While my story is an “open canon” (there will always be more to add to the story the more I discover and process), writer Julia O’Donnell summarized my story in the following article . . .
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On its face, the lecture wasn’t so different from countless other events Dr. Rev. Alexander Gee had attended in his years as a Black pastor, community leader and activist in Madison, WI. But the way the lecturer that night spoke about African-American history struck a chord with Gee, and that night he found himself sitting at his computer typing his family name into the search engine on Ancestry.com.
That simple search marked the beginning of a journey that soon found Dr. Gee sitting across the kitchen table from his White cousin, drinking sweet tea and looking at old family photos of the descendants of a White slave owner who raped Dr. Gee’s enslaved great-great grandmother.
The journey that began that day led Dr. Gee to a series of epiphanies that synthesized lessons from his personal and professional journeys, leaving him with a stronger sense of peace in who he is and what his life’s work means to him. It inspired him to continue working tirelessly towards his goal of helping his community and his country take the necessary steps to achieve true racial healing.
Understanding our American history
Dr. Gee is no stranger to race relations. He’s the leader of Justified Anger, a Madison organization whose stated mission is to “eliminate racial disparities and create opportunities that empower the African-American community to achieve its full potential and prosper.”
The lecture that spurred his interest in searching for information about his ancestry was part of Justified Anger’s multi-session Black history class, taught by professors of African-American history from UW-Madison. Justified Anger organized the class with the goal of helping Black people and White allies establish a common understanding of American history, one that celebrates the resilience African Americans have displayed throughout history and acknowledges the hardships they have faced.
“If you’re going to dismantle a system,” Dr. Gee explained, “You have to understand how it’s built.”
That week’s session was taught by Christy Clark-Pujara, a Black scholar and Associate Professor of History in the Department of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison. Dr. Gee found one thing Clark-Pujara said especially moving.
“She said, ‘Slaves were oppressed, but they were not destroyed,’” he recalled. “Destroyed people don’t catch up with their captors. Destroyed people do not create culture.”
When Dr. Gee was in school, there was no Black history month, but there was a “slavery unit.” He said the reason Clark-Pujara’s statement resonated so deeply with him was because it gave him a sense of pride in his history. It shifted the focus from the dehumanization and oppression his ancestors were subjected to, and instead, shined a light on their adaptability and strength.
“No one enjoys digging up the traumas of slavery, or learning the history of one’s great-great-great grandmother being raped,” he explained. “But at its core, Black history is not just about slavery and trauma, it’s about Black strength and resilience.” The lecture made Dr. Gee want to focus on the other side of story: he wanted to learn his family’s history, so he could understand the grit and strength that helped his family adapt; to get back up again, time after time.
He wanted to learn about the determination and adaptability that Black culture is rooted in, and to appreciate the strength of Black Americans. Dr. Gee said the strength that his family passed on to him has allowed him to overcome countless obstacles and become the successful man he is today, despite generations of systemic oppression.
“My-great-great-grandfather was a slave. He was biracial as a result of a rape, and he was a Black male in the 1850s,” Dr. Gee said. “But what happened within him, that he instilled this strength in his sons and daughters, in spite of their social status? What happened to his grandsons? What was going on? What were Henderson and his children reading, that they would name their sons Socrates Gee, Plato Gee, Aristotle Gee? What happened, that his grandkids were giving money to start school systems in Mississippi? How is it that chains didn’t choke that out? How could you have all that creativity in you and not be killed by the chains, not just suffocate by knowing the possibilities that you could never live out in your life? And that…that made me want to search.”
He didn’t have to search for very long. On Ancestry.com, Dr. Gee immediately stumbled across a message from John Harkins, a 71-year-old White man in New Orleans.
It read: “I just found out my great, great grandfather had a Black son. Does anyone know anything about Henderson Gee?” John had posted the question nearly three years earlier. The two began to exchange emails.
John was the great-great-great-grandson of Ruben Gee, a plantation-holding Welsh slave owner. Venus, a slave, gave birth to Dr. Gee’s great-great-grandfather, Henderson Gee, after Ruben raped her. Ruben also had a son with his wife, and that son was John’s-great-grandfather, Robert Lafayette Gee, or “RL.” Dr. Gee had known it was likely there were some White ancestors in his family’s line, but he never expected that he’d come across the flesh-and-blood evidence of that history.
When the two began addressing their emails “Cousin Alex, Cousin John,” it felt surreal. “Because history is so ugly,” Dr. Gee said. “Black people have grown up knowing that we have some White ancestors, but I didn’t know how Whites would respond,” he said. “It’s something you might talk about, but you don’t usually sit down at the table together and talk like family.”
A Meeting in New Orleans
Sitting down at the table together and talking like family is exactly what the two cousins decided they should do. Before long, they arranged for Dr. Gee to travel to New Orleans to meet John and his family. Dr. Gee brought his sister Lilada, his daughter Lexi, and his special assistant, Tyler. John invited his cousin Joan and his friend Paul. The group met at John’s house in New Orleans.
The picture of the two cousins sitting together at John’s kitchen table is reminiscent of an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s iconic I Have A Dream speech. Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of for slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
The cousins’ meeting that day provided a real-life lesson about what Dr. King’s dream really meant. Dr. Gee was physically sitting at a table with John, his blood relative through slavery. It can be tempting to imagine the picture of the descendants of a slave and his owner sitting together at the kitchen table drinking sweet tea as proof that today’s America is a somehow “post-racial,” that Dr. King’s dream has become reality. After all, today Dr. Gee’s family is socioeconomically equal to John’s. Isn’t that proof that anyone can work hard and achieve the American dream, regardless of race?
At the same time Dr. Gee was in New Orleans visiting John, White supremacists were pouring into Charlottesville, VA to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The rally, “Unite the Right,” was one of the largest openly White supremacist gatherings in the past decade. In addition to waking countless White Americans up to the reality of racism in what they thought was “post-racial” America, the rally resulted in the death of an innocent counter-protester, Heather Hayes, after a 20-year old White supremacist plowed into her with his car.
The continued existence of racial tension and animosity in America, which too often goes unacknowledged in the name of politeness, meant it would take more than physically sitting at the table to truly “sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
While John and Dr. Gee were biologically related, difficult discussions about privilege, race and history would be necessary before the two could truly sit at the table together and feel like brothers. Like all White Americans, John would need to learn about Black history, and truly understand and acknowledge how that history impacted both his life and Dr. Gee’s. Sitting at the table of brotherhood would mean unpacking the trauma of the two men’s shared history-the rape of Venus, the brutal violence involved in slavery and ownership, the systemic oppression that forced Dr. Gee’s father and grandfather to pick cotton for a living even generations after slavery supposedly ended.
Neither man was ready to truly dive into those weighty topics during their first meeting.
Instead, Dr. Gee intentionally kept the meeting lighthearted and friendly. The conversation that day was filled with family stories and jokes meant to help the cousins navigate the palpable tension surrounding the moment. Dr. Gee and John discovered they were both Big Ten graduates, from Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively, and the two shared a laugh about their teams’ infamous sports rivalry.
“We’ll have conversations about race and history, but we’ve gotta draw the line at Big Ten rivalry,” Dr. Gee joked over lunch.
Coming to The Table
In some ways, John is a testament to Dr. Gee’s belief that education is the key to racial progress. The attitudes of John’s family and the other residents of Leake County, MS when John was growing up were openly racist, but John chose to move away from his family after learning about race in school.
“I had a lovely teacher who challenged me to read John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me, and it was this whole awakening for me,” John told Dr. Gee. “I’ve been a yellow dog democrat ever since. It’s very fulfilling for me to meet you, and find out that we’re just all folks and we’ve got a lot in common, much more than I’ve got in common with all my White relatives.”
“Still”, Dr. Gee said, “simply seeing Black Americans as equal isn’t enough. It can’t be.” He believes that for true progress to happen, White Americans need to acknowledge the privilege they have, and to learn about the systematic and institutional disadvantages that Black Americans have been forced to overcome. White Americans who feel uncomfortable with the racism in their families and communities can’t simply put a band-aid on the problem by convincing family members not to be racist out in the open, or by moving to a more liberal area where they don’t feel like they have to confront racism head-on. “Instead,” Dr. Gee said, “White allies need to recognize the history of oppression that Black Americans have faced, and commit to doing their part to help destroy America’s systems of oppression from within.”
Dr. Gee did not need a violent racist rally to understand that racial tension in America is far from being a thing of the past, whether in the South or in a “liberal oasis” like Madison. He said that while racism is more open in the South, the insidious, more subtle racism in liberal areas is just as harmful, because it whittles away at your confidence, sometimes before you even realize what’s going on.
“In the South, you know where you stand,” he said. “People are like, here is the cultural line, now don’t step over it. I think here in the North, it’s like, oh, you can sit anywhere…but then, wait, why’d you sit in my seat?”
The complicity that comes when liberal communities believe they play no part in keeping systems of oppression in America intact makes it more difficult to enact real change, Dr. Gee said. In order to start solving the problem, we all need to understand that the problem exists in the first place.
Part of what makes racial healing so hard, he said, is the difficulty many White Americans have in facing the ugly truths of our history of racism.
While John’s family line inherited land and wealth, Henderson was forced to make his living picking cotton. Dr. Gee’s grandfather and his father both made their living picking cotton, too. If John truly acknowledges the resilience of his Black relatives, he will also be forced to acknowledge the circumstances those relatives were forced to overcome, and the role his descendants played in creating those circumstances. Wrestling with that can be very difficult, Dr. Gee said, but until that common understanding of American history is reached, Black and White Americans will never be able to truly sit at the table together as family.
Today, despite the systemic oppression and socioeconomic disadvantages his family has faced, Dr. Gee is honored to be one of many of the descendants of Henderson Gee to hold a college degree. In fact, between him, his wife Jackie, his daughter Lexi, his mother, sister and cousins, his family holds a grand total of 11 degrees from UW-Madison.
Dr. Gee said he is incredibly proud of his family, and the strength and determination they have displayed. Sitting at the table with John and realizing how much harder his family has had to work to get where they are today made Dr. Gee even prouder to be Henderson’s great-great grandson.
“It’s very affirming,” Dr. Gee said. “It’s taken 120 years, but I feel like I’ve earned the right to be who I am, and sit at the table, and never again feel less than when I’m compared to my White counterparts. I sat at the table with my White relatives, and I didn’t feel like if I could have, I would have chose to be a descendent of Robert. I am so proud of what Henderson’s ancestors have been able to accomplish.”
There is still a lot of hard work and learning to be done before all White Americans reach that understanding, and Dr. Gee plans to continue doing that work through Justified Anger.
“Justified Anger is really about changing unjust systems, and to really empower individuals to do something within their own spheres of influence,” he said. “So we teach Black history, but we always say each week, what are you going to do? What steps will you take to help dismantle this mess?! There are so many things you can do. Learn our history, so that you can help us dismantle this reality together.”
Dr. Gee believes empowering White allies to truly find their seats at the table of brotherhood is some of the most important work he does with Justified Anger. As someone who faces racism daily while living in a liberal oasis like Madison, Dr. Gee knows that simply believing Black Americans are equal and refraining from saying the n-word is not enough to really disrupt oppressive systems. His goal is to help White people understand that their primary way to inflict change is finding ways to use the power and influence they already have, to help deconstruct the oppressive systems they’ve benefitted from. He said racial progress will only happen when race is seen as an issue for all Americans, not just Black Americans. That’s why Justified Anger aims to build stronger allies by teaching people the truth about American history, so they can see the problem, and then by working to encourage those people to find a place in the community where they can do their part.
“If we all really believe we have a seat at the table, it makes it a lot simpler to work for each other, rather than seeing each other as competition,” he said.
The experience of meeting John made Dr. Gee prouder than ever to be part of Henderson’s line of Gees. While he said it’s tempting to consider the possibilities of where he could have been if his family had the same advantages that John’s had, the pride he feels knowing that his line of Gees caught up with John’s, despite so much oppression, is irreplaceable. The grit his Black ancestors have had throughout history inspires him to continue fighting, he said.
“I’m standing on the strength and the resilient shoulders of women and men who believed that throughout all of those harsh realities, we were just as smart, just as strong, just as astute,” he said. “I get to live that out. I get to prove that. That feels so affirming and rewarding and it now motivates my work. This truth of slavery—a truth that used to haunt me— now informs my work. On a daily basis I am living a reality that they only dreamed of; the dream of my grandfather’s grandfather —Henderson Gee, which is hopefully lived out in me.”
This article was written by Julia O’Donnell.