Angela Davis Descended From Mayflower Colonizers Isn't 'Gotcha!' Some Idiots Seem To Think

History Facts
Angela Davis Descended From Mayflower Colonizers Isn't 'Gotcha!' Some Idiots Seem To Think

Civil rights activist Angela Davis was a guest recently on PBS's "Finding Your Roots" with host Henry Louis Gates Jr., and as it often happens on the show, she discovered some surprising facts about her ancestry. Specifically, Davis is descended from one of the 101 people who sailed on the Mayflower, the English ship that transported the migrants known as Pilgrims to the "new world" in 1620.

“No, I can’t believe this," a shocked Davis said. "My ancestors did not come here on the Mayflower. That’s a little too much to deal with right now.”

“Would you ever in your wildest dreams think that you may have been descended from the people who laid the foundation of this country?” Gates asked Davis, who responded with a firm, “Never, never, never, never, never.”

Davis is Black, so she's always known she was descended from the people who actually built this country in the practical sense. She also understands the history of race in America. When she looks in the mirror, she's probably acutely aware that she has what the poet Caroline Randall Williams called "rape-colored skin." Davis never "dreamed" that she had ancestors on the Mayflower but not because she lacks imagination. No, she rightly sees no value in celebrating this heritage, as she is the direct result of the centuries of oppression that followed in the Mayflower's wake.

The revelation that the former Black Panther member is descended from Mayflower settlers was a "gotcha!" moment for a lot of willfully stupid people. Others tried to advance their own agenda through Davis's complex ancestry. National Review Online senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted, “Think about it from both perspectives. Almost certainly exploitation played its role. But someone who came on the Mayflower has a radical like Angela Davis as a descendant. America is huge. Talk of divorce is senseless In light of this reality.”

Davis is hardly the "radical" in this scenario. For a Black woman born in 1940s Alabama, she's been remarkably measured throughout her life. She's no more a "radical" than Thomas Jefferson.

"Almost certainly exploitation played its role" is the historical shorthand conservatives use to minimize centuries of brutal rape. Interracial relationships were illegal in the US until 1967, but the non-consensual violation of Black women had long been enshrined in law through the principle of matrilineal descent. Any child born to a Black woman was automatically categorized as Black, regardless of paternity. When a white man fathered a child with an enslaved Black woman, the only inheritance was bondage. However, white enslavers profited significantly from spreading their seed and producing new "crops" to exploit.

Founding father Pierce Butler from South Carolina had introduced the fugitive slave clause to the Constitution, which required that "free" states return anyone who'd escaped enslavement in their borders. This was important to Butler, who held more than 1,000 humans in bondage. His grandso married English abolitionist Fanny Kemble (ain't love grand?) and tried to keep her away from his forced labor camps. She still insisted on visiting Butler Island in Georgia, a hot, humid, hellish breeding ground for malaria-ridden mosquitos, and recoiled at learning how her husband "earned" his fortune.

This passage from the PBS entry on Butler Island is especially potent:

She noticed at their other plantation on St. Simons Island, that there was a larger percentage of mulatto slaves than at Butler Island. Her husband told her the reason was that white men had easier access to the plantation. There was one slave, she remarked, that "was the exact image of Mr. King." Roswell King and his son, Roswell King, Jr., were two whites who had managed the Butler plantations for years. Through the years, slaves had bore them a number of children. Roswell King Jr. had even raped the wife of the plantation's most prominent slave -- a black overseer named Frank. Of Frank, Kemble wrote, "I see that man. . . looking, with a countenance of deep thought. . . over the broad river, which is to him as a prison wall. . . . I marvel what the thoughts of such a man may be."

But Michael Brendan Dougherty believes Angela Davis is the "radical," not the rapist who centuries ago permanently altered her family's bloodline without consent or public acknowledgement.

English-born William Brewster, one of the first US settlers, is Davis's great-grandfather on her father's side. Davis's mother had grown up in a foster home and never knew her biological parents. Gates was unable to learn the name of Davis's Black grandmother, but he was able to identify her grandfather — John Austin Darden, a white Alabama lawyer.

Looking at a photo of Darden, Davis noted, "He has my mother’s lips. It’s so funny, I can see her in him.”

A passing resemblance is all Darden left Davis's mother. That is the true story of America that so many wish to deny.

[Vibe / Upworthy]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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