The Monkey Tells the Truth

They say history is written by the winner. But writing the history is also a way of winning. If you tell the story, you lay claim to it.

From Monkey and Man, by Paul Zelavansky, New York City, 1992

The whole thing of reparational genealogy is to retell family history without leaving out the yuckiest parts, like a background full of profiting from rigged racial power dynamics. The invisible enslaved people who did all the work for free were actual people with names and families. Choosing to not record that was part of the effort to hide them from history and establish them as not worthy of mention. In the mid 1800’s when white settlers wrote their self-congratulatory county books that included biographies of the citizens who paid to be included, it was an assertation of ownership, ownership of history,

Carolynn Ni Lochlainn, who coined the term “reparational genealogy,” says that the documents and records are all there, right where they’ve always been and it is our job now to use them to tell the truth. ( look her up!)

yrmama floundered somewhat aimlessly about in the kiddie pool of genealogy until she found out that there are other people interested in exposing the deets of their enslaving ancestors. Tea and crumpets genealogy, the goal of which is to link oneself to genuine English royalty, and mint juleps genealogy, the aim of which is to marvel at one’s proximity to hoop skirts and pretty, restored plantation houses is fine. (To which you, sensing my tone, might say, “But yrmama, don’t you like mint juleps?” To which I’d growl in reply, “I ain’t never had one.”) But scraping the white-out (ooo, good analogy) off the rest of the story gives my new obsession a purpose and helps make valuable information available to descendants of enslaved people who have a right to family history like everyone else.

yrmama may be beating a dead horse and looking it in the mouth all at the same time, by which I mean writing about this excessively and over and over, but she’s still trying to figure out which side of her bread is buttered so she can lie down on it by which I mean get back to work.

I took a DNA test turns out I am 100% yrmama


In 1989 yrmama lived in St. Louis and someone left a message on her answering machine about doing genealogical research on the Clopton family in that area. As a heedless youth, she didn’t call him back, but she sure would now. In those olden days people had to do things like call all the Cloptons in the St. Louis phone book to find anything out. I did know from working with school field trip groups in my job at the science museum that there was a Clopton school somewhere nearby, which was surprising, and that all the teachers and students were black, also surprising. I thought Clopton meant Iowa and we all know that is likely to mean white. Then I did other things for about thirty years.

It turns out that there are a whole lot of Cloptons who don’t live in Iowa and who are not white. My father was Edwin Clopton, as was his father who went by Bill. From there on back is a long string of Williams, Johns, and Roberts and Davids. Most of them were named William and I’m not even kidding. Maybe that’s why Grandpa was Bill. Going backwards there are five generations in Iowa, a couple in Hart County, Kentucky, then Virginia. Virginia tobacco plantations all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600’s.

I’m now obsessively compiling information about my enslaving Clopton forebears and the folks they enslaved. Thank you, internet. I’m not sure exactly why, but I want to know which ancestor in my direct paternal line was the last to own slaves. I believe it had to either be John Robert Clopton (1760-1830), or his son David Clopton (1794-1865). Both of them were born in tobaccoplatationland, New Kent County, Virginia and moved westward during their lives. John Robert settled in Hart County, Kentucky, a slave state, but with a different flavor, I think. Young David moved on from Kentucky into Missouri, into Iowa about 1850, and then retired and died back across the Mason Dixon line in Missouri. One of David’s sons, Robert Clopton (1823-1865?) even fought for the North in the Civil War and died in combat in southern Illinois. That’s quite an expanse of reality for David although I don’t know what he thought of any of it.

So David. John Robert. Which of you pulled the plug? I want to know why. Why did you give up that evil gravy train? Was it economics? Was it downward mobility? Did the overwhelming westward ho mood inspire you to liquidate and put all your capital in expansionist adventure? Did you suddenly turn into an abolitionist? What the heck were you thinking? Did you have any idea that the next five+ generations of your lineage would pat the too-inquisitive on their tow heads and say, “we don’t talk about that”?