How can a book this brief be so important in the history of Arkansas literature? A measure of the significance of “Kaleidoscope: Redrawing an American Family Tree” (University of Arkansas Press, 2015) lies in the fact that it was written by Margaret Jones Bolsterli of Fayetteville, whose two previous memoirs, “Born in the Delta” and “During Wind and Rain,” have taken their place as exquisitely told accounts of an Arkansas woman’s struggle to come to terms with her family’s relentless efforts to tame the land and to maintain the fictions they found necessary to do so.
In particular, “Born in the Delta” is the classic tale of the Southerner, who, while growing up in Arkansas, finds herself increasingly at odds with the culture. In it she writes, “Our house was full of stories and things, but I yearned for conversation and ideas. … What passes for conversation in the South is frequently evasion disguised with charm, and children are socialized to practice it as surely as little girls are subtly taught to manipulate men.”
What is it that Southerners were evading? Reality, for one thing. It all came crashing down when Bolsterli received an email in 2005 from a cousin on her mother’s side who wrote that he had evidence that Bolsterli’s “maternal ancestors were mulattoes, free people of color residing in Mississippi before the Civil War.” She writes, “Of course, I didn’t believe him,” but knew she had to investigate. The result of her labor is “Kaleidoscope,” a metaphor she employs to great effect. As she states, “It would be hard to imagine a family whiter than we were: staunch white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in a straight line all the way back to Adam and Eve, who, of course had been created in his own image by God.”
Despite humanity’s inclination to conceal inconvenient truths, she notes that science and technology keep pulling aside our fig leafs. Today, DNA and the Internet demystify our ancestors in the twinkling of an eye. The result, as Bolsterli writes, is that “[W]e have all been ‘outed’ where race is concerned.” In her family’s case, the truth, she finds, is incontestable, and this discovery makes all the difference in the world. Indeed, Bolsterli comes to understand during trips to Natchez to view the splendid architecture of the Old South that she is no longer a detached observer. “For the first time, I found myself wondering what the slaves must have thought about this splendor; when I tried to imagine what African Americans think about it now, I almost thought we. I had lost my ‘white eyes.’ “
If it took a heroic effort on the part of her “white” family to subdue the wilderness in Arkansas, and it did, she doubly appreciates what it cost Jordan Chavis, her African-American great-great grandfather, to make the journey he did.
“We never doubted the courage and perseverance it took to go to the frontier and thrive as my father’s white forebears had. … But the qualities of their characters pale beside the courage and perseverance it must have taken for free people of color to go to the frontier and thrive and then years later to cross a river to another slave state and secretly pass from one caste to another in a matter of a few days to keep from being sold into slavery.”
In the process of learning about these ancestors, Bolsterli comprehends that Jordan Chavis and various family members are much more than unlikely occupants in the family tapestry. As she says, “Growing up Southern white does not prepare one to imagine a mulatto Scarlett in the ‘Big House’ of your family’s fantasies.” Bolsterli compares the process of understanding “this new information” as “like looking at what I had thought was my family’s history through a kaleidoscope. There is the picture and then a slight turn of the lens reshapes the familiar components into a new pattern, somehow the same but different.”
For any honest Southerner today who makes this journey the exploration is fraught with irony. There is an initial shock when one discovers that Chavis, a free black, owned slaves. Bosterli sees that the real story here is not about us. “It’s about them, the absent ones who were at the dinner table, too, in my mother’s mind and in our history and in our genes; we just didn’t know it when we were listening to those stories about the white side of the family. They were in the stories Mother didn’t tell. There were there in the tapestry of our lives as they were there in the fabric of our national life, about which we weren’t being told the whole truth, either.”
We are in Bosterli’s debt for telling her story. In doing so, she has told a far more universal and honest account of our national identity.
Grif Stockley is the author of 10 books, including “Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present.” “Kaleidoscope” is available in paperback from the University of Arkansas Press, $19.95; bookstores and online.