"This Name Was the Signpost": A Q&A with Joe Mozingo

Dear Reader,

I devoured Joe Mozingo’s orginal 3-part piece about his family’s history in the LA Times when it ran in 2010, going so far as to read lines out loud to my better half over breakfast — and there were so many great lines that I came awfully close to reading all three pieces out loud, over toast. (Suffice to say, Messer isn’t my better half’s last name, and at the time, my parents’ marriage bordered on the radical.)

The Discover selection committee readers hadn’t seen those original pieces, so they came to Mozingo’s memoir, The Fiddler on Pantico Run, from a slightly different perspective, but they agreed that it was without a doubt one of the best books about race in America that they’d all read in ages.

Blond, blue-eyed, lifelong Angeleno Joe Mozingo discusses his “funny last name,” the legacies of race, and how his family’s own lost history speaks to us all, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.

What led you to investigate the story of your family’s lost heritage?

First and foremost, I had this funny last name, and growing up, no one in my family could give me a good explanation of where it came from. “We think it’s Italian” was the best I got. Still I always had a vague pride in the name, especially as a teenager; it had this hint of mystery, exoticism, even menace, which I liked back then. Then in graduate school a professor with the same name told me she heard it was African, which I initially laughed off as a lark. We were white after all. But it got me thinking that our lack of knowledge about our origins was strange, that maybe our history was buried, and this name was the signpost that could lead me back to it.  

How did you choose the book’s title?

The forefather of all Mozingos in America was Edward Mozingo, an African man who was brought to Virginia in 1644. By a great stroke of luck, a tattered document from colonial court in Jamestown survived to record this, granting “Edward Mozingo A Negro Man” his freedom in 1672 after 28 years of servitude. Edward went on to marry a white woman and settled on a creek called Pantico Run. In his will, he listed a fiddle, and an historian of the era told me it was likely he was the local fiddler. That detail helped bring him to life for me, seeing that his existence rose above mere survival.

You write that you discovered the Mozingo family story has many strange twists of history. What were some of those?

Well, one was the meaning of our name. I was tracing the thread of our history as it wended from Africa to the California beach town where I grew up, and when I visited Africa I learned that the word “mozingo” actually meant — with close variations depending on the region — a thread, a cord linking people, a twisting line or journey. Another was that some of Edward’s descendants were in the KKK — no doubt the only white supremacists in America with a Bantu last name! But maybe the most intriguing was that my fifth great grandfather, Spencer Mozingo, lived right down the road from the young James Madison, and that a diary kept by one of Madison’s cousins referred to Spencer doing work for him on a nearby farm. The legacies of race and heritage were striking.  Madison went on to become this towering figure in our history while my ancestors, descended from a free black man, remained dirt poor for the next 270 years, and Mozingos who remained “negro” in the eyes of the law were pushed to the bleakest margins of the antebellum and Jim Crow South. 

In what ways do you think the story of your own family’s lost past speaks to Americans in general?

Up to 30 million people are thought to descend from the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. Far more could descend from the mixed-race unions of early Virginia alone. We just learned that President Obama’s white mother may have descended from a slave named John Punch. So plenty of Americans have this in their past. Racial mixing has been part of American history from the beginning, and it is in many of our family stories. We are all more connected than we realize, and these racial barriers we erected so long ago begin to dissolve when you look at the fluidity of a single family through time.

Who have you discovered lately?

I just finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild [Another 2012 Discover pick. — Ed], which I couldn’t put down for its beautiful naked honesty. Now I’m drifting around a bit depending on my mood, alternating between David Eggers’ A Hologram for the King,  and Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Oh, and I just picked up Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.