You might recognize Brianna Wheeler’s name from her weekly Potlander columns in this newspaper, but that isn’t her only claim to fame.
Wheeler is a descendant of Dangerfield Newby, a free Black man who was the first of famed abolitionist John Brown’s forces to die during the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—often considered the event that sparked the Civil War. Following the death of her mother and grandmother, Wheeler was compelled to delve into this history to gain a better understanding of how her mixed-raced identity mirrored Newby’s.
The journey reopened old wounds and helped her process present-day trauma as her family clashed over her grandmother’s estate, resulting in an engaging book titled Altogether Different: A Memoir About Identity, Inheritance, and the Raid That Started the Civil War (Korza Books, 214 pages, $17) that explores the contradictions of mixed-race heritage, Newby’s legacy, and all notions of inheritance with unflinching self-awareness.
WW spoke with Wheeler about how the idea for a book began, the challenges of writing about family members who are still alive, and whether her ancestor was the source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
WW: As you started sorting through your grandmother’s notes, at what point did you decide to write a book?
Brianna Wheeler: Like, immediately. Before my grandma even died, I was observing my family drama—all that really intense, impending death of a matriarch/greedy estate division business—and thinking, “I’m gonna publish so many bitchy essays about this on Medium, I don’t even care who gets mad about it.” Then there was a kind of spiritual moment when I laid out all of my grandma’s work across the living room floor and saw all of it for the first time. Between that and my emotional-ass sketchbook scribbles and journal entries, the book I was meant to write was very much there.
How did the connection with publisher Korza Books come about?
I first explored the subject of my mother’s and grandmother’s deaths while taking Joshua James Amberson’s creative nonfiction class at Portland Community College. His novel, How to Forget Almost Everything, was being published by Korza at the time, and when Korza’s founder inquired about any students with promising manuscripts, my name came up. This was during the pandemic lockdowns, so over the course of my 10-week writing course, Anderson essentially mentored me through my first draft of the book. With my blessing, he shared my manuscript, and that was that.
Was it difficult airing out family drama knowing your relatives would read it?
Nope. I’ll do it again, too. That shit was cathartic as hell.
Your grandma decided Django Unchained was based on Dangerfield. After all your research and reflection, do you agree?
First of all, Quentin Tarantino—no smoke, please. Second of all, yes, but only fractionally. The clearest parallel is that Dangerfield was a free man earning money to buy the freedom of his wife from a real-life villain. The thing is, those who had gained freedom often attempted to do just that. So, while I think the particularly heartwrenching details of Dangerfield’s life served as some inspiration, this is not an uncommon story.
What’s one question that endures for you about the life of Dangerfield Newby?
I want to know about his mother and father, Elsey and Henry Newby. Elsey was a young enslaved girl to whom Henry professed his love, only 13 years old when she was given to him as a gift when he was in his early 30s. He made Elsey his wife (de facto, since interracial marriage remained illegal), and they went on to have 11 children together. I want to know if when Dangerfield looked at his parents, he saw two adults in love, who respected and maybe even adored each other. I understand what an outrageous privilege that would have been, and I want it for him. Probably because I’m a mother, I want to understand the love he was raised with.
Do you think this memoir is exactly what your grandmother hoped for when she handed you her stack of notes?
Yes, definitely. We never really talked much about my career; I was doing a lot of boring marketing writing in the years before her health began to fail. I tried to explain search engine optimization to her once and the light kind of went out of her eyes when I got to keywords. On her deathbed, when she pressed me to read a chapter about the Newby family in the book Migrants Against Slavery, the subtext was “Maybe use this story I’ve been telling you your whole life to get your ain’t-shit career moving in a legitimate direction.” She would never say that out loud, though, only through grandma mind-speak.
What do you hope your descendants get from reading this book?
Perspective. I watched my family fall apart over the division of an estate while learning what our ancestors went through to put us in a comfortable enough position to have an estate in the first place. It was humbling and very hard to write, but it gave me perspective, the value of which far outweighs any estate payout. Well, subjectively. I suppose if we were fighting over billions I might be singing a different tune...and driving a nicer car.
GO: Brianna Wheeler will speak about Altogether Different: A Memoir About Identity, Inheritance, and the Raid That Started the Civil War at two locations: Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 800-878-7323, powells.com. 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 8. Third Eye Books Accessories & Gifts, 2518 SE 33rd Ave., 503-688-7008, thirdeyebag.com. 5 pm Saturday, Nov. 11. Free.