Dinesh D’Souza, Kamala Harris and bad history

Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica Scan: https://archive.org/details/picturesquetouro00hake Internet Archive

Since Senator Kamala Harris rose to international prominence, as a potential Democratic Presidential candidate in 2019, the public spotlight has fallen upon her. Now that she has become Vice President Joe Biden’s running-mate for the 2020 Presidential Election, that intensity will only grow. Like President Barak Obama before her, the fact that Harris is a person of colour and the child of immigrant parents has led some to question whether she is sufficiently ‘American’ to be a heartbeat from being the incumbent of the Oval Office.

Senator Kamala Harris

Since joining the Biden ticket, the right-wing polemicist author, filmmaker and convicted felon, Dinesh D’Souza has taken a particular interest in Harris. He, however, has not concerned himself with the technicalities of Harris’ citizenship. Instead, his focus has been on Harris’ ancestry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What, one might reasonably ask, could an ancestor who walked the earth in the 1820s have to do with politics in the 2020s?

The answer to that question is not entirely clear. However, to try to summarise, it hinges of the suggestion that one of Harris’ paternal ancestors *might* be one Hamilton Brown (1776–1843), an Ulster-born plantation-owner, slaveholder and anti-abolitionist.

This matters, at least according to Dinesh, for two reasons: first, Harris is the descendant of a slaveholder, thus she is a beneficiary of slavery, therefore any argument she might make regarding reparations for the descendants of slaves is hypocritical. Second, he alleges that Harris’ appeal as the ‘first Black woman’ cannot survive this revelation. Apparently, the ‘hoopla’, as Dinesh calls it,

‘is based on the idea that finally a female descendant of slaves can make it all the way to the White House. The problem is that Kamala Harris is descended from one of Jamaica’s largest slaveowners. This exposes the whole morality tale as a farce!’

Dinesh D’Souza

Superficially, in the hyper-partisan environment of US politics, these arguments might hold some traction. Yet both rest on rhetorical tricks and crumble under inspection. The first is a very crude tu quoque (“you also”) argument. This fallacious reasoning rests on distracting from the merits of the argument being made about reparations. Instead Dinesh appeals to some (in this case spurious) hypocrisy on the part of the person making the argument. Yet the question of hypocrisy is a red herring. So what if Harris’ distant ancestors were slavers? That has nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of providing reparations to African Americans in the 21st century. On the second, Dinesh presents a false dichotomy: either Harris is the descendent of slaves; or she is the descendent of slavers. Yet this is plainly bogus. It is perfectly possible, in fact approaching certain, even if Harris is descended from Hamilton Brown (which, as we shall see, is far from clear), that other ancestors were slaves.

Moreover, these arguments (already fatally flawed) necessarily assume that Kamala Harris is descended from Hamilton Brown. Is that true? According to Dinesh, yes. But how does he know this? Well, truth all told, he doesn’t.

The origins of the claim, that Harris is a descendent of Brown, lie in single throw-away half-sentence penned by Harris’ father, Professor Donald R. Harris. From this article, Dinesh draws three conclusions which he presents as historical fact. These are that: Kamala Harris was certainly the descendent of a slave owner; that Donald took pride in his slave-owning forbear; and that Miss Chrishy (Senator Harris’ great-grandmother) was a ‘white, Irish woman’. Yet, none of these conclusions can be proven by an actual reading of Donald’s article. What he actually wrote, in the one and only direct link back to Brown was,

‘My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town)’.

He also noted that another forbear, from another side of his family,

‘is buried in the church yard of the magnificent Anglican Church which Hamilton Brown built in Brown’s Town’.

Location of Browns Town, Jamaica

That is all Prof. Harris had to say about Hamilton Brown in that article, where we might ask is the pride in his slave owning ancestor? There is admiration for a Church built by Brown, but where is the pride in Brown himself? It isn’t there.

The next point of order is to consider the genealogical claim. The simple fact that Prof. Harris believes he is descended from Hamilton Brown does not mean that it is fact. Many people and many families cling to what we might call ‘familial lore’; that is, uncorroborated and unproven facts about their family history that is not based on either evidence or, potentially, fact. This is what genealogy.org calls a ‘claim-to-fame’ ‘family legend or myth’. This they describe in the following terms:

‘Everyone who has the surname Bradford or Alden is related to William Bradford and John Alden of Mayflower fame, right? And everyone with the last name of Boone is related to Daniel. And if your last name is James, you’re related to Jesse, of course.’

Of course, they might be. Often, in fact most often, familial legends are based in at least some truth, but they are far from fact. You need evidence to prove them.

In that case, what evidence might reasonably be supplied to prove such a connection? Well, the answer is records. When a child is born, we create a birth certificate. When people marry, we register that union. When a person dies, we record that fact. In the case of the Harris family, the fact-checkers Snopes investigated this very claim, looking at just such records, and found that there was no unbroken trail of evidence from Miss Chrishy back to Hamilton Brown. As they concluded, the claim might be true, but it is unproven. Put simply, we simply cannot say, with any certainty that Hamilton Brown has any genealogical connection to the Harris family.

Yet for Dinesh, it stands as a historical fact. Why? Because Prof. Harris said so and because, as an academic historian and economist he must be correct. To quote D’Souza:

‘Harris was a respected Stanford professor who taught economics and economic history. He is hardly likely to be careless or wrong in revealing his own family ancestry’.

This of course is patently absurd. A position at Stanford does not make one’s assumptions, sans evidence, automatically correct. This is a classic appeal to authority. To reiterate, there is no reason to believe that this piece of family lore is true. It is not corroborated by the genealogical evidence. That does not mean that it is untrue, but rather that Dinesh’s claims to fact are misleading.

In an effort to prop up his argument, Dinesh has gone as far as to speculate a family tree.

Slave planter Hamilton Brown had a son of the same name. After slavery ended, this man took up with a black woman and they had a mixed race daughter Christiana Brown. She was Kamala’s great grandmother

Yet Dinesh fails to provide any evidence to support this family tree. Fortunately, there is a limited family tree created by a user on geneanet, which links Hilton Brown to Prof. Harris. According to this family tree, Dinesh is once again wrong. First, while there are indeed two “Hamilton Brown”s on that family tree, they were not father and son. Hamilton Brown, the slave trader had a daughter, Mary Malvina (1839–1892) who married a second Hamilton Brown (1833–1918), also from Ireland, and they bore Christiana Chrishy Brown (1888–1951).

Baptism record of Mary Melvina Brown born 1839, daughter of Hamilton Brown (planter), who resided in Grier Park (owned by Brown). Reproduced from Snopes: https://www.snopes.com/uploads/2019/07/Baptism-Mary-Melvina-Brown.jpg

Interestingly the Snopes article located and reproduced various records for a number of these individuals, including a Mary Melvina (entry 38). Mary Melvina later married a different Hamilton Brown, also from Ireland, and the marriage bore several children, including Mabel Melvina in 1879. However, as noted above, they were unable to find any record of the birth of Christiana ‘Chrishy’ Brown and geneanet offers no documents as proof of the link — at least not for non-subscribers to the site.

Mary Melvina later married a different Hamilton Brown. By him, she gave birth to several children, including Mabel Melvina (born 1879, died 1935); Edwin Hamilton (born 1877, died 1932); and Gilbert Charles Clement (born 1875, died 1948). (In these baptism records, Mary Melvina’s last name and maiden name are both listed as Brown, which makes it highly likely she is the Mary Melvina born to Hamilton Brown in 1839).

We have not yet found a record of a Christiana Brown being born to Mary Melvina Brown.

The next claim Dinesh makes is that Miss Chrishy was a ‘white, Irish woman’. Yet at at no point in his article does Prof. Harris make that claim. Nowhere. Interestingly, at no point did Dinesh, in his many tweets on the topic, provide a link to the original article. Yet, those readers who do care to go back and look at the original article will discover that, in fact, Prof. Harris helpfully provides a picture of Miss Chrishy and that she is plainly a woman of colour. Dinesh supplied screenshots of the article, aimed at providing his points, but these images only ever show text. They never include the image of Miss Chrishy (click link for image) which would rather undermine the claim she was a ‘white Irish woman’. When this was pointed out to him, Dinesh updated the story, now Miss Chrishy was ‘mixed race’, born to white father (the second Hamilton Brown, son of the slaver Hamilton Brown) and an unknown black woman.

But why would Dinesh claim that a woman, born in the late 19th century, was white and Irish, with an unbroken link back to a slave owner? To diminish any claim that Kamala Harris has to ‘finally [being] a female descendant of slaves [who] can make it all the way to the White House’. He is attacking Harris’ claim to black identity.

Yet none of this proves or disproves whether or not Miss Chrishy or, by extension, Kamala Harris were descended from the slaver Hamilton Brown. It is perfectly plausible that the family lore is correct and the records incomplete. It is here that of all the errors of fact, misunderstandings of history and rhetorical trickery fade as to nought. Instead, Dinesh’s most egregious omission is to explain why the descendants of slaves often also have white ancestors. And that is sexual exploitation and rape were systematic weapons of terror unleashed by white owners and overseers on slaves. If as Dinesh contents, that Kamala Harris is the descendent of Hamilton Brown, it is entirely plausible (even likely) that was through an entirely unequal sexual union between master and slave. In another word, rape. But because such a possibility destroys his argument, that Kamala Harris family were perpetrators as opposed to the victims of slavery, Dinesh ignored the possibility and then denied outright denied it.

The status of this relationship between Brown and Mary Melvina’s mother, of course, is also impossible to know with any certainty. But, as the Snopes article makes clear,

It is well-documented that British and Irish slave owners in the Caribbean (and their counterparts in the American colonies) routinely raped and engaged in illicit sex with female slaves, resulting in many “illegitimate” children of mixed racial heritage. […]

Although we don’t have clear proof, that pattern strongly suggests that that particular branch of Brown’s family tree derived just as much from an enslaved woman, whose identity may well be lost to history, as it did from [Hamilton] Brown himself.

When this very obvious possibility was repeatedly pointed out to him, Dinesh was at pains to dismiss it. As noted above, Miss Chrishy, he claimed, was born to a white father, Hamilton Brown son of Hamilton Brown. Thus, not a “child of the plantation”. Yet, the documented evidence does list a Hamilton Brown, planter, as having a child, Mary Melvina, and living at Grier Park — owned by Hamilton Brown, the slave owner.

UCL Legacies of British Slavery record on Grier Park 1839, registered to Hamilton Brown https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/estate/view/13269

The problem for Dinesh is that his claim that sexual exploitation was impossible only works if his child was white, yet the evidence here suggests otherwise. Hamilton was white, his son-in-law, Hamilton, was was white. Therefore, for Miss Chrishy to be ‘mixed race’, as Dinesh put it, so too must have been Mary Melvina.

It is clear that Dinesh’s objective regarding Kamala Harris is not to present a nuanced historical point about chattel slavery, how the legacy of slavery resonates to this day or serious policy questions regarding reparations. Instead, his is an effort to discover a source of tar with which to brush Senator Harris. In the alleged familial links to Hamilton Brown, he believes he has found it. Yet, in order to apply even this highly tenuous strategy of guilt by association, he has to play fast and loose with both the facts, the evidence and his audience.

UK based academic historian. Lecturer