Malcolm Gladwell's Elusive Roots

In this exclusive excerpt from Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book Faces of America, The Root's editor-in-chief describes his research into writer Malcolm Gladwell's Jamaican ancestry -- and the stunning truth it uncovered.

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"Oh my goodness," said Malcolm, stunned. "The kind of mental jujitsu you have to go through is quite remarkable. It was a class-based society, and so color was class, class was color. There it is. How far back in her history do we have to go, do we think, to find a slave? Her mother or maybe her grandmother?"

I told Malcolm that we didn't know. Margaret Mullings is as far back along that line of his family as we could go. Her mother, most likely, was not a slave. But beyond that, it is unclear. Obviously, Malcolm descends from slaves at some point in his family tree: every black person in the New World, except for recent immigrants from Africa, did. But his ancestors did not stay slaves for very long. And as soon as they were free and could afford to do so, it appears that they began to buy slaves themselves.

Malcolm quite correctly perceived Margaret's decision to own slaves as a class issue. "I'm assuming it's a way of underscoring your new status," he said. "If you are a member of this special privileged class and you would like to heighten your position and assert your whiteness, having a slave is certainly one sign of doing that, isn't it?"

The answer to that question is, of course, yes. But I also tend to think the issue was perhaps simpler, more crudely economic. Margaret Mullings had a farm; she needed workers, and the workers were slaves. That was the system. Does that let her off the moral hook? No. But it was the system.

"You could have multiple motives," said Malcolm in agreement. "But this is a fascinating and slightly heartbreaking aspect of Jamaican history. I don't know how to describe it. But get this little glimmer, the door opens a crack, and you run towards the light -- literally. And you embrace it and replicate it. You don't transform the system; you become part of it."

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