Elizabeth Alexander and a Freed Slave's Journey of a Lifetime

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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 cellist Yo-Yo Ma to former monarch of Jordan Queen Noor.

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The Root's first exclusive excerpt from the book featured Gates' research into writer Malcolm Gladwell's Jamaican ancestry. Here he details the search for the slave roots of Elizabeth Alexander, an American poet, playwright and professor who recited her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Elizabeth told me that she knew little about her family's past despite the fact that she grew up knowing two of her grandparents very well. Politics, culture, and race, she said, were constant subjects in the Alexander home. The past was not. "I had my whole childhood with my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather," Elizabeth said. "We spent a great deal of time with these grandparents. But they didn't tell us much of anything about where they came from."

Her paternal grandfather, Clifford Alexander, Sr., was particularly reticent. He had immigrated to America from Jamaica as a young man, leaving behind a mother whom he never saw again and rumors that he was the illegitimate son of a Jewish merchant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he rarely discussed these matters. "He gave a few tantalizing details," said Elizabeth. "He told me that his father died in the great earthquake in Jamaica in 1907. He said he stowed away on a banana boat when he came here. And I didn't know what to think about any of that. But when I cleaned out his apartment after he died I found sort of a passage document from a United Fruit Company boat. So maybe he stowed away, but with papers? He chuckled when he told us the stowaway part, so I don't know if he was trying to give us an adventure tale, but that's all we ever knew. We knew that there was something funny but couldn't quite discern what it was. But that was about it. When he was a few days away from passing, in the middle of the night I realized we don't know his parents' names. And so I asked him and received no last names, just Emma and James, and that was pretty much all that we knew."

In our search, we were able to uncover a great deal more about her grandfather's past. We began with the actual records of Clifford's immigration to America. They show that his story was an interesting mix of fantasy and fact — leaning heavily toward the side of fantasy. The SS Turrialba, owned by the United Fruit Company, arrived in Ellis Island, New York, from Jamaica on August 31, 1918, and its manifest lists twenty-one-year-old "Alexander Clifford" not only as a paying passenger but as a first-class passenger as well. His race is listed as "West Indian," and his home is Kingston, Jamaica.

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We were also able to find his birth certificate in Jamaica. It indicates that Clifford was born in Kingston to a woman named Emma Honeywell, a seamstress living at 4 Wildman Street. No father is named on the birth certificate, but Emma's address gave us a starting point for some theorizing. Wildman Street is in the oldest part of Kingston, a very poor neighborhood. Number 4, where Clifford was born, is today an alley running behind the street. Some of the oldest residents of the neighborhood told us that, for the past century at least, the alley has been filled with one-room rental apartments. So Clifford Alexander was born into intense poverty.

Our research, however, did yield more information about Elizabeth's great-grandmother Emma Honeywell. We found her baptismal record, dated May 6, 1859. It shows that she was born in Kingston, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, sometime in March 1859. Her parents are listed as Edward and Esther Honeywell, and her mother's occupation is listed as "servant." Further searching uncovered Emma's father's baptismal record. It shows that Edward Honeywell, "a Domestic of Northampton," aged twenty-one years old, was baptized on September 17, 1852. This record also contains a very telling omission. It does not state Edward's complexion, which in the Jamaica of this era means that he was black (white people and those with mixed blood made this known because it was a badge of honor). So, based on his profession as a "domestic" and the absence of recorded information about his race, I told Elizabeth that it was almost certain that her great-great-grandfather was black and a former slave.

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Elizabeth and I were both intrigued by the fact that Edward was baptized at age twenty-one. This means that he was born about 1831. And although the British act abolishing slavery in Jamaica passed in 1833, and became effective in 1834, slaves were still held in apprenticeships until 1838. So Edward most likely spent the first years of his childhood as a slave and then, when he was about seven, received his freedom. But he was free for fourteen years before he was baptized. Why did he wait so long? There's no way of knowing. It is possible that he came under the sway of religion at this point — possibly through another person such as his wife, Esther, or via the influence of a preacher. Records show that he was baptized on the same day as many of his neighbors, so it seems entirely possible that some kind of a hell-fire preacher came into his community distributing the fear of God en masse. There is no way to know for sure, but it seems a very likely explanation.

Elizabeth and I both wanted to know more about Edward's slave past. His baptismal record notes that he was a domestic servant and that he lived in Northampton. This was not a familiar place name to us, so our researchers began searching and found hand-drawn maps from the early nineteenth century of St. Elizabeth Parish. They showed that the parish contained something called "Northampton Pen." The word pen was the Jamaican term at that time for a cattle farm, and Northampton Pen was one of the largest pens in the country — including a plantation house and an estate of over fifteen hundred acres. This is where Elizabeth's great-great-grandfather and most likely his parents were slaves.

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The farm is a ruin today, just some walls, the bare remains of some kind of entrance gate, open fields crossed by a single road, and lots of goats. But in the first decades of the 1800s, it was a very significant operation, owned by an Englishman named John Chambers. Records show that in 1826 Chambers owned 299 slaves. That's a large number of slaves for Jamaica and is much larger than most plantations in the United States held, even at the height of slavery here. When Chambers died in 1832, the inventory of his estate listed all his slaves. On the list is a boy named Edward, age two and a half years, valued at forty pounds (which would be about forty-five hundred dollars today). Incredibly, this two-and-a-half-year-old boy is Elizabeth's great-great-grandfather.

"My God," said Elizabeth, looking at the record. "When you see in black and white what it is to be valued as property when you're a toddler — I'm sorry, but that's hard to take."

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Go here for a video clip of the televised Elizabeth Alexander segment.

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

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