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.