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)

There were still questions to be answered, however. I wanted to figure out when Malcolm’s ancestors first crossed over the line from slavery to freedom. But our research was unable to find the original slave ancestor in the Ford family. So we began to look at other branches of Malcolm’s Jamaican family tree and we found a baptismal record for a woman named Martha Levy dated 1842. Martha is Malcolm’s great-great-grandmother. She was born in 1841 in St. Elizabeth Parish. Although the act that abolished slavery passed in 1833, slaves were still held in apprenticeships until the year 1838. We wondered whether Martha’s parents had been slaves. Research suggested otherwise. We found the marriage record of her parents, Benjamin Samuel Levy and Frances Powell Dare, from 1819, which clearly states that they were free persons of color. And as we went back on the Levy line, we kept finding more free people of color. For example, Malcolm’s fourth-great-grandfather Eliezer Levy was born and baptized in 1775. And he was the “reputed son” of another Mr. Eliezer Levy and Margaret Mullings, a free woman of color.

In the end, we failed to find a single slave in Malcolm’s Jamaican ancestry. What’s more, we found a stunning instance of the opposite: black slave owners on the family tree. Margaret Mullings left a will which reads, in part, “My desire is that all my funeral expenses and my just and lawful debts should be discharged and satisfied as soon after my death as possible out of any money I may die possessed of or may be due my estate. And if that should not be sufficient, then the Negroes I may die possessed of shall work in jobbing or otherwise and the money arising from such labor shall be applied for the purposes already mentioned.”

This means that Malcolm’s fifth-great-grandmother, a free woman of color, owned slaves. She even spelled one of them out by name, leaving her slave “Ruthie” to her grandson, Malcolm’s third-great-grandfather Benjamin Samuel Levy, another free man of color.

“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.”

Go here for a video clip of the televised Malcolm Gladwell segment.

Buy Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Amazon.

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