The glossy oak floors of the Muscarelle Museum of Art reflected the spellbound audience as they intently listened to Thulani Davis read excerpts from her new book “My Confederate Kinfolk” Wednesday.
Thulani Davis’s reading was the third event in this year’s Patrick Hayes Writers Series at the College of William and Mary. Davis is a renowned journalist, poet, screenwriter, playwright and musician. She recently focused her energy on writing
“My Confederate Kinfolk” — a memoir exploring her family’s black and white roots in the South during and after the Civil War.
Hermine Pinson, associate professor of English, briefly introduced Davis and acknowledged the ongoing Patrick Hayes Writing Series that will continue throughout the year.
“You could say Miss Davis is from a tribe of storytellers,” Pinson said.
Davis approached the podium clutching two books. She put on her glasses and smiled at the crowd.
“I grew up in 1959, before many of us knew our own history,” Davis said. “My mother died when I was six. No one in the family even got her story straight. To learn about your ancestors requires the ability to stare at a brick wall and say, ‘I’m going through you.’”
Davis explained that she hadn’t always been interested in her family history, nor had she been very close with her grandmother, from whom she inherited three ancient family photo albums.
“It wasn’t until about 30 years after I got the photo albums that I began to wonder about the people in them and what became of them,” Davis said.
Davis described her black and white ancestors and the difficulty she faced in finding out information about them. It was hard to find information on her black relatives, but it was harder to find the connection between her great-grandmother and former slave, Chloe Curry, and her former-slave owner, Will Campbell, who impregnated her. Sometimes what she found haunted her.
“I discovered one of my ancestors ordered the massacre of 300 black soldiers. I discovered this Great Uncle Campbell of mine had allowed a man to be lynched and to hang from the pecan tree until he rotted — the man who was lynched was a state representative, a schoolteacher, a father,” Davis said. “I was sick after reading about the lynching, but I was grateful to a fellow writer, Morgan, for writing it all down.”
Although some of her discoveries tormented her, the dig into her past was incredibly important to Davis — especially the parts she wrote about Chloe Curry.
“This, I believe, is the story her daughter [my grandmother] wanted told, and I am honored to have survived to do that for her. What is inside me now is as vast as the eye can see, standing up in a Delta cotton field after every plant has been picked. I walk with fluffy white lint under every step,” Davis read from “My Confederate Kinfolk.”
Davis then read a few excerpts from her book “1959.” She focused on the section about a sick African woman abandoned and left to die on the shores of Hampton, Va. at Fort Monroe.
“Those who took [Fort Monroe] down would never know this spit of land was where the first ship bringing slaves to America stopped and dropped anchor long enough to put ashore an ailing African woman, presumably to die. It’s a meaningless bit of history, but I claim her with my laugh, knowing she probably lived, knowing she was mad as hell. … They called her Angela. I call her Gambia. I’ve claimed her as kin, first of my line. I’ve watched the storms build off her shore. I’ve walked her beach,” Davis read from “1959.” “I claim her survivor energy that I was raised with.”
Davis has worked tirelessly to turn Fort Monroe into a National Monument to preserve the area that she believes is home to the beginning and the end of slavery. That is her current project, stemming from the research she did for “My Confederate Kinfolk.”
“My work has informed me, and it has been an amazing journey,” Davis said.