A well-traveled doctor from south Chicago traces his family’s roots from slavery to the present day in this personal debut memoir.
Sometime prior to 1810, an African woman named Nidra arrived on the shores of America, suddenly a slave in a burgeoning nation. From this blurry, nondescript origin, her story, and subsequently author Bethel’s story, begins. Using family information gathered by his Uncle Wilbert, the author delves into his heritage in a quest to better understand where he came from and who he is. Although Nidra’s hazy past evokes grief, the author also finds great courage and pride in the strength of his ancestors as he uncovers their prominent roles in the construction of the city of Covington, Tennessee. Once the narrative shifts from his family history to a more personal arc, however, it feels as though a building has been deserted halfway through assembly. The Bethel family’s lineage initially seems to serve as a vehicle for a greater, more pressing discussion about race and race relations in the United States. Instead, this idea is mostly forsaken in order to focus on the author’s missed job opportunities, naval travels, training for marathons, and other day-to-day minutiae. The story becomes so insulated that the rare attempt at social commentary often feels forced. This is most apparent when Bethel tells of preparing for a paid excursion to his sixth continent, Antarctica, and compares the voyage to a monumental civil rights moment: “Antarctica would be my Selma, although the only beating I took was to my bank account.” Although it’s well-intentioned, it comes off as a non sequitur after what’s preceded it, and it’s abandoned as quickly as it arrives.
A strong, inquisitive work at the outset that fumbles an opportunity to add its voice to a larger conversation.