cover image Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family

Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family

Rachel Jamison Webster. Holt, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-82730-2

Poet Webster (Mary Is a River) offers a stunning meditation on race, identity, and achievement. At a family reunion in 2016, Webster, who is white, discovered that she was related to Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), the African American mathematician, almanac publisher, and astronomer who helped to survey Washington, D.C. Setting out to investigate this open secret (in census records, one branch of the family had M next to their names for “mulatto”), Webster details Banneker’s accomplishments, including the publication of his “fervent and eloquent” letter to Thomas Jefferson “accus[ing] the Founding Fathers of committing the most criminal act by perpetuating slavery.” Webster also sketches the lives of Banneker’s grandmother, Molly, an English dairymaid who was sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland; his grandfather, Bana’ka, who was kidnapped in West Africa and enslaved; and his mother, Mary, who appears to have successfully petitioned the Maryland courts to free her eldest daughter from indentured servitude in 1731. While Webster does not shy away from the uglier aspects of this history, including the sexual exploitation of working-class and enslaved women, a sense of optimism pervades, and her expansive imagination and fluid prose bring these historical figures to life. It’s an enthralling and clear-eyed celebration of America’s multiracial past and present. (Mar.)