Many of us secretly wish that our own family tree had a celebrity or two clinging to its branches. In 1975 Catherine Slaney's family was informed that their complete family history was archived in the Toronto Reference Library's Abbott Collection. There was a gold mine of information about their ancestors and, yes, their great-grandfather was famous. Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott was Canada's first black doctor. Black? Until that day in 1975, Slaney's mother, Marion, née Abbott, and her siblings had no idea that they were the products of an interracial marriage .
In Family Secrets: Crossing The Colour Line, Slaney documents the bombshell effect the news had on her family. One uncle refused to talk about it. His children discovered their black ancestry while watching a television documentary, and he met their questions with silence.
Family Secrets documents the history of Slaney's family's crossing of the colour line, or what is commonly referred to as passing.
As a bi-racial woman, I had to wonder why Slaney was surprised by her black Canadian ancestors' decision to pass for white in the early 20th century. She shows us a photo in which she and her family are dressed in equestrian splendour, the very picture of white Anglo aristocracy. She must realize that had her black Canadian ancestors married differently and acknowledged their black heritage, she would never have belonged to the horsey set.
But Slaney redeems herself in her final chapter, where photographs chronicle the family's subtle progression from light-skinned black to white.
Too bad the book reads like an academic paper, complete with endnotes, appendices and a bibliography. It needs the kind of style Edward Ball brought to Slaves In The Family, an account of his slaveholding ancestors and their bi-racial progeny.
As a historical document of a prominent black Ontario family, though, it is well worth a look.
Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line by Catherine Slaney (Natural Heritage), 264 pages, $24.95 paper. Rating: NNN