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.

Malcolm Gladwell (top row, second from left)
Malcolm Gladwell (top row, second from left)

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts, based on the PBS series Faces of America, is the latest book from Henry Louis Gates Jr., the series’ host and The Root‘s editor-in-chief. In it, Gates applies a global perspective to examine the roots and identities of 12 celebrated Americans of diverse backgrounds, from actress Eva Longoria to author-surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz. Here he describes the hunt for the truth about New Yorker writer and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell‘s Jamaican and Irish heritage (Go here for a video clip of the televised Malcolm Gladwell segment).

We began researching Malcolm Gladwell’s Jamaican ancestors by focusing on his maternal grandmother, Daisy Ford Nation, who was born in St. Elizabeth Parish in 1899. In his book Outliers, Malcolm writes about how his family’s path to success had been blazed by Daisy, claiming that her determination and ambition for her children was the legacy of her own ancestors, the Fords.

“According to oral history in my family,” Malcolm said, “when we go back to the late eighteenth century, there is an Irishman named William Ford. I don’t know who he was, but the family says at one point he owned a coffee plantation or something like that. And he takes an African slave as a concubine. They have a son who is a preacher, a brown-skinned preacher who marries an Arawak Indian. That’s the claim. And that starts in motion this line of brown-skinned Fords, my mom’s people. Many of them have some kind of profession: they’re merchants or preachers, or they’re doing something more than simply being slaves or descendants of slaves. And because of the special privileges accorded to brown-skinned children of white people in Jamaica, the Fords have a leg up. So that’s the story. And it begins with this decision by William Ford to take as his consort this slave.”

To explore this story, our researchers went to Jamaica and interviewed Malcolm’s relatives who still live there. They told the same basic tale that he did: tracing the family back to an Irishman named William Ford and an unnamed Ibo slave. They talked a great deal, especially, about William Ford’s son, John Ford, who was Malcolm’s great-great-grandfather. By all accounts, he was quite a remarkable person; someone who made the most of a special status in Jamaican society as the mixed-race child of an Irish immigrant. A lay preacher and a businessman, John is reported to have owned land all over southwest Jamaica, where many of his descendants live today. And according to some relatives, he came to the aid of an oppressed indigenous community, helping them to defend their land and building them a church.

The problem is that we could find no record of his father, William Ford, arriving in Jamaica from Ireland in the late eighteenth century and buying or operating a coffee plantation, or any other kind of plantation, which is the initial part of the family story. So we were stumped. Then we found something surprising: a baptismal record of a child named William Ford, dated 1788. It states that this child was the “reputed son of Mr. John Ford by Hannah Burton, born November 27th, 1786.” It also indicates that the child was “not white.” Now this was the only William Ford on the whole island of Jamaica who was the right age and in the right place to be Malcolm’s third-great-grandfather. And this William Ford clearly was not an Irishman. He was a mulatto. What’s more, the phrase “reputed son” indicates that his parents were not married. Also the fact that his father is referred to as Mr. John Ford suggests that his father was white, whereas his mother, Hannah Burton, must have been colored or black.

Our researchers initially believed that perhaps his white Ford ancestry came to Jamaica a generation or two earlier than the oral tradition of his family held. So we searched for the first Fords in this part of Jamaica to see when his ancestor may have arrived. But after months of searching, we were unable to learn anything concrete through the records.

At this point, I wondered whether the discrepancies between the story as the family told it and the story we found really mattered. A family who enjoyed a privilege of being mixed race in Jamaican society and who used that privilege to educate their children and to help those less fortunate than themselves did create, as Malcolm has written, the legacy that his mother and her mother before her, even if the details do not match at every point. The Fords’ identity as mixed-race people in colonial Jamaica gave them a different social status from other people of African descent. White slaveholders often conferred freedom, property, and education on the mixed-race children that they had with their slave mistresses. Jamaica’s British governors encouraged this hierarchy of color privilege; indeed, it worked well for them all throughout the Commonwealth. The British, essentially, saw the free people of color as a buffer between themselves and the great mass of black slaves.