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Davis talks importance of untangling US racial history

Darnella Davis presents book about history surrounding her multiracial family

Artist, writer and scholar Darnella Davis grew up in a family of Indigenous, Black and white descent. “My family included everybody,” she told the audience of a Tuesday evening lecture called “Why Untangling Our Red, White and Black Heritage Matters,” hosted by the University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “I thought that was the norm,” she added.

In her lecture, Davis — who is of Cherokee Freedman descent on her father’s side and Muscogee Creek heritage on her mother’s — explained why she wrote her book, “Untangling a Red, White and Black Heritage,”  and why examining the complexities of the United States’ racial past is important.

Davis’ book tells the history of her family, which includes “tribal leaders, prospectors, midwives, former slaves and slaveholders, ranchers, rodeo riders and attorneys,” she said at the lecture. According to the Washington Post, the book “is part family genealogy, part academic text and a completely sobering look at how former Black slaves of Native American tribes, and mixed-race descendants, have been treated.”

The realization that her family’s story “is a really important story that nobody else is telling,” prompted Davis to write the book.

Davis sees her work as fitting within a broader effort to untangle the United States’ complicated racial history and correct “notions about our multiracial past,” she said. She cited the work of scholars who “resist the constraining language and racial silence that oversimplify our tangled past.” Davis added that this “work grapples with our discomfort in finding appropriate nomenclature for speaking about who we are, and who can speak for or about us.”

Beyond academia, Davis also sees the New York Times’ “1619 Project” as contributing to this effort, because “it shakes up the existing narratives about the advent of slavery in this country.”

“As we strive to be honest, offering clearer historical accounts … that confront traumatic events and incite knowledge, we’ll be advancing knowledge — and that’s why untangling who we are matters,” she said.

Chaelin Jung ’23 attended the lecture because her ETHN 1200C: “Introduction to Asian American Studies” professor recommended it. She was drawn to “the idea of what history gets erased and what history gets remembered.”

Jung added she was “a little worried” the event would get canceled because of growing fears of COVID-19 spread on campus. Tuesday’s lecture was sparsely attended, with only a handful of students and community members gathering in Friedman Hall.

For Heather Sanford PhD ’20, an Interdisciplinary Opportunity fellow for the CSSJ who invited Davis to campus, Davis’ lecture fit the practice of “inviting scholars that fit within the larger public humanities” approach of the CSSJ.


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