News & Politics

Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family

“Unflashy but deeply compelling narrative.”

 Former Washington Post reporter Henry, an African-American, tells of searching for his white relatives in this unflashy but deeply compelling narrative. His great-grandmother Pearl Brumley Hall was born in Louisiana to a white man who had an affair with a freed slave. Pearl later moved north with her mother to St. Louis. While her paternal lineage wasn’t a full-fledged family secret—it was spoken of, if sparingly—it was a mystery characterized by hushed tones and few details.

 The author—a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley—unfolds a story about more than a genealogical search. He writes convincingly of other family secrets—such as his mother’s rape—and of his own shortcomings as he forges a path of achievement from Princeton to the Post and beyond.

 The book culminates with Henry’s journey to Pineville, Louisiana, to meet his white relatives, descendants of Pearl’s father and his wife—if “culminates” is the word. The reunion chapter is long and gripping, but there are no dramatic confrontations. It’s revelatory in a quiet, human, and very realistic way—full of ambiguities and further questions, but no less satisfying for that.

 “I emerged from my search with . . . pride, a deeper understanding of human complexity, a sense of professional accomplishment,” Henry writes. “But I also felt a lingering sadness, sharper than any I had felt previously, over the cancerousness, the sheer wastefulness, of racial prejudice and bigotry, and the sinister way they can replicate themselves from one willing generation to the next.”

Neil Henry

University of California Press


Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.