Maud Newton grew up without ever watching “Sesame Street.” Her father couldn’t stand Black and White kids playing together on national TV.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” Newton said. “That’s how he would explain it while covering the faces of brown children in our storybooks.”
Newton is a writer and critic raised in Miami who, thanks to her dysfunctional family history, wrote “Ancestor Trouble” — a 2022 book that has recently catapulted her to literary fame. In it, Newton not only collects most of her genealogy but also reckons with its darkest moments. Coming from a family past plagued with racism, she decided to heal the wounds of her difficult childhood and shed light on America’s past through writing and research.
Newton was born in 1971 in Dallas. Unlike many children, she came to this world with a purpose: her parents married to preserve the racial purity of their blood and bear smart children. Her father chose her mom because he believed her blond-haired and amber-eyed features would combine perfectly with his intelligence in the genetic scheme of life.
“My parents didn’t marry for love,” she said.” I came into being through a kind of homegrown eugenics project.”
Her father had grown up in the Mississippi delta – the result of a mix of Confederate and Southern Protestant lineage. According to Newton, he believed slavery was a sacred institution, and if given the option, he would have every Black man picking cotton.
“He always stressed the importance of blood,” she said. “Being worthy of it, showing loyalty to it, protecting it.”
Professionally he was a tax attorney with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and a past as valedictorian of his law school class when Newton was born.
Soon after her birth, her family moved to the Miami area after her father was hired for a legal job. She lived in Coral Gables, first in a house on a narrow street near the University of Miami, and later along a canal near the Biltmore Hotel.
“Miami absolutely influenced my perception of the world,” she said. “During the years we lived along the canal, I grew up seeing manatees and sea turtles and crabs and leaping fish, and all my childhood, I was surrounded by many beautiful trees and flowers.”
But the watchful eye of a God was everywhere. After establishing themselves in the Magic City, Newton’s parents became born-again Christians, joined the Presbyterian Church and enforced church-inspired strictness on their children.
“My father really liked the idea that our family was chosen by God for success, that he was chosen,” she said. “He liked the idea of God.”
Morals and discipline became the backbone of Newton’s childhood as her family plunged into fundamentalist Christianity.
“Fear was truly formative,” Newton said. “My father used to leave a box in the middle of my room and tell me not to touch it or else he would spank me; then, he would watch through a crack in the door until I did stick out my finger and made contact, whereupon he would rush in to deliver the promised discipline.”
As time passed, Newton’s mother distanced herself from the beliefs and methods of her husband.
“My mother was really not into any of that; she became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of predestination,” Newton said. “She started reading the Bible, and the Bible, as she saw it, didn’t jibe with what the church was saying.”
Her mom had grown up poor, and craved something more.
“She was like: this is really not what I’m looking for; I’m looking for this bigger thing,” Newton said. “Within three years or so, my mom became a charismatic Christian and was speaking in tongues and casting out demons and so forth.”
Not long after that, her mother opened a church in their living room, where exorcisms and revivals were the daily bread.
“My mom’s ministry as a preacher to people who were then part of the large homeless population of Coconut Grove began to reveal to me a little bit about my own privilege,” she said. “However, my father was extremely not okay with this, and it’s part of the reason they split up after 12 years of marriage.”
With her world breaking apart, a new reality opened for Newton. Her parent’s divorce forced her to abandon private Christian schools in ninth grade and to attend Howard D. McMillan Middle School and Miami Sunset Senior High, where life exposed her to other ways of being and thinking. For Newton, the city’s multicultural environment was much-needed fresh air amid her parents’ toxic relationship.
“From being the new kid to being welcomed into the homes of friends who were Cuban, Jewish, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, and so on, my earliest understandings of the world came mostly from my experiences in Miami,” she said. “There, I was the palest person I knew and whenever I despaired over my pallor, my father was insulted; my skin was a sign of distinction for him, a signifier of supremacy.”
Luckily for Newton, no one in Miami’s diverse scene seemed to care much for her ability to turn “red as a shrimp” at the beach.
She would eventually grow up in a divided family. Some days she would spend time with her father hearing about the glories of the old South; others, she would be with her mom casting out demons. But deep within her, an interest in genealogy and her forebears’ adventures grew strong.
“A person’s fate isn’t necessarily sealed by their belongings or status,” she said. “But how we grow up sets us on a course.”
And that’s precisely what she did. Newton wrapped up her fraught past and decided to attend the University of Florida, graduating in 1997 with degrees in English and law.
“I read a lot of books, and I spent a lot of time riding my bike around Gainesville, walking my dogs, and [sad to say] making poor relationship decisions,” she said.”In law school, I didn’t have much time for any structured activities other than studying, but I started dating my now-husband Max during those years, and I continued to write and read when I had time.”
She eventually moved to Brooklyn in 1999 because her husband wanted to work in New York’s film industry. There, she started blogging to find others who were passionate about books, culture, and politics and to establish a safe space to write about her life and family.
“Because of my own history, I’ve always been fascinated by the research into intergenerational trauma and the possibility that our ancestors pass down their own responses to trauma through changes in the expression of their genes,” she said. “Over the years, I became increasingly interested in more distant ancestors and how their actions and problems seemed to reverberate down.”
Newton cut ties with her father soon after she moved out to New York and started digging into her lineage. It was not an easy decision, but one necessary for her mental health. Through his cruelty and racism, he had created the wounds that would later motivate her to discover herself,… She needed to close that chapter.
“In 2002, I told my father I couldn’t have a relationship with him anymore,” she said. “I feel sad sometimes that we have never known a pure, healthy father-daughter love, but contact with him at this point would be a form of self-harm.”
Meanwhile, Newton began researching her family through Google, Ancestry.com, and newspaper archives. She even hired a private researcher.
“It was a very healing sort of thing to think about ancestors back through time… to think of all my ancestors as not static but enduring, as figures I can in some sense remain in dialogue with,” she said.
From that process came her book, “Ancestor Trouble.” Both a healing journey and a hobby, the book led her to discover stories that were a far cry from her father’s narcissistic portrayals of the past.
“Genealogy is the oldest form of logic; it helps us see ourselves as part of a continuum,” she said. “It’s hard for me to understand how anyone wouldn’t find it important to acknowledge that history and ponder its consequences, but in my case, there was no ignoring it.”
Newton now is working on a new novel. She enjoys the life of any New Yorker, working in legal publishing and taking care of her dogs at an apartment in Queens. Sometimes she recalls one of the thousand lives that came before her; other days, she turns on the TV, watches the news, and thinks that maybe the world needs its own reconciliation with its ancestors. For her, the past is still with us.
“I was born in 1971, and the Civil War ended in 1865; the older I get, the more recent that history seems,” she said. “A hundred and fifty years is the blink of an eye.”