In 1791, Thomas Jefferson hired a Black man to help survey Washington, DC. That man was Benjamin Banneker, an African American mathematician, a writer of almanacs, and one of the greatest astronomers of his generation. Banneker then wrote what would become a famous letter to Jefferson, imploring the new president to examine his hypocrisy, as someone who claimed to love liberty yet was an enslaver. More than two centuries later, Rachel Jamison Webster, an ostensibly white woman, learns that this groundbreaking Black forefather is also her distant relative.
It’s an awkward situation, to say the least, and to Webster’s credit, she leans into the awkwardness. Her excellent and thought-provoking book is on every level about unknowing rather than knowing ... The materials Webster has to work with, scant as they are, are potent and disturbing ... There’s another side to [Banneker's] personality, which Webster only hints at: the early life he led as part of a mixed-race, African English family, outside the strictures of Jeffersonian racial supremacy. I wanted her to keep pushing back into that world, into the sources of his creative, resistant spirit.
Sweeping, frequently insightful, often speculative and sometimes extremely moving ... As a reading experience, I ultimately found Molly’s life as imagined by Webster less immersive than most of the others in the book, in part because Molly isn’t always allowed the same human contradictions and subtleties as other characters but at times seems to become a vehicle for Webster’s didactic aims ... I was intensely drawn in and touched by Webster’s portrayals of some of her other kinfolk ... I also was glad to see her grappling with whether and how she, as a White woman, should tell her ancestors’ stories. And I admired Webster’s sleuthing into recently uncovered documents that reveal that Molly repeatedly treated her children as enslaved property she was setting free. Here Webster’s interpretation of the documents is illuminating ... I have immense sympathy with Webster’s attraction to the use of imagination in re-creating her people, and with her view that spiritual as well as empirical storytelling is needed to address the harms Black ancestors like hers endured even before this nation’s founding ... Still, I wished the historical narrative threads were more explicitly delineated.
The conversations between Webster and her cousins are among the more compelling parts of the book, providing a platform for the cousins to share the implications of their ancestry as Black people ... Aside from these moments between cousins, the book at its best when Webster interrogates what it means to be white. She is unflinchingly self-reflective after learning of her Black ancestry ... she explains in the Author's Note, 'I allowed myself to imagine their thoughts and feelings, because I wanted them to live on the page as more than just names and dates.' While this will surely work for some readers, I found it challenging ... In the end, I found Benjamin Banneker and Us more satisfying as a memoir than as a biographical sketch.