Benjamin Banneker and Us
by Rachel Jamison Webster
Henry Holt and Co. Press, March 2023
368 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 1250827302 (paper)
Review by Olivia Fishwick
History is being made every day. It is happening at such an incredible and revelatory pace that at times it is overwhelming, even depressing, to try to keep up with. How do we respond when these complicated events intersect with our personal lives? Writer and poet Rachel Jamison Webster goes through just such an experience in her autofictive biography, Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family.
This incredible book, published on March 23, 2023, chronicles Webster’s experiences after discovering that she is a descendant of Benjamin Banneker’s family line. Benjamin Banneker was the first black man to publish an almanac in the United States. Webster’s investigation into her own history quickly flowers into a chronicle of not just Benjamin Banneker’s life, but also the lives of his parents, grandparents, and children. The book alternates between chapters from Webster’s perspective, and chapters from the perspectives of her ancestors. This rhythm provides valuable insights into the nature of racial prejudice and politics in both their time period and ours. After reading Benjamin Banneker and Us, it is impossible not to see the toxic relationship America has with its own history.
This book does an excellent job of outlining the racial politics of Benjamin Banneker’s time, particularly when the United States was gaining its independence. In Webster’s vibrant portrayal of early America, we see enslaved people practicing religion and protesting unfair legislation, working around the law to get married, and using their limited resources to earn land and freedom for themselves or their children. Benjamin Banneker and Us consciously divorces itself from the white-focused perspective of slaves as helpless and powerless. Webster gives us a more honest portrayal: individuals who are politically aware and fighting for their rights.
All of this is supported by carefully researched historical documents, many of which we learn about through the chapters from Webster’s perspective. Webster uses an astonishing amount of letters, court records, newspapers, and other documents, including those from the Banneker family’s collection, in order to discover and portray her ancestors. An invaluable index of citations is included at the end of the book, itself a great resource for related art and literature.
Readers may have concerns about a white woman writing a historical text about a black man. Webster is keenly aware of this, and indeed this subject is one of the primary reasons we continue to visit her perspective throughout the book. As Webster researches Banneker’s life, she also engages with black and mixed race members of her extended family, holding audience to their histories and their relationships with Banneker. In fact, very little of the sections from Webster’s perspective are actually about her: rather, their purpose is to make space for the perspectives of her black family members who are assisting in her research.
These perspectives are not unified, and Webster does not shy away from this fact. Some of her extended family are in full support of the book; others feel that she should not be writing it. One family member is initially in support of the project, but details uncovered by their research cause him to feel otherwise. Throughout these sections, Webster navigates the racial landscape of present-day America, all the while acknowledging and working within the confines of her white perspective. Crucially, it is not always possible for her to make space for her black colleagues—as such, there are points in the book where the solution is simply to walk away, and leave that part of the story untold.
Here Webster, without saying it, does something beautiful. She shows us the importance of these perspectives—black voices who do not want this book written—while also showing us the importance of the book itself, self-evident in the fact of its existence. As a writer, Webster clearly holds herself responsible for the content of her work, and this is to her credit. When she chooses to acknowledge disagreements and outline perspectives other than her own, this decision is nothing short of ethical. Webster cedes power to these black voices while at the same time not compromising on the importance of the history she is trying to tell. It is a powerful balancing act, especially in the context of our modern world.
We are only scratching the surface of this book and its contents. Benjamin Banneker and Us is a necessary exploration of America’s past and the myriad ways in which this history is still impacting our modern world. In fact, as Webster discusses, there has never been a proper biography published about Benjamin Banneker until now. Previous attempts were squandered by circumstance or, as Webster speculates, the difficult racial details surrounding the story itself. In this way, this book is like a promise kept: honoring the stories of not only her ancestors, but also the writers who came to this story before her.
You can find Benjamin Banneker and Us through Amazon and other major retailers.
Olivia Fishwick (they/them) is a freelance writer and MFA graduate living in Johnson City, Tennessee. They used to live in Arizona, but the desert was already weird enough without them getting involved. They are currently working on a book about the Internet called The World Record. They enjoy reading metafiction, playing video games, and basking in the smell of rain in the desert.