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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The House at the End of the Road by W. Ralph Eubanks~★★★★

Author: W. Ralph Eubanks
Title: The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South
Release Date:
May 19th, 2009
Publisher:
Smithsonian
Genre:
Non-Fiction

Book Jacket: "In 1914, in defiance of his middle-class landowning family, a young white man named James Morgan Richardson married a light-skinned black woman named Edna Howell. Over more than twenty years of marriage, they formed a strong family and built a house at the end of a winding sandy road in South Alabama, a place where their safety from the hostile world around them was assured, and where they developed a unique racial and cultural identity. Jim and Edna Richardson were Ralph Eubank's grandparents.
Part personal journey, part cultural biography, The House at the End of the Road examines a little-known piece of this country's past: interracial families that survived and prevailed despite Jim Crow laws, including those prohibiting mixed-race marriage. As he did in his acclaimed 2003 memoir, Ever Is a Long Time, Eubanks uses interviews, oral history, and archival research to tell a story about race in American life that few readers have experienced. Using the Richardson family as a microcosm of American views on race and identity, The House at the End of the Road examines why ideas about racial identity rooted in the eighteenth century persist today. In lyrical, evocative prose, this extraordinary book pierces the heart of issues of race and racial identity, leaving us ultimately hopeful about the world as our children might see it."

Taryn's Review:
As someone who recently became fascinated with her own family history, Ralph Eubanks's book really swept me up. People often just want the names of those in their family tree without ever wondering who that person really was.

Eubanks, who considers himself black, had a unique situation; his maternal grandfather was born white to an elite family, while his maternal grandmother was black (or interracial). Although the children were born of the union appeared white and even had "white" written on their birth certificates, Eubanks's grandparents chose to raise their family as black in the predominately black town of Prestwick, Alabama. In fact, Eubanks's own mother did not realize her father was white until her own mother died suddenly and someone mentioned it to her.

Eubanks asked great questions on his quest to really get to know his grandparents, Jim and Edna, while trying to understand how and why his grandparents chose that path for their lives. He pieced together what information he could, sometimes finding new ideas, yet other times getting shut down (especially in personal interviews). Eubanks's writing style also reminded me of a professor lecturing on his or her favorite subject; I could feel the passion that had gone into understanding and sharing the topic.

There was one question that plagued me while I was reading. Eubanks's grandfather, Jim, was raised in the neighboring city that was predominately white, but he moved to Prestwick when he married Edna. Eubanks noted that while Jim was friendly to those in Prestwick, he could have a bad temper to the point where people were afraid of him. Jim also kept his association with high-ranking white men in the area to retain safety during his bootlegging campaign. Jim interacted with the blacks in his community and treated them as friends. Eubanks never raised the question  that I thought about often: what if the community (or some within the community) didn't want Eubanks there? What recourse could black citizens in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s have had if they wanted him out? They couldn't chase him out, as whites would have done to blacks, because of the color situation. I know many whites were opposed to the marriage, but I'm inclined to think that some of Edna's family and friends had to be equally appalled at her marrying a white man. Again, this is speculation on my part, but it's not an angle that Eubanks discussed in the book.

Overall, this was a great read combining the idea of race and identity in a way that most people can understand, even if they can't relate to it. Eubanks's use of his own family helped his passion show throughout the book. I would have loved if Eubanks included more pictures, especially since he eluded to the fact that he looked like his white grandfather; photos would have helped that visual, but even without pictures, it's a wonderful book.

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