Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
The Hairstons is the extraordinary story of the largest family in America, the Hairston clan. With several thousand black and white members, the Hairstons share a complex and compelling history: divided in the time of slavery, they have come to embrace their past as one family.
The black family's story is most exceptional. It is the account of the rise of a remarkable people—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of slaves—who took their rightful place in mainstream America.
In contrast, it has been the fate of the white family—once one of the wealthiest in America—to endure the decline and fall of the Old South, and to become an apparent metaphor for that demise. But the family's fall from grace is only part of the tale. Beneath the surface lay a hidden history—the history of slavery's curse and how that curse plagued slaveholders for generations.
For the past seven years, journalist Wiencek has listened raptly to the tales of hundreds of Hairston relatives, including the aging scions of both the white and black clans. He has crisscrossed the old plantation country in Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi to seek out the descendants of slaves. Visiting family reunions, interviewing family members, and exploring old plantations, Wiencek combs the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from members about their ancestors and piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. He expertly weaves the Hairstons' stories from all sides of historical events like slave emancipation, Reconstruction, school segregation, and lynching.
Paradoxically, Wiencek demonstrates that these families found that the way to come to terms with the past was to embrace it, and this lyrical work, a parable of redemption, may in the end serve as a vital contribution to our nation's attempt to undo the twisted historical legacy of the past.
"One would have to be hard-hearted indeed not to be moved by the big story this book tells....It is scrupulous and honest in all respects, and a powerful testament to what this country, at its best, can be." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"Wiencek steps gracefully through the intricate web that links two family trees....Throughout, Wiencek writes without sentimentality but with great feeling." Publishers Weekly
"Wiencek does not have a dramatic flair for language, making this a very slow read indeed. But those with an interest in the subject will tough out this eerily fascinating account." Kirkus Reviews
"Not since Mary Chestnut's Civil War has nonfiction about the South been as compelling as fiction." Time
"Wiencek's lovingly detailed history...has been called a metaphor for the nation, but a more accurate description would lie in the words of Robert Penn Warren, who said, 'The past is never past.'" The Dallas Morning News
"The Hairstons is an epic....Enthralling...creates a profound understanding of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. [Wiencek] uses documents, sometimes centuries old, to bring these Hairstons vividly to life." Howard Kissel, New York Daily News
"This is a moving and timely story of that which separates and binds black and white America. The Hairstons helps us understand our common past and present." Julian Bond
"[A] voyage of discovery down the stream of history. Wiencek reminds us that no such story, especially one as compelling as this, can be rendered simply in terms of black and white." Library Journal
The Hairstons is the extraordinary saga of the largest family in America, the Hairston clan. One family black and white has a history that is the story of slavery and its legacy in America. Yet this is not a tale of horror, but rather of love and heroism powerful enough to shake the foundation myth of the Old South. 16-page photo insert.
With thousands of black and white members, the Hairstons comprise the largest clan in America; their long, complex history rivals the best fiction. Wiencek tells the story of how these people...once divided by slavery and its legacy...now embrace their troubled past as a single family.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 335-343) and index.
About the Author
was series editor of the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America,
a twelve-volume descriptive guide to the country's historic sites. He is author of Old Houses,
with essays on the histories of eighteen American houses and the families who built them, published in association with the National Trust for Historic Preservation; two books on Southern architecture—Mansions of Virginia Gentry
and Plantations of the Deep South;
and several books for Time-Life
. He has contributed articles to American Heritage
and Smithsonian Magazine
. Born in Boston and educated at Yale, he lives in Virginia with his wife, the writer Donna Lucey, and their son.