How one family illustrates the legacy of slavery

History is more complicated than the accumulation of dates, events, and people. The serpentine links between the past and present, the notion of historical accuracy, and the truth that contradictions are as much continuity within people as are the moments of transcendence of one's time all demand an accounting and a narrative. We need stories that have closure, logics, and lessons. The phrase "on their historical terms" is often employed to justify a person's actions that might go against their public persona or publicly held political beliefs.

This is the spirit in which Kerri K. Greenidge wrote The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family.

"Sarah and Angelina Grimke—the Grimke sisters—are revered figures in American history, famous for rejecting their privileged lives on a plantation in South Carolina to become firebrand activists in the North. Their antislavery pamphlets, among the most influential of the antebellum era, are still read today. Yet retellings of their epic story have long obscured their Black relatives.

That the Grimke sisters had Black relatives in the first place was a consequence of slavery's most horrific reality. Sarah and Angelina's older brother, Henry, was notoriously violent and sadistic, and one of the women he owned, Nancy Weston, bore him three sons: Archibald, Francis, and John.

A landmark biography of the most important multiracial American family of the nineteenth century, The Grimke's suggests that just as the Hemingses and Jeffersons personified the racial myths of the founding generation, the Grimkes embodied the legacy—both traumatic and generative—of those myths, which reverberate to this day."

In the New York Times review, "Slavery's Indelible Stain on a White Abolitionist Legend," Michael P. Jeffries highlights how trauma can time-travel, asking significant historical questions as a process of reckoning with the violence and consequences of an entire nation, not just the South, benefitting economically, socially, and politically from a kidnapped and bred captive labor force.

"While all these facets are compelling, the book's most affecting contribution is Greenidge's treatment of intergenerational racial trauma. What exactly does "the legacy of slavery" mean? Two indisputable features of this legacy are enforced poverty and subjection to state violence, which have clear effects on Black people's wealth, health and happiness. But there is also a more amorphous sense of the psychological trauma of slavery and racism that is not so easily described. Society has changed and more recent generations of Black Americans have not faced the brutality and dehumanization of bondage. So how does the trauma of that era ripple across time and space?"

Jeffries concludes,

"She takes the Grimke sisters off their pedestal so that we understand them as pieces of a tapestry that could only be sewn in America. Pain, guilt and yearning lie at the seams, holding the family together and tearing it apart."