- Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga by Jane C. Beck
There is, perhaps, no one better to have written this book than Jane C. Beck, as she is a longtime Vermont resident, founder and now Director Emerita of the Vermont Folklife Center, and a folklore scholar. Her primary research focus—and the woman for whom the book is titled—is [End Page 237] Daisy Turner, herself a woman with deep and broad roots in Vermont.
Among other topics, this book explores what and how events and history are remembered. Beck notes that “personal reminiscences seldom endure beyond three generations or about 120 years” (p. 2). Highly unusual for keepers of oral tradition, “Daisy’s longevity extended this time span—from her grandfather’s birth around 1810 to her death in 1988—a remarkable 178 years” (p. 2). In large part, what enabled this was 40 years of hearing her father’s stories and her own abilities as a master raconteur. Beck also knew the problems associated with memory and the fact that it is constructed. Beck spent 3 years recording Daisy Turner’s stories and more than 20 subsequent years doing the incredibly detailed research that supports the information gleaned from those interviews. This included interviews with other members of the Turner family and research trips in Vermont and to Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and North Carolina, as well as to England, Nigeria, and Ghana. A DNA test was also done to confirm the Turner family’s Yoruba heritage.
Each chapter in the book focuses on key family members, with two chapters devoted to Daisy herself. Chapter 1, “Meeting Daisy,” explores why Beck wanted to meet Daisy, how their collaboration came about, and how it evolved from the time of their first meeting in 1983, when Daisy was 100, to Daisy’s death in 1988. In this chapter, Beck adds to information first presented in the introduction on oral history and family stories.
“African Roots,” chapter 2, explores the beginnings of the Turner family saga in West Africa in the early 1800s, where Daisy’s great-grandmother, daughter of an English merchant, was shipwrecked and saved by the son of a Yoruba chief. There were no written records, and the family story, though consistent in parts, was incomplete. Beck had to piece together what was likely to be true of the experiences of the English woman with the Yoruba people and culture and of her son, born circa 1810, named Alessi. Because of his family history, high-born Yoruba status, and knowledge of English, Alessi became involved in trade—including the selling of humans, most likely Yoruba rivals in the 1820s civil war. By 1829, Alessi himself was captured, enslaved, and, after enduring the terrible conditions on board the Spanish ship, brought to New Orleans instead of ending up in Cuba or Puerto Rico.
Although there is evidence that lends veracity to Daisy’s narrative in many instances, the lack of written records (e.g., a bill of sale) makes it unclear exactly how Alessi eventually ended up in Port Royal, Virginia, on the Jack Gouldin plantation. Nonetheless, he and his family remained the property of the Gouldins into the 1860s. Because of Alessi’s background, he did not see himself as being in the same class as the rest of the enslaved people on the plantation—and thus refused to work. Through his athletic ability, he became a prize-winning, money-earning fighter for the Gouldins. This family had been in Virginia since the 1650s, and Jack Gouldin had subsequently built up the family’s holdings of wealth, property, and enslaved persons. Turner family stories of him paint him as someone who “kept high tone slavery. . . . He was nice with his slaves, and they all got along” (p. 47). (This review is in keeping with Beck’s style, whereby Daisy Turner’s words are italicized and Beck’s narrative is...