Identity as a Hall of Mirrors: Descent by Lauren Russell

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A while back, my husband and I took DNA ancestry tests. When the results come in, they give you a map with circles colored in to indicate where your ancestors came from. My husband’s blue-green circles swallowed almost the entire world. Mine, on the other hand, was a dot above England and Ireland with a small opaque dip down into Germany. One tiny point in the entirety of the world. It reminded me of a Conan O’Brien segment where he did his own test and it came back one hundred percent Irish. I’m not sure if it was a bit but the technician told him it was a certainty that his family was inbred. Joking aside, it struck me then that how we see ourselves and how we understand the past can be, for some people, as simple as looking into a mirror and, for others, as complicated as walking through a hall of mirrors.

As a biracial woman, Lauren Russell examines her history in Descent through many mirrors, from both personal and cultural memories, and through prose, verse, and historical documents, to better understand herself. The title itself suggests a delving, a digging into, and we join Russell as she explores her family’s past like a new land, like something that has long been buried.

In my high school U.S.
History class, when we
got to the part on the
inhumanity of slave
holders, I said,
“Actually, I am
descended from slave
holders.” For some
reason nobody stated
the obvious: that I am
also descended from

This book begins with the sentence: “What happened between or out of or in the holes of the story is the real story.” Later, Russell posits: “History belongs to the victor? Perhaps to the one with the loudest pen.” She acknowledges that she’s piecing together the stories of her ancestors, that she is writing in between the spaces of her family’s history. This book is a marriage of the real world and the imagination, the nexus of nonfiction and fiction. Russell writes, “None may be true but all could have been—climbing a web of omission, legacy, myth.” Through this intertwining of fact and invention, Russell gives a more rounded picture of her family than recorded history alone can provide, and in particular that of her Black great-great-grandmother.

The form of this book reifies Russell’s braid of fact and fiction, taking the reader from cold encyclopedia-like entries from archival newspapers and books to the warmer, more enigmatic sections expressing the human reactions to these discovered facts, and then back again. Descent is filled with a treasure trove of sources: her great-great-grandfather’s diary, photos, and sales records for his slaves; found poems, erasure, and abstract verse that reads like someone’s internal monologue, jumping thoughts freely associating. The way Russell curates these pieces, how she winds them together, perfectly exemplifies the way the past haunts the present. At one point, she quotes from a Smithsonian article that questions the existence of time: “You could watch [a] movie… But you could also sneak into the projection room, assemble the reels of film, and look at them all at once. The anti-time perspective says that the best way to think about the universe is… as a collection of the frames.”

Later, the reader sees Russell look up the word phantasmagorical, which is defined as “a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage.” Indeed, this assemblage is fantastic. As a university research librarian, I understand how much time and effort and magic is needed to do archival research. Quite frankly, some of the original documents she found about her family are nothing short of miraculous. Though it is a quick read, the book packs in hundreds of years and dozens of lives and the complexities of Black life in the American South since the Civil War. It is a triumph of art and honesty that only comes from the devotion to and exploration of one’s own wounds.

Two particularly beautiful elements echo throughout the collection; the leitmotif of the whippoorwill and the color blue both ground Russell’s familial characters in some grace amidst brutality. These repeated images are stunning but soft: Russell sees sky blue in her ancestor’s clothing, in their possessions, in their eyes. Peggy “spins blue yarns,” picks bluebonnets, and “rises out of sleep through the dream called Blue.” They work as a reminder to the reader that these lives were not one-dimensional, that they knew beauty even if pain was not far away.

Heard a whippoorwill holler this morning for
the first time this spring. Heard a whippoorwill
holler. All hands choking cotton. Heard a
holler, a whimper. Heard a will whip her. Will
heard a whip. Whip or will. Will heard.
herding hers. Whipping herds. Sowing oats.

The story of Russell’s family tree is rooted in the relationship between her white, slave-owning great-great-grandfather, Robert “Bob” Hubert, and her great-great-grandmother, Peggy, who was born into slavery and was considered one of Bob’s possessions. One of their children was Russell’s great-grandmother, her father’s grandmother. It would have been very easy for Russell to make Bob a villain and Peggy another woman in need of rescuing. But both figures are more complex. Russell takes the time to read Bob’s diaries, records of his service, and newspaper articles, and the reader comes to know Bob both as a slave owner and a son, as a soldier, as a widower in mourning. The author contemplates the role of PTSD after his service in the Civil War. She understands his loneliness after his wife dies at a young age. She writes:

One autumn in New York I was so excruciatingly lonely that I could imagine loneliness driving a person to do something desperate. Loneliness a kind of agony.

Yet Russell does not absolve Bob of his sins. “The path from persecuted to persecutor is as narrow as the slave trader’s whip,” she writes. While she feels “a strange intimacy with this great-great-grandfather,” she also foregrounds the way he used his power and privilege to control the other members of her family. Bob might be a fascinating, complicated character, but Russell never lets the reader forget that this book is really about Peggy.

We see Peggy constantly laboring, in servitude to Bob, as a sexual object, and, as its consequence, a mother. Russell finds a record of meeting minutes from 1883 wherein “the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas protested a miscegenation law that punished interracial marriage but not interracial sex.” The protests yielded little, but they underline the open secret of relationships between white men and Black women. Bob, in his diaries, acknowledges Peggy occasionally, but never the extent of their relationship. He mentions her only briefly: “Peggy got home last night. She has been on a visit to her kin in Houston. Planting oats to day.” He does not see their relationship as akin to the one he had with his deceased white wife. And while Bob is closest to Peggy, he also fathers children with two of her sisters. Russell wonders if their closeness was because “there was no question of paternity, because Peggy, who bore children to no other man, was his and his alone.” Did Peggy’s value to Bob again come down to the question of ownership, of sovereignty, like land?

Russell asks but doesn’t answer. She is determined, though, that the reader see Peggy as a woman, as someone beyond a dependent, sexual object. It’s an act of rebellion to imagine Peggy’s happiness, to find her joy within a life that sanctions so much of her own free will. The reader sees Peggy outside of the paradigm of suffering through Russell’s freeform prose, which lets us glimpse a side of Peggy that was never documented, a side no one thought was important enough to write down.

Once when she was sixteen, Peggy finished cooking the hominy and drew pictures with ashes left on the earth.

These moments stand in stark contrast to the elements of reality, the way Peggy was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave at Bob’s feet, like a dog curled up at the foot of his master’s bed.

This is a book about identity, about family—and a book about Black women and their erasure. How they were and in some ways continue to be erased from the historical record, from positions of power. From control over their own bodies. From what can be considered beautiful or joyful.

Q: So how did the women feel about this?

A: Don’t guess they had no say.

Peggy, more so than the other women family members or even Russell herself, becomes a metonymic figure for Black women in Reconstructionist America. She exists symbolically and in liminal spaces, between unknown and understood, between slave and freed. The only space Russell puts Peggy firmly in is as “[s]omeone. Not some thing.”

What Russell can find of her great-great-grandmother and what she invents to fill the holes in history speak loudly today. In several sections, Russell examines the idea of inherited ancestral trauma—whether it exists and, if it does, what impact it has on Black women today. She places descriptions of her relatives next to imaginings of their lives next to slave holding records for Peggy. She lets the reader try to fathom how mind-boggling it would be to hold that paper and see a familiar name reflected back. A family name. Mirrors facing mirrors. An image reflected infinitely.

How the heft of history is sinking me still—
and I don’t even fight it, don’t even kick.

There are several moments where Russell puts the past in relation to the present. She reflects on her own experiences working in Madison, where she says she “become[s] black” and how, for her, “the right to blackness always felt unearned.”

In Madison, I have become black.
Is this inextricably linked to my hatred of Madison?

Russell embodies the duality seen in Bob (suffering and inflicting) and Peggy (sorrow and joy), Bob as words and Peggy as silence. Russell becomes half privilege and half disenfranchised. The instances of self-hatred, internalized racism, seem to be these elements of her past working themselves out inside of her. The pieces of her identity seem to fall into place, a fantastic assemblage. Throughout the book, she looks at the different ways we divide ourselves, by maps and times and names, and examines how these arbitrary lines we draw carry grave significance. In the end, Russell realizes she is braided, not tangled.

In attempting to understand a life from different angles, Descent presents the reader with uncomfortable juxtapositions. How can we both revile Bob and still relate to him? His sadnesses and his violences, his beliefs and his histories, his trauma and the trauma he inflicted on others, are each two sides of the same coin. Can we ever understand Peggy outside of Bob’s perspective? Can we look at Bob and Peggy and see any love? Can we understand ourselves completely separated from our family or our histories?

Russell ends the book exploring loneliness and the guilt she carries because of her autonomy, the freedoms she has that Peggy never knew. This thread of loneliness and guilt, she realizes, ties her back to her grandparents and their grandparents, and on and on. Loneliness is a bittersweet song, she writes, one that the listener interprets based on gut feeling but also by their position in the world:

…[Loneliness and I] would coexist—not like lovers but like the brokenness that love becomes, which is a troubled kind of peace. At the bottom of my loneliness I see a rope swinging overhead, sometimes dipping into the well. “It is a noose,” warns Peggy. “No, a ladder,” Bob says.

Russell’s book was published this past June by Tarpaulin Sky Press, during a year of unprecedented tumult and uncertainty. In many ways it seems serendipitous, the best time to reflect on this important book and exorcise the ghosts of our families, legacies, and histories. They are all of our ghosts. In the quiet sublimity with which Russell imbues the work, Descent ends with Russell being held by Peggy, the phantasm of a woman she never knew and whose life Russell can only know through other’s perspectives, the way Bob and other men write or remember her. But Russell doesn’t have to know this ghost in order to understand her—her history, her self. They are inextricably linked. But she also seems to realize that histories can only provide affirmations, not answers. It is the living that must choose how we write our own stories. The past simply forms a foundation in which we can sink or from which we can fly.

“I do not know the tune, but I will sing it for you.”

Jesi Buell is the author of The Book of the Last Word (2019, Whisk(e)y Tit). Her writing has appeared in Split Lip, Lunch Ticket, and Entropy, among others. She also runs KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing. More from this author →