Column | Feb. 23

Naming the ironmakers

According to Major E.C. Lewis, president of the Louisville and Nashville Terminal Company, James Robertson was 5’9” with a heavy build, slender body and private demeanor. Along with being the bearer of my surname, he had many prominent features, including a “square, full forehead” and the “quiet consciousness of power” fit for kings. He achieved fame as an explorer and pioneer in the South alongside Daniel Boone, the American folklore hero and founder of Kentucky. From onlookers he acquired great esteem, not unlike that rewarded to celebrities. Although he could not boast of a titled heritage, his repute was so fabled as to earn him the moniker, “Father of Middle Tennessee” (an appropriate title for a founder of Nashville). If you are confused as to how an African-American could have labored so fruitfully in the late 19th century, your skepticism is well-founded. But James Robertson, unlike me, had blue eyes.

If you asked me why I am here at Princeton, I would say, “To learn who I am.” If you then asked me what that meant, I would tell you, “It means learning what it is to be black.” If you told me such an objective was short-sighted and limited, I might agree. Or, I would argue that bound to the condition of my “blackness” are questions of regionalism and spirituality. This became clear to me only within the last few months, and these discoveries prompted me to join the Black Student Union.

I recently attended a discussion sponsored by the Black Student Union entitled, “50 Shades of Black: A Discussion on Black Identity.” Early in the conversation, one student who identified as African-American (as opposed to African, Afro-Caribbean, etc.) observed that while many people of African heritage may be able to identify their predecessors with relative ease, most African-Americans have been divested of that luxury. Although I was aware of this before, her remark confirmed that the growth of my racial consciousness has coincided with a burgeoning interest in my own ancestry. This was the first BSU discussion I attended, and already I realized how much I might have sacrificed by not becoming involved with the group in the fall. My experience with BSU, of course, is idiosyncratic. More importantly, I think, is the acknowledgement of resources at Princeton — culturally-oriented groups, for example — that allow one to connect with the past.

It is with this newly-acknowledged vigor that I conducted a search for something — anything — illuminating. There was no purpose to this search except to learn of unfamiliar people: aunts or uncles, first- or second-cousins or perhaps the unfortunately rare gem of a great-great grandparent. I had heard tales of James Robertson before, but never did I bother to understand the whole narrative. You can imagine my surprise when I read that a small community just north of Charlotte, Tenn. called Promise Land was settled by freedmen who had once worked for Robertson as slaves on farms and workers in the iron yards of Cumberland Furnace. Promise Land. It was where my Papa smoked and hunted, and where my Granny prayed and laughed. I was beginning to understand that the most precious inheritance is that of a name, even if it comes from the quenching of my own past.

With James Robertson, my history both begins and ends. I can only imagine who may have come before Jerry Robertson, born 1898, the first black man to whom my lineage can be traced, so far as I know. I come from the anonymous blacksmiths, housekeepers, farmhands, cooks, nursemaids and colliers of the South. Fortunately, you and I are in a position that allows us to extend our own names as far as we would have them go. It is so easy to lose the past while we are trying to determine the shape of our future. I write this if only to remind you that our origins do matter, even if we cannot all easily identify them. Our pasts do not have to be abstractions that are irrelevant to our present day. If we choose to integrate history more directly into our lives, however — by writing an account of a grandparent, researching a medical condition that is common in one’s family, etc. — we may begin to see how the hand of the past can enhance a community of skilled and unique individuals.

In my last article, I alluded to the undercurrent of fear that accompanies a life of nondistinction (i.e. having many good traits and skills, but none that distinguish you as excellent, according to societal standards). But I believe our personal histories are the clearest mediums through which we can claim to be truly exceptional. By leaving Princeton with a greater understanding of your historical background and finding ways to apply it to your life, you will have accomplished something no one else could. It is that claim to something which is irrevocably yours that makes this such a valuable pursuit.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at

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