A family reunion gives way to an unforgettable genealogical quest as relatives reconnect across lines of color, culture, and time, putting the past into urgent conversation with the present. The library is pleased to present an event with Rachel Jamison Webster, author of Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family (Henry Holt & Co., 2023).
Registration is required for this in-library, limited-seating event. It will not be recorded. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from the Book Stall on site. Rachel Webster will be glad to sign them after the program.
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.
Acting as a storyteller, Webster draws on oral history and conversations with her DNA cousins to imagine the lives of their shared ancestors across eleven generations, among them Banneker’s grandparents, an interracial couple who broke the law to marry when America was still a conglomerate of colonies under British rule. These stories shed light on the legal construction of race and display the brilliance and resistance of early African Americans in the face of increasingly unjust laws, some of which are still in effect.
Praise for Benjamin Banneker and Us: "[Webster's] excellent and thought-provoking book is on every level about unknowing rather than knowing — about pondering the mysteries of Banneker, who is often described as one of the first African American scientists, and the legacy of 11 generations of a multiracial American family that only now is coming into view." —The New York Times
About the author: Rachel Webster is a professor of creative writing at Northwestern University and the author of four books of poetry and cross-genre writing. She has taught writing workshops through the National Urban League, Chicago Public Schools, Gallery 37, and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, working to bring diversity and antiracist awareness into creative writing curricula. Rachel’s essays, poems, and stories have been published in outlets including Poetry, Tin House, and the Yale Review. Benjamin Banneker and Us is her first nonfiction book. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her husband and daughter.