Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family

Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family
Neil Henry
University of California Press

"The white man’s name was rarely mentioned in our house when I was growing up," confides author Neil Henry. And when it was, "my mother and her family would lower their voices as if they were telling a secret too sensitive or perhaps even shameful for outsiders or youngsters to hear." But Henry heard enough to ignite his curiosity about the Confederate Army veteran named A.J. Beaumont, whose affair with a former slave in St. Joseph, Louisiana, produced a daughter named Pearl, Henry’s great-grandmother.

Pearl’s Secret is essentially the story of the author’s quest to learn about the white branch of his family. From the outset, his tale deftly balances candor and objectivity, reeling in the reader with vivid reportage and nonthreatening discourse. But it soon produces layers of emotions worthy of any drama. Henry admits his biggest obstacle turned out to be "an internal emotional war over my feelings about race...feelings that went back to my growing up as a black child in white middle-class Seattle in the 1960s."

Thus, this genealogical detective story also becomes part memoir, part family chronicle and part history lesson. It tells the story of his black ancestors, struggling against racism from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement, and carrying out honorable, respectable lives.

As Henry outlines his family’s racial experiences, he takes readers with him on an odyssey about covert feelings about race and about family members who remain hidden in the attics of our houses or our minds. It is also about the contradictions that lie even within families. (Henry’s advocated and practiced black pride even as they considered hair less African in texture as "good hair.")

Henry attempts to come to terms with the confusion he feels over his dual racial heritage. He had often wondered as a child how Beaumont, "this personification in my mind of America’s racist past," could be "a part of us." Yet Beaumont was not unlike countless white men who fought against black equality even as they fathered children by black women. Pearl was one of thousands of children whose white fathers, known as pillars of their communities, felt neither moral nor financial responsibility for their mixed-race offspring.

So what compelled Henry to learn about the white ancestor who had cast his great-grandmother aside? "I wanted to be able to offer my daughter someday a better understanding of my family’s racial history than I had had," he writes.

When he does locate the white, downwardly mobile, Beaumont descendants, the web of emotions and insights he experiences makes the long search through graveyards, newspapers, courthouse records and personal conflict worth the effort.

"I wanted to show people...that blacks were just as smart, courageous, and strong, if not more so, than any people in America." Yet, in the end, none of this mattered. What was increasingly clear, he says, was "the cancerousness, the sheer wastefulness, of racial prejudice and bigotry, and the sinister way they can replicate themselves from one willing generation to the next."

Henry may not have fashioned the "bridge over the chasm between white and black" that he had hoped for, but he did build a bridge, of sorts, with his great-grandmother. For, ironically, it was a deeper understanding of Pearl, who lived on the edge of two worlds, belonging to neither, that ultimately helps bring together two branches of the disparate family she had longed to see united.

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