Repossessing Ernestine: Uncovering the Secret History of an American Family

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Not a typical family memoir, yet a quintessentially American story, Repossessing Ernestine recounts one woman's impassioned attempt to unravel the dramatic story of her long-lost grandmother. On her journey, she explores the crucial role that color plays in the dysfunction of an American family. Marsha Hunt, an African-American novelist, actress, and singer, returns to this country from her home in Europe to visit - and meet for the first time - a light-skinned, blue-eyed grandmother, all but abandoned by her ...
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Overview

Not a typical family memoir, yet a quintessentially American story, Repossessing Ernestine recounts one woman's impassioned attempt to unravel the dramatic story of her long-lost grandmother. On her journey, she explores the crucial role that color plays in the dysfunction of an American family. Marsha Hunt, an African-American novelist, actress, and singer, returns to this country from her home in Europe to visit - and meet for the first time - a light-skinned, blue-eyed grandmother, all but abandoned by her family. Ernestine has spent some fifty years of her adult life in mental hospitals and is now more than ninety years old and living in a run-down nursing home in Memphis, her hometown. As Marsha Hunt investigates the heartbreaking story of her family, she discovers ancestors like a German-Jewish slaveowner and his black mistress; Ernestine's redoubtable mother, Mattie - the only dark child among her thirteen brothers and sisters - who raised her daughter's sons when Ernestine was committed; Blair T. Hunt, Marsha's grandfather, a prominent minister and educator in Memphis whose "child" bride, Ernestine, was also his high school pupil; and she even learns more about her own father, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who commits suicide weeks after a second marriage. Reclaiming Ernestine as she enters the middle period of her own life, Marsha Hunt uncovers an intimate history of race in this country. More timely than ever, Repossessing Ernestine is a book about the inextricably intertwined lives of black and white in American history, and about the powerful and inevitable links that bind together the two races and the members of a single family.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This compelling memoir by Hunt, an African American actress and writer (Free), reads like an edge-of-your-seat mystery. After learning from a cousin that her grandmother, Ernestine, who was committed to an insane asylum in the 1920s, was still alive at the age of 94, Hunt decided to find her and uncover her past. Ernestine, as described to the author, had been light-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was the daughter of a black mother and an unknown father and was married with three children when she was institutionalized by her husband, an African American minister. Defying family members who preferred to keep her whereabouts a secret, Hunt rescued Ernestine from a rundown nursing home. Although Hunt was unable to discover why Ernestine spent 50 years behind bars, she suspects the reason may have had more to do with racism and sexism than insanity. Photos not seen by PW. $40,000 ad/promo; author tour. (June)
Library Journal
African American actress Hunt, author of the novels Joy (LJ 1/91) and Free (LJ 12/92), attempts to trace the fascinating legacy of her grandmother's life. Ernestine, her grandmother, was placed in an asylum first in Boston and later, for nearly 50 years, in Memphis. Hunt begins an interesting detective hunt that unearths not only questions about the treatment of the supposedly insane but also the issues of skin color and prejudice within the African American family and community. Her investigation, however, never seems to come to closure. Ernestine probably was not insane, though we learn few details concerning the circumstances that led to her confinement. Moreover, the prose is awkward and the metaphors and descriptions unrefined. A simple family history chart would have solved the problem of the initial confusion about the characters and their relationships. Recommended with reservations only for larger public libraries.-Jenny Presnell, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
A troubling account of the search for roots in the racially and psychologically complex American South.

Hunt, a novelist (Free, 1992, Joy, 1991) and actress (Hair), and, it must be noted in obeisance to the rules of American celebrity worship, the mother of Mick Jagger's first child, is an intelligent, responsible writer. She discovers that her family's deepest secret is an "insane," long-institutionalized woman, Hunt's grandmother, still alive in a nursing home in Memphis. Hunt flies from her home in France to meet Ernestine, a tiny woman over 90, usually silent, withdrawn, perhaps unreachable. Ernestine is living in a small private nursing home in substandard conditions, her upkeep paid for by her dead husband's mistress. A host of disturbing questions about Ernestine's history, and Hunt's family, unfold. Was Ernestine, who has been institutionalized since the 1920s, ever really insane? Or did she just suffer from a combination of postpartum depression and her husband's wish to get her out of the way? Hunt stresses the role of color in this story. Ernestine was a blond, blue-eyed black woman born to a dark mother who was ambivalent about her daughter's appearance. Hunt's research takes her all the way back to the antebellum South and up to the life and tragic death of her father, Ernestine's son, a Harvard- educated psychiatrist. While much of what Hunt uncovers could only be seen as a tragedy, the conclusion does offer a faint note of triumph: Ernestine gains a family of sorts. And Hunt, who recovers and brings to light so much family history, is someone we are glad to come to know, a kind of Everywoman.

Repossessing Ernestine reads at times like a cross between a confessional article in a woman's magazine and a detective novel. It's not literature, but it is honest, energetic, and profoundly evocative of the deep, deep psychological imprint of the question of color in the South.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060174439
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/1/1996
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304

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