Drawing on her lifelong journey to know her family's history, leading Christian activist Lisa Sharon Harper recovers the beauty of her heritage, exposes the brokenness that race has wrought in America, and casts a vision for collective repair.
Harper has spent three decades researching ten generations of her family history through DNA research, oral histories, interviews, and genealogy. Fortune, the name of Harper's first nonindigenous ancestor born on American soil, bore the brunt of the nation's first race, gender, and citizenship laws. As Harper traces her family's story through succeeding generations, she shows how American ideas, customs, and laws robbed her ancestors--and the ancestors of so many others--of their humanity and flourishing.
Fortune helps readers understand how America was built upon systems and structures that blessed some and cursed others, allowing Americans of European descent to benefit from the colonization, genocide, enslavement, rape, and exploitation of people of color. As Harper lights a path through national and religious history, she clarifies exactly how and when the world broke and shows the way to redemption for us all. The book culminates with a powerful and compelling vision of truth telling, reparation, and forgiveness that leads to Beloved Community. It includes a foreword by Otis Moss III, illustrations, and a glossy eight-page black-and-white insert featuring photos of Harper's family.
There have been a lot of books about the history of race in the United States. There are several good books that push back against the established whitewashed narrative of history that downplays the atrocities of slavery, segregation, and racism. To those listening and looking, the unvarnished truth is beginning to shine through. We’ve read about these things on a grand scale. We know of the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial inequality. Fortune tells us a personal, intimate, important piece of that larger story.
Based on decades of personal genealogical research, Lisa Sharon Harper tells the story of her heritage. We begin in the late 1600s in Maryland with the eponymous Fortune, a “mulatto” (or mixed-race) woman, daughter of a slave named Sambo and an Ulster Scots woman named Maudlin. A 1681 law by Lord Baltimore stated that the child of a White parent would be born free. It was under that law that Fortune was born. But in 1692, Maryland changed the law. In 1705, a court retroactively applied that new law to Fortune, changing her status from free to slave. Harper deftly moves through her personal family history and the wider historical context, crafting a tragic narrative that details the roots of “race” in America. This opening story shows how race was not something inherent, but a social invention changed on a whim and used to protect the supremacy of those who called themselves White.
Each chapter of the book moves somewhat chronologically, overlapping as Lisa Sharon Harper tells the stories of various ancestors. She writes about the fragmented Lawrence family, beginning with her mother’s father’s father. Here the focus is on the mid 1800s to 1900s, but the story is the same. In the 1880 census, Henry Lawrence became Black. In 1850, as a slave, he had been listed as “mulatto” (mixed). Now, at the decision of a census worker, he was Black. And his white-passing wife Harriet became “mulatto.” It was a decision that would change their lives. With nothing but a mark on a census form changed, White supremacists drove them from their home.
As you move into the 1900s, the story changes from the roots of race to the societal decisions
—legal, judicial, legislative—that entrenched racism and racial hierarchy into America. Each person has their own story, their own piece to the larger history. Sharon even includes a chapter on her own self and growing up in the latter part of the 1900s.
Fortune then moves on to a discussion of repair. Knowing these stories, where do we go from here? Lisa Sharon Harper offers three suggestions: truth-telling as a reckoning, reparation as repentance, and forgiveness. Truth-telling as reckoning is something that you see embodied in this book. Harper personalizes the atrocity. It’s not just slavery. It’s one particular enslaved person who is an ancestor to a living, breathing person today. It’s not something a long way off, but something of which the effects still reverberate to the present.
I can’t even begin to fathom how difficult of a book this must have been to write. Hundreds of years of family trauma are all laid out in the open. Trauma rooted in White supremacy. Trauma rooted in being called less than human. Trauma of inequality. It’s one thing to know of past evil. It’s another to put a story to its victims. Fortune is history, but also story. Harper crafts a compelling narrative that manages to bring the depth of historical context while focusing on the intimacy of one family’s story. It’s a beautiful book. Even though so much of it is painful, I’m so glad to have this history. No matter how hard evil forces tried through centuries of dehumanizing work, these stories are remembered. And in remembering, Lisa Sharon Harper finds herself re-membered—placed in connection to her ancestors and their story. It’s a beautiful, hopeful book.