Reba McEntire, Who Do You Think You Are?

Every family has its black sheep, its scoundrels, and its horse thieves.  Sometimes they provide the most colorful stories that regale us through the generations, but more likely than not they do things that we are deeply ashamed of even if we never knew them.

In my own family, my grandmother’s grandfather Abraham was an awful human being.  His two granddaughters’ husbands referred to him as “Black Bart” because they thought of him as a villain in old Western movie.  Abraham was an abusive lout who drank too much, beat his children, and openly hated his grandchildren.  My great-great-grandmother Bessie was by accounts a sweet and much-loved woman, Abraham’s opposite in every way.  For her reward she was afflicted with multiple sclerosis while she still had a young child to care for.  As her health declined, Abraham found a mistress and had an illegitimate child with her.  I have a picture of Abraham, his mistress, and this child.  (I have not tried to track down this child; it is the one branch I have no interest in.)  About a month after Bessie died, Abraham married his mistress, scandalizing his family who thought he should have had the decency to at least wait until the mourning period ended.  Abraham eventually died alone in a nursing home in Atlantic City.  No one in his family even visited him once.  Ironically though, he is buried next to Bessie and by three of their children.

I bring up the story of Black Bart to illustrate that we all have sinners in our family, although some sins are worse than others.  As lousy a human being as Abraham was, his misdeeds were nothing compared to those who eagerly partook in America’s Original Sin: slavery.  Tonight on Who Do You Think You Are, Reba McEntire had to confront the fact that one of her ancestors was a slave owner and worse, a slave trader.  For perhaps first time, Who Do You Think You Are could not whitewash a celebrity’s ancestor.  To be fair, other celebrities had slave owner ancestors, but those celebrities were African-American; they had no feeling for or connection with their slaver-owner ancestor whom they saw (with good reason) as a rapist.  For Reba McEntire it was different because she could not dodge the connection.  Her 4th great-grandfather George Brasfield (or Brassfield, Brasfeild, or Braisfield depending on which document was used) was an eager participant in the slave trade.  Unlike Spike Lee or Lionel Ritchie (also descendants of slave owners), McEntire could not treat Brasfield as a brutal other.  We live to imagine our ancestors as virtuous people, and it is a hard blow when we learn how truly awful they were.

Because McEntire knew her father’s genealogy, she wanted to learn about the family of her maternal grandmother for whom she was named: Reba Estelle Brassfield Smith.  She also wanted to learn when her first family members came to the United States.

As a prefatory note, it is clear that the show is no longer trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneity.  The very first scene between McEntire and her mother featured the most blatant Ancestry.com plug of the season.  Then McEntire’s mother told her daughter she was going to have to go to Monroe County, Mississippi when they could not find Reba Brassfield Smith’s father in the 1900 Census.  The conceit of the show is that it is like a treasure hunt and the celebrity follows clue after clue, but usually the first journey begins with a little more subtlety.  The meeting between McEntire and her mother line was practically scripted by the show’s producers.

As per her mother’s advice, McEntire did indeed go to Monroe County (the Stars and Bars on Mississippi’s state flag were featured rather prominently).  At a local library she did the bare minimum research that she could have done by searching unsuccessfully for the obituary of her great-grandfather B.W. Brassfield.  Of course, she looked in a bound volume of obituaries that were in alphabetical order.  Then McEntire met a genealogist who gave her a seven generation family tree of the Brassfield/Brasfield family dating back to pre-Revolutionary War North Carolina.  He said it was difficult to track down information on B.W. Brassfield, and no doubt it was, but that scene illustrates the main complaint of genealogists who watch this show.  Genealogy is blood, sweat, and tears, thousands of hours of research over many years, but here the celebrity was handed a comprehensive family tree without having to do anything.  Why bother having her look for an obituary that wasn’t there if the work was already done?  (And worse of all, the show did not say a word about how the work was done.)

The earliest ancestor on McEntire’s family tree was George Brasfield, McEntire’s 4th great-grandfather who came from Wake County, North Carolina.  In Raleigh, McEntire discovered that Brasfield owned a tavern and over 1600 acres of land.  He also owned 10 slaves.  McEntire was clearly appalled by this, and looking for a bright light, she asked if Brasfield treated his slaves kindly.  Here I was afraid that Who Do You Think You Are would do its typical whitewash, but no, there was no way to make this callous man sympathetic.  Not only did he own slaves he traded slaves, included young children and babies.  McEntire looked sick and deeply ashamed.  It’s not her sin, but it is understandable (even if perhaps slightly irrational) that she feels a kind of guilt by association.

Turning her attention toward her other goal, finding out how her Brasfield ancestors came to the United States, McEntire went to Virginia where she discovered George’s grandfather, also named George.  McEntire learned that he bought 300 acres of land in exchange for a lot of tobacco.  More importantly, she discovered that he came to the Americas as nine-year-old indentured servant.  (A quick confession: I knew about indentured servants from history class, and I knew that they were treated no better than slaves although indentured servants had the hope of a better future.  What I did not know is that they started so young.  It is one of those horrifying and inconvenient truths that our history teachers don’t tell us.)  Reba, wondering how his mother could let him go so far, followed George’s path to his origin in Macclesfield, England.  Ironically, at the beginning of the show, McEntire admitted she never felt comfortable in England, unlike Scotland and Ireland where she felt at home.  In Macclesfield, she found out that George’s mother Abigail died in 1696 and his father Thomas put young George into indentured servitude two years later probably because this was the only way for him to have a better life.  Reba, rather movingly, made her peace with Thomas’s actions and ended her journey.

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are mixed the genuine and the staged rather clumsily.  On one hand, McEntire’s emotions were entirely genuine: helpless disgust she felt when she learned about her slave owner ancestor, anger that Thomas Brassfield put his son into indentured servitude, sorrow about the death of Abigail Brassfield, and finally forgiveness and understanding for why Thomas did what he did.

On the other hand, this episode seemed even more staged than the others.  The truth about Who Do You Think You Are is that the real genealogical work had been done for months if not years before the show is recorded.  The celebrity does no work whatsoever although occasionally you get scenes of some research, like Rosie O’Donnell or Susan Sarandon searching through microfilm.  The celebrities just go to the designated place where they are told about their ancestors.  Despite how unreal this is, usually this artifice is handled well. Not so this time.  Perhaps the best illustration of how the producers showed their hands was when McEntire used a database to find church records in Macclesfield and found the correct records by using a variant spelling of her family name (in this case “Brasfeild”) that had never been used before.  Lo and behold she was absolutely correct!  It’s obvious that McEntire was told what to type.  I don’t mind the artifice, and I am willing to suspend my disbelief.  I do however, mind the clumsiness.  It ruins the illusion.

Next week’s show is Jerome Bettis, whom I had never heard of before, but that is my issue not his.  Until then, happy trails to you, dear reader.

10 responses to “Reba McEntire, Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Your review was very interesting as I haven’t yet seen the show – I live in U.K. I was particularly interested in your comments about George Brasfield as I provided much/all of the research for his family and the vessel ‘Ye Loyalty’ that he went to America on. Whilst it is possible that he was sent there by his father for the reasons stated there are other possible explanations, which I have been working on. I dont know if it was mentioned but I have the line verified back to George’s gt grandfather.
    Whilst there are still some Brasfield/Brassfields in the U.K. it is my married name. My late husband was from Colorado. I am a member of the Guild Of One-Name Studies and responsible for research on Brasfield/Brassfield and variant spellings.
    Carol

    • I too have Brassfield/Brasfiled lineage. With some roots in Missouri. I believe it goes thru North Carolina as well, ultimately from England as “Brasfield”. I immediately took notice when Reba’s family tree print out was shown.

      My Gr-Grandmother Leona (nee Johnston) Steffen was born in Missouri, then family moved to Moscow, Idaho. Leona’s father (John Charles Fremont Steffen) was married to a Brassfield.

      I wonder if there is indeed a connection to Reba’s Brassfiled/Brasfield line.

      Thank you,
      David

      • Hi David
        Yes I have details of your tree. It was John Charles Fremont Steffen’s mother who was Rebecca Jane Brassfield married to Taylor Washington Henkleson Johnson.
        Her father was Thomas Lay Brassfield 1832-1920 Missouri. His parents were William Trammel Brassfield and Nancy Jane Lay.
        I can send details but it would be quicker to look at Mike Brasfield’s website where he has over the years been adding info sent by Brasfield/Brassfields.
        www. brasfield.net
        Reba M’s details though don’t appear to be on there but you can probably find her ancestors if you have the information from the programme.
        I’ll be happy to continue discussing your tree via email if you let me have your address. Regards Carol

  2. Thank you for commenting; I feel humbled that someone who provided the research for the name and the ship would comment on my blog.

    I hope that you are eventually able to see the show. I will say that the line was not traced beyond George Brasfield’s father Thomas in the show although I did notice from a screenshot that Thomas’s baptismal record was on file. My guess is they gave that information to Reba McEntire but left it out of the show due to time and storytelling constraints.

    As for the reasons why George became an indentured servant, the show was pretty clear that the reason that i described was THE reason. I have mentioned this in other reviews of this show that I have written, that the American version is less concerned with things like facts and history and more concerned with the storytelling (perhaps you can correct me, but my sense was from watching episodes of the UK version that the facts and the history were far more important). McEntire wanted to find out why, and that was the answer they came up with–other possibilities be damned.

    • I have been told my member from Gaines family that she has now seen an on-line version of last Friday’s tv airing and it is much longer with additional details.

  3. I have no connection to the Brassfield line but I LOVE this show. Yes, I definitely see it’s problems with not showing the work and how everything is set up for the celebrity to walk in and find and film. However, I love ancestry research so much that I enjoy watching other people find their own history. I enjoyed reading your entry and will come back to read more!

  4. The George from the ship (the earliest) had 2 sons…george and Michael…I am a direct descendant of Michael…Reba is a direct descendant of George …..the Brasfield partof my family interests me because somewhere along the way on my branch there is some cherokee ….trying to get it all figured out….takes a lot of time and effort when you dont have a crew doing your work for you…lol

  5. Pingback: Rita Wilson, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

  6. I am also from the Brasfield line. John Calvin Brasfield is the common ancestor between myself and Reba McEntire. John Calvin is my 2nd great grandfather and Reba’s 3rd great grandfather. Therefore, we are third cousins once removed. I too was contacted by the researchers of the show to discuss my work photographing and transcribing some of the cemeteries in Monroe County where our ancestors are buried. My father was Casper Lafayette Brasfield the son of Joseph Arthur Brasfield who was the son of Calvin Lafayette Brasfield who was the son of John Calvin Brasfield. I was born and raised in Monroe County and for many years have researched my father’s family tree.

    I agree with the others regarding the lack of disclosure on how the “information” was obtained and compiled. I know so well the “dead ends” you can encounter after many hours of work, but that is part of the appeal for me.

    I enjoyed the show very much because it was my own actual family line from John Calvin Brasfield going back. It also confirmed much of my own research.

    Thanks for the interesting comments.
    Pat Brasfield Simmons

  7. Reba Mcentire came across as sickeningly fake. Trying to make crocodile tears when she found out one of her rich white ancestors was a slave trader who owned at least 10 slaves and sold and traded many more. It was very freaky watching her trying to look sad while her plastic surgery stretched nightmare face kept that bizarre smile no matter what expression she was trying to make. Never been a Reba fan, but even less of one now. This show is nothing more than self serving free publicity for people with lagging careers.

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