouth colonizer—that have become recent Internet fodder. These were the revelations that stunned many people, Davis included, who, moments after hearing the news, heavily exhaled and said, “That’s a little too much to deal with right now.” More than a few folks seemed to read Davis’s recoil at the news as shock at the very fact of white folks in her family tree. (One person suggested Davis had somehow been unaware that she is a light-skinned Black woman, asking why she hadn’t already presumed she had “ancestry that drove the boat.”) But to think that Angela Motherfucking Davis, who has dedicated her activism, life and career to enumerating America’s white racial lies and sexual abuses of Black women did not clock that she likely has some white ancestry somewhere, is absurd. The surprise was the devil in the genealogical details.

The Mayflower arrivals brought to the “New World” the contagion of murderous, colonizing whiteness. The ship’s name has long been a synecdoche for white American racial purity, an ideology that has inflicted endless harm upon Black folks in this country. (There’s a reason for the endurance of the (modified) Malcolm X quote, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us.”) The kidnapped Africans aboard the White Lion may have arrived a year before, but the white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism of the Mayflower’s cargo has made the ship’s name a signifier of true Americanness, launching a thousand heritage organizations formed explicitly to keep folks that look like Angela Davis out. (In a 1911 speech before Congress, the president of the Daughters of the American Revolution hailed “the purity of our Caucasian blood, the perpetuity of our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty, law, and the security of the gradual elevation of the white man’s standard of living.” Frederick Douglass’s white second wife’s 1900 application to the Mayflower Society was rejected because she “had married a colored man.”) It was all this that Davis was reacting to.

Conservatives, predictably, were absolutely giddy over the revelations, apparently thinking they’d won a round of racial “gotcha.” Tireless “anti-woke” crank and “succession ideology” coiner Wesley Yang tweeted that Davis’s Mayflower connection was the “most damaging ancestry revelation since they found that Ben Affleck was descended from slave owners.” Multiple conservative accounts used the moment to triumphantly declare Davis’s lineage a refutation of their favorite boogeyman, with one declaring, “BAM. GAME OVER!… Please enjoy the entire Critical Race worldview fall apart.” Reaffirming the antipathetic relationship between comedy and conservatism, Matt Walsh and others recycled the same tired gag about Davis now needing to pay reparations. Christopher Rufo, the bullshit artist who openly admits to redefining “critical race theory” to stoke outrage, tweeted that Davis’s unenthused response demonstrated “tfw when the oppressed becomes the oppressor.” Apparently, because Davis has white ancestry, she never experienced systemic racism and shouldn’t advocate on behalf of Black people.

The thing is, Davis’s family history is like that of a lot of Black Americans—the majority, in fact. They may not all have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, but nearly all Black Americans—roughly 75 to just over 80 percent, at least based on large DNA-sample studies conducted the last five years—have about 25 percent European ancestry. Most of those Black folks can trace that lineage directly to American Black chattel slavery. The commingled blood of enslaved Black folks and white enslavers running through the overwhelming number of African American veins is the legacy of white men raping the Black women they enslaved. When Matt Walsh openly sniggers, as he did on Twitter, that it adds to his petty delight to learn that Davis is “descended from a slave owner,” it says everything about him, but absolutely nothing about millions of Black Americans who carry with them the forensic evidence of crimes against humanity committed on a massive scale.

We also know that illicit and illegal Black-white interracial sex was far more common during the Jim Crow era than the white South acknowledged, and that, as Colbert I. King has noted, “most interracial childbirths resulted from unions between white men and Black women.” Rosa Parks wrote about the “strange and varied customs of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws” in sites like “the cradle of Confederacy, heart of Dixie” Alabama, referring to “day-time segregation” and “night-time integration”—the euphemism for interracial sex often employed by Black folks.

Perhaps Davis’s father was aware that the white man who lived next door to his family in his childhood was his father. Davis says that even when asked, her father would “never talk about” it. Davis’s mother, meanwhile, was born in September 1914, in Goodwater, Alabama, a teeny town that just a decade prior had made big national news in places like Cosmopolitan and the New York Post for being the “epicenter” of “a revolting system of enslaving helpless negro laborers” under debt peonage. (Just to offer a sense of what the town culture might have been like.) At the time of Davis’s mother’s birth, Democratic State Representative-elect John Austin Darden owned a “lucrative and successful [law] practice” in Goodwater, was city attorney, a school board member, and a Sunday school teacher. Darden had a white wife of 14 years who was the president of her United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter, six white children at home and, we now know, at least one biracial Black child born out of wedlock with an African-American woman or—God forbid—girl he impregnated.

As I previously mentioned, we still do not know her name. But we do not need to know her name to know with certainty that she did not have the power possessed by Darden, a putative “pillar of the community.” We can’t know precisely what Davis’s grandmother’s life looked like, but we do know that interracial sex occurred “under conditions in which Black women were performing tasks that put them in the personal service of white men,” as Colbert King wrote. Ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond’s Black biracial child was conceived when he was 22, in 1925, and the Thurmond family’s Black maid, Carrie Butler, was just 16. Describing a near-rape situation she faced as a domestic worker, Rosa Parks wrote that she “taunted [her assailant] about the supposed white supremacy: the white man’s law drawing the color line of segregation. I would stay within the law—on my side of the line.” Davis herself wrote about the subject in her 1981 book Women, Race and Class:

The sexual abuse [Black women] had routinely suffered during the era of slavery was not arrested by the advent of emancipation. As a matter of fact, it was still true that “colored women were looked upon as the legitimate prey of white men,” and if they resisted white men’s sexual attacks, they were frequently thrown into prison to be further victimized by a system which was a “return to another form of slavery.”… From Reconstruction to the present, Black women household workers have considered sexual abuse perpetrated by the “man of the house” as one of their major occupational hazards. Time after time they have been victims of extortion on the job, compelled to choose between sexual submission and absolute poverty for themselves and their families.

Davis’s mother was placed in foster care, quite possibly because her very existence—like that of Davis’s father—was criminalized under Jim Crow.

Quite literally criminalized, because miscegenation was against the law. As far back as the 17th century, white colonists began to make slavery hereditary and interracial marriage illegal, a way to gate-keep whiteness and protect its supremacy; the “one-drop” laws of the early 20th century and other Jim Crow legislation made whiteness yet more finite, legally codified notions of white superiority, and ensured the social, political, and economic capital of whiteness flowed in one racial direction. I know that Rufo has spent the last couple years, as he readily admits, intentionally lying about what “critical race theory” is, and lauding himself for succeeding in making incurious conservatives “read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” He is quite transparent about employing that disinformation “strategy” to “turn the brand ‘critical race theory’ toxic.” But critical race theory helpfully shows that the aforementioned laws explain how whiteness was constructed, white power maintained, and violent anti-Black racism justified. They explain the real “identity politics” white conservatives used to love.

CRT also explains why, despite her having a whole pile of dead white relatives, including one who came here on the Mayflower, America’s national project of white supremacy saw to it that Davis did not inherit the spoils of whiteness. It explains how a link to the Mayflower did not keep her from growing up in a neighborhood where white racists blew up so many Black folks’ houses it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” or why those white terrorists could do so with impunity. It explains why Davis’s mother never got a damn thing from her rich white Senator father, including so much as an acknowledgement of her existence; explains why Davis’s father was not a beneficiary of this recently touted Mayflower descent, but instead, had to keep “guns in the house” during Davis’s childhood for when he “feared that the Ku Klux Klan was about to bomb our house.” It explains why decades later, based on circumstantial evidence, Davis served 18 months in prison before she was acquitted, but countless confirmed and not infrequently boastful white killers of thousands of Black folks never so much as served a day. It also explains the continued racial disparities in arrests, charges, convictions, sentencing, and even what is criminalized in the first place, all of which continue to spur Davis’s anti-prison activism. So when Yang tweets that Davis’s Mayflower connection is a “damaging ancestry revelation,” comparing it to Ben Affleck’s being “descended from slave owners,” it seems that he is not only unaware that “slave owners” did enough raping to crowd most Black American heritage files, but that DNA test results don’t retroactively undo one-drop rules or redress generational wealth denied. (Yang’s bones to pick with so-called “wokeism,” by the way, include the government’s providing debt relief to Black farmers, whom it admits stealing land from for purely racist reasons since the mid-1960s.) Ditto when Rufo ignorantly tweets about Davis as the “oppressed becom[ing] the oppressor.”

(And certainly, Rufo could be implying Davis is an “oppressor” because of colorism, and I would applaud a conversation about the endless elevation of light-skinned folks—from W.E.B. Du Bois to Kathleen Cleaver, bell hooks to Kendrick Sampson—within Black liberation efforts. But that would require talking about proximity to whiteness and acknowledgment of entrenched white power, and we all know Rufo doesn’t want that smoke.)

Maybe—and just hear me out here—Rufo is acting in bad faith, as always. Along with Yang and Walsh, he’s suggesting the revelations in Davis’s DNA somehow discredit the half century of anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-prison activism she’s undertaken. Rufo often invokes “racial essentialism” as one of the most dangerous tenets of CRT (even though CRT argues that race is biologically nonexistent and societally constructed), but in Davis’s case, he’s all for racial essentialism, claiming that Davis’s DNA shows she’s actually Team Oppressor. He does this because he blames Davis’s scholarship and activism—he’s said this openly—for laying the groundwork for things like CRT. And what that really means is, he thinks Davis helped usher in an era in which people like him are held accountable when they do and say fucked-up shit, including toward people that aren’t like him. Rufo blames Davis for the things that today piss him off, but, per that old conservative adage that’s used by the right only when it serves them, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Davis’s DNA is actually just is. Within her unraveled genealogy are American truths that cannot be erased by bans on mislabeled “CRT” and “Stop WOKE Acts” and intentional anti-historical misinformation schemes. The conflict Yang, Walsh, and Rufo imply exists between Davis’s genes and who she has always been—the work she has long done and the politics she has long advocated—is imaginary; there is nothing for her to be ashamed of. These genealogical fact-finding missions turn up the realities behind America’s myths—of moral white “founders,” of white racial purity, of a country dedicated to equality at every turn while legislating to ensure the opposite. What Davis’s DNA gave us was about how this country came to be—and what was extracted in the process.

But maybe we shouldn’t point out all this stuff, and instead let conservatives keep making hay of Davis’s white ancestry and Mayflower lineage. Because maybe then they’d at least stop banning her books that way.

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