Last summer, shortly after Publishers Weekly posted its review of Tess Taylor’s first full-length poetry collection, The Forage House, which focuses on Taylor’s effort to come to terms with the legacy of being a white descendant of founding father Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White, a journalist and educator in Richmond, Virginia, posted the following note in the comments section:
I am an African-American Jefferson. My grandmother was a Taylor (although her mother didn’t exactly marry into the family!), a direct descendant from J.C. Randolph Taylor and [Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter] Martha Jefferson Randolph. Tess Taylor — I wonder if we share great-great grandparents?
When the two women met a short time later, they instantly hit it off, and as far as they were concerned they were cousins, albeit distant ones. But as Taylor explained in a recent New York Times article, this belief rests on 1870s census records and oral histories passed down through White’s family. DNA tests have convinced all but the most hardened skeptics that America’s third president had children with his slave Sally Hemings, but White’s claim involved a liaison between a later Jefferson descendant and his African-American mistress, and given the state of DNA testing as Taylor understood it when she wrote the Times article, there was no way to prove that she and White were related.
The next morning, the 21st century intervened in the form of an email from Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of the popular PBS series African American Lives, saying that, thanks to very recent advances in genomic science, Taylor and White might in fact be able to prove they are related. Would they like to take a DNA test?
“A DNA connection to Jefferson descendants would simply provide more data to support my family’s oral history that we are Thomas Jefferson descendants — the more information, the better,” White says as she and Taylor wait for the results. “DNA evidence would diminish doubts others might have.”
Whatever the tests ultimately reveal, it will be merely the latest wrinkle in a dizzying multimedia ride that has seen Taylor harness digital media and cutting-edge science to quietly nudge a book of poems published by a small press into the national conversation on race and history. “It’s a little weird,” Taylor admits, “because in a way I was ready to have this Jefferson book done and have put it aside, and yet it keeps growing. This book came out of this sad, unresolved weight that the story of the Hemings [family] left in my family. That was a sad feeling for me, really haunted, and right now I feel like I’m in dialogue with people who are so committed to moving forward. It almost feels like a big weight off [my shoulders] to be part of this conversation.”
But how the story has grown, and how Taylor, a journalist as well as a poet, has shaped that growth says as much about how post-millennial media works as it does about the legacy of slavery in the American South. When writers talk about literature in the digital age, they tend to lay out one nightmare scenario after another: books losing value as they migrate onto screens, publishing houses shedding jobs, readers snuggling up with cable shows on their iPads rather than books.
But here is a case in which an energetic, media-savvy poet has used the gigantic megaphone of digital media not only to draw attention to her work, but help fill a gaping hole in the historical record that dates back to the early days of our republic. None of it would have happened in an analog era, not this quickly for a little-known poet in the early stages of her career. All of it, the email from Gates, the DNA tests, the direct communication between distant relatives on the comments page of a web review, to say nothing of the astonishing array of grants and fellowships Taylor racked up as she was writing her book – all of this is rooted in a technological and literary environment that enables a single lyric voice, if it is pitched just right, to carry all the way across a country’s history.
I came to know Tess Taylor much the way Gayle White did: by reading about her online and recognizing a piece of myself. Last June, I saw an earlier article Taylor wrote for The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of what has come to be known in the history of the Civil Rights Movement as Bloody Monday. On June 10, 1963, firefighters in the cotton-mill town of Danville, Va., turned their hoses on demonstrators standing vigil outside the city jail, where dozens of their fellow protesters were being held for marching against segregation. The city had deputized its all-white force of garbage collectors, and after the fire hoses washed the protesters down a blind alley, the garbage men waded into the crowd with nightsticks and sent more than 50 protesters to Danville’s ill-equipped blacks-only hospital.
In her Times article, Taylor examines the small part her grandfather, Leigh Taylor, played in the story when he wrote an angry letter to a local judge who was preparing sentence the black demonstrators, many of whom had been badly beaten on Bloody Monday, to prison terms. Leigh Taylor, to his shock and dismay, was himself hauled into court and charged with the same crime as the black demonstrators. He publicly backed down and was never jailed, but he and his family were shunned by white society in Danville and his career as a mid-level executive at the local mill stalled.
I was stunned to see Taylor’s article. My parents grew up in Danville, and my grandmother, Virginia Bourne, was intimately involved in the events that led up to Bloody Monday, serving as a go-between in meetings between local white politicians and the black ministers leading the demonstrations. These clandestine negotiations failed, but my grandmother’s efforts, courageous in a time when most liberal-minded whites kept their heads down and went along, became part of family lore.
I contacted Taylor, and several days of furious emailing ensued. Like me, Taylor grew up near San Francisco — she in El Cerrito, east of the city; I in Marin County, to the north — and made regular trips to Danville to visit relatives. Our uncles, it turned out, were friends as children. Our fathers spent their careers at the U.C.S.F. Medical School — hers as an administrator, mine as a scientist. After her grandfather’s court case became front-page news across the South, my grandmother was one of the few people in Danville to reach out to Taylor’s grandmother, telephoning her to ask if there was anything she could do to help.
More than anything, though, Taylor and I share a sense of what it means to carry the weight of a complex and ugly history we ourselves experienced second hand. For most white Americans born outside the South, the Civil Rights Movement is the stuff of history books — fascinating, but abstract. For people like Taylor and myself, whose families were profoundly shaped by the civil rights struggle before we were born, that turbulent era is acutely personal, and at the same time distant and exotic.
This is very tricky literary territory, and many white writers — myself included at times — steer clear of it, fearing becoming ensnared in the fraught politics of white writers seeming to claim what has come to be seen as a primarily African-American story. Taylor, on the other hand, appeared to have zoomed straight for it, and succeeded. I wanted to know how she pulled it off.
The answer lies in a mix of shoe-leather reporting, career moxie, and canny use of literary form. Taylor networked relentlessly, earning fellowships that gave her access to historical documents and to professional historians who could interpret them. At the same time, she reached out to other writers, white and black, who were navigating similar literary terrain. Once she found a publisher for her book, the widely respected Red Hen Press in Los Angeles, she returned to her roots as a freelance journalist, reporting stories that landed in The Times and journals like Virginia Quarterly Review and The Oxford American. Once the book was out, she befriended Gayle White, who had her own connections in the media world, and the two women, one white, one black, complete strangers who in all likelihood are both related to one the nation’s most iconic historical figures, have made for a natural feature story that has found its way onto NPR and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, among other places.
The spark for The Forage House was the shock Taylor felt in 1998 when, still an undergraduate, she first learned of the DNA tests that showed links between her own white Jefferson ancestors and Hemings’s black descendants. By the time she began working on the project seven years later, Taylor had a master’s in journalism and envisioned the book about her family as nonfiction. She quickly found that some members of her family, whom she had counted on to serve as sources, wanted no part of her project. One Virginia relative, upon hearing what Taylor wanted to write, “just flipped out,” she recalls. “The idea that I would write about the family, about this legacy, in journalism, was so upsetting to her. I realized I had touched a really, really deep nerve.”
That summer, as luck would have it, Taylor began the first of two fellowships at Monticello, Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, Va. Working side by side with historians, Taylor saw first-hand how history treats white and black Americans in the antebellum South. Even as historians at Monticello were compiling a 17-volume edition of Jefferson’s letters, Taylor met archeologists struggling to piece together a portrait of the lives of the plantation’s enslaved residents from old buttons dug out of the ground and references in ancient police rolls.
Her time at Monticello also helped Taylor find both a working method and thematic focus for her book, which makes use of archival research and the naturally elliptical nature of contemporary poetry to fill the silences, literal and figurative, in the historical record. Putting her journalism training to use, Taylor plowed through archives, assisted in archeological digs, conducted interviews, and tracked down details of hazy family memories. The result is a hybrid literary form, part poetry and part investigative journalism, that Taylor has come to call “lyric journalism.”
Thus, for poems like “Oral History 1963,” about her grandfather’s arrest, she dug up old newspaper stories and interviewed protesters who were beaten on Bloody Monday to tell the full story of Leigh Taylor’s run-in with the local judge, which in her family lore had been leached of its broader racial context. In other poems, she incorporates lines from family wills and ancient newspaper ads for slave auctions, as well as descriptions of fugitive slaves, to round out her reader’s image of the enslaved members of her family’s households who were rarely mentioned by their white owners unless they were being bought, inventoried, or punished.
The poem “Southampton County Will 1745,” for instance, opens with a quotation from a will written by an 18-century relative of Taylor’s that she came across at the American Antiquarian Society, where she had a fellowship in 2006:
I, Etheldred Taylor, of sound mind and body
in the presence of God almighty amen
do deed three things:
Books Negroes Land
“I just remember thinking that’s it: there could be a swap between books and people, that they could each be considered of equal value,” Taylor recalls. But, as happens often in the collection, Taylor turns her focus inward, asking what impact this distant ancestor’s bequest has on her, his modern-day white descendant:
From his dim ghost I inherit
One silver teaspoon. Half a name.
Between trips to Monticello, Taylor earned a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where she met two prominent African-American poets, Natasha Trethewey, now the nation’s poet laureate, and Camille Dungy, who was then working on a collection, Suck on the Marrow, published by Red Hen in 2010, exploring her own family’s struggles in slavery during the 19th century in Virginia. Both poets offered counsel and encouragement as Taylor dug deeper into her past.
For Dungy, whose work in some ways forms a mirror image to Taylor’s, it was by no means a given that she would help Taylor write about her Southern white ancestors. “Actually, most versions of this story that I’ve seen I don’t want to be a part of,” Dungy says. “That history and these stories have been so mutilated in appropriation over time in the way they are told and by whom. I think the tendency [for African-American writers] to say ‘Hands off, this is our story’ is earned and valid without question.”
But fraught as this material can be for white writers, Dungy says, if only African-American writers take it on, some readers will simply ignore it. “There’s a way in which my story, as important as my story is and as many people as are going to read it, is just not going to reach the same kind of audience,” she says. “There is a whole swath of readers who [say], ‘That’s a black story, I don’t need to read that.’ So they don’t pick it up. When Tess does it, they do.”
If anything, Taylor is even more adamant about the need for white writers to examine their own history. “There’s this intense fear that if white people talk about race, they’re going to get it wrong, and therefore there’s a kind of a default position where white people don’t want to talk about race or racism or racial knowledge,” she says. “The side effect of not wanting to get it wrong is sometimes just silencing the stories of things that we know and not allowing ourselves to talk at all. I think that silence itself is part of the problem.”
Just as Dungy predicted, when Taylor gently, but insistently broke through that silence, readers listened. Since The Forage House came out in August, Taylor has been a blur of activity, appearing on NPR’s “The Takeaway” with Gayle White, speaking at churches, and barnstorming both coasts on book tours. In the fall, after years of adjunct teaching and freelance writing gigs, she begins a year as a visiting professor at Whittier College outside Los Angeles. If publishing a book of poetry were an Olympic event, the judges would have to agree that Tess Taylor has stuck the landing.
It helps, of course, that the poems are good. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Taylor makes for an attractive messenger, bubbly and approachable, her fierce ambition blunted by an infectious laugh and a well-developed sense of tact. But beyond all that, by employing the tools of the journalist and the historian and by embracing rather than recoiling from the modern media noise machine, Taylor has taken a very old story and made it new again. In the process, she is helping shape a 21st-century poetry that spills out beyond the pages of the printed book into the wider cultural bloodstream.