Story Walk: "human"
Descent: A White Girl Discovers Her Black And Indian Roots by Celeste Schantz
There is a poem, “Jasper Texas 1998”, by Lucille Clifton, which haunts me.
It is a gruesome depiction of a lynching-by-dragging in which the speaker asks; “why and
why and why/should I call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place/the thing
that is dragged or the dragger?/what does my daughter say?
I do not know the answer. I do not know what to say.
I, a very white Irish and German girl, discover through cousins and the Internet that I
have African American and Native American roots.
I am a descendent of Cuff Condol, an Indian slave of Nehantic, Narragansett, and Pequot
Sachem bloodlines who hailed from the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut.
I am the great great granddaughter of the African American Reverend Roswell Jeffrey
who in 1827 hitched a ride to Rochester on a packet boat on the Erie Canal.
He assisted Frederick Douglas in publishing the abolitionist newspaper The North Star by
helping to maintain the printing press in the basement of Zion church.
His daughter-in-law, Hester Jeffrey, was a well-known African American suffragette who
gave a eulogy at Susan B. Anthony’s funeral, who stood up alongside Rush Rhees and
William Channing Gannett, transcending race, transcending gender, creating unity in
To look at me, I am about as white as you can be. I was told I come from a line of
German furniture makers and Irish laborers who lost babies aboard immigrant ships
bound for America. And when they got here, toiled in the quarries and canal ditches of
Medina and its territory. I have danced this jig, heard this story, drunk this pint going on
49 years. Those laborers before me happened to be white. But I cannot identify myself as
I also carry black and Indian in my quilt. I do not feel like a member of a race. I feel
like thread woven together in a pattern known by my name. Born of slaves brought down
to the American shore, joined to the Nehantic and blended in a pattern you can scrutinize
up close or view with your eyes half-closed from a distance.
I read Lucille Clifton’s poem again and others which continue to echo the same haunting
question: “why and why and why/should I call a white man brother?
I still don’t know how to answer her.
But I know why I continue to ask the question.