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Benjamin Banneker and Us
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.
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 in the present day.
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.