NEA Literature Fellowships

Dionne Ford

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Dionne Ford

Photo by Devany Kurtti

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from Finding Josephine

In a cemetery in the Mississippi bayou, my ancestors are laid to rest, the white one atop a hill, overlooking the black ones that he owned. When my daughter at five decided that she was white like her father, and not at all black like me, I went on an identity quest to unearth the history of my own interracial, slave and master kin buried in that cemetery. I wanted my daughter to embrace all of her roots, but whether it was my family’s ancestry or my own sexual abuse and its impact, I’d never done the same. Perhaps learning about my mixed-race great-grandmother, Josephine, and her slave and master parents could help my daughter and me. I needed Sankofa as the African proverb says—to go back and get my history.

My Sankofa journey led me to Maryland museums and historical societies where portraits of my white ancestors are housed and to the oil-rich Gulf of Mississippi where one black ancestor was lynched and another went from being property to owning it. It uncovered newspaper editorials written by Josephine, eloquently laying out the dangers of being too prideful and her white great-grandfather’s ruminations as he headed off to battle in the Revolutionary War. A 120-year-old photo of my black and white ancestors that I found on the internet bonded me to living history as well including a third cousin once removed and descendants of the family who had enslaved Josephine’s mother.

While searching for my ancestors and exploring a not uncommon but often untold part of American history that made some slaves and their masters family, the way I saw myself  expanded beyond a single narrative of black or white, victim or victor, and made room for a broader path for my daughters.

Dionne Ford is the author of the memoir Finding Josephine, forthcoming from Putnam and co-editor of the anthology Shared Legacies: Narratives of Race and Reconciliation by Descendants of Enslavers and the Enslaved, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, LitHub, More,and other publicationsand won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Newswomens' Club of New York. Grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Hedgebrook have also supported her work. She has an MFA in creative writing from New York University and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.

I’ve wanted to tell the stories of my great, great grandparents since I first heard about them when I was twelve, but there was so much work to do to bring their story to life. I had to get better at writing, read more, live more, and figure out how to research enslaved people, a task that even in this age of DNA tests and digitized records remains challenging. What began as a “private excitement of the mind,” as E.L. Doctorow described the germination of every book, is now closer to a tangible reality. This award is a tremendous validation for me and my work. I’m moving closer to telling my ancestors’ story in a way that I hope will honor their history and contribution to society. What an incredible honor and thrill to receive this show of confidence in my work from the NEA. The funds the fellowship provides will go a long way to support me while I finish researching and revising my manuscript.