Rambling, first-person account of Newsweek International correspondent Butler’s decade of intermittent interviews with the children of former slaves.
Prompted in part by proposed 1997 legislation calling for Congress to issue a formal government apology for slavery and in part by the discovery that her family was descended from slaves, the author’s sprawling debut attempts to tease out truths about modern racial constructs, debunk stereotypes and reframe the notion of family. Interviews are sandwiched piecemeal between the minutiae of the author’s research process, updates on her father’s deteriorating health and detailed descriptions of her travel arrangements. (She crossed the nation in a fleet of rental cars, maxing out her credit cards.) The problematic nature of Butler’s approach is evident from the opening profile of well-respected Southern California lawyer Crispus Attucks Wright, whose father was a child when slavery ended. Cobbling together interviews, journal entries and newspaper clippings, the author sketches a preliminary outline of the nonagenarian’s family history and his colorful life as a major force in Los Angeles politics, early civil-rights crusader and activist for affirmative action. But his recollections, and those that follow, are swamped by Butler’s compulsion to insert herself into the story. She opines freely on each topic and veers off into unrelated tangents, such as the menu at the posh Belvedere restaurant or the quality of her accommodations. These jarring asides disrupt the narrative flow and distract from her important subject. It could have been an interesting project, fusing memoir and history to show a modern African-American woman grappling with her personal family legacy while attempting to document slavery’s impact on the first generation of freedmen and women. But Butler’s meddlesome narration and patchwork construction present nearly insuperable obstacles to readers hoping for fresh illumination on this dark aspect of American history.
An undeveloped premise and an overbearing narrator obscure a promising idea.