A Search for Truth and Reconciliation
The true adventures a White man living in a Black community
By J.C. Anderson
Copyright © 2016 by J.C. Anderson
For sharing their stories, advice, and friendship, this work is dedicated in gratitude to JB, Nina, Frank, Clarence, Emily, JT, Lois, Randle, Jessie, Ruby, Sharon, Wali, Michael, Stephanie, Aline, Gloria, Shirley, Beverly, Nate, Essie, Marion, Carolyn, Linda, Bessie, Tanya, Betty and Stephen, Robert, Mildred, Mary, Doris, Dorothy, Ronald, and Dennis.
The characters in this book are real. Most names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Also by J.C. Anderson
GIRTY: The Legend (with a foreword by Grandfather Lee Standing Bear Moore, elder of the Manataka Peace Council)
Free Love: Cultivating the Garden of Eden in America
The Wages of Gin
The Holly Quartet: Stalking; Revenge; Revival; Breakdown
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
- Soren Kierkegaard
As long as poverty exists, you are not rich. As long as prisons exist, you are not free. - Chris Marker
“Race is the child of racism, not the father … They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Black history is our own Dream.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is a book about the three years I’ve spent living inside an African American milieu. It is not exclusively mine. This is every American’s story. Interviewing more than one hundred people, Black and White, I came to see America as a malfunctioning family. I was uncovering long hidden family secrets. These secrets seem to be lying inside our cells.
Racism, I concluded, is likely to be, like everything else that makes us who we are, a matter of both nature and nurture. Your secret may be concealed in your DNA. If you are white, it can emerge as racism; if you are black, it will be revealed as trauma.
I feel the same way about America’s division over immigration. What if we let the memories hidden inside our cells tell us how our ancestors suffered as refugees? If we can retrieve their homeless, wounded, despairing experiences, we may be able to begin to heal America. As Calvin, my black neighbor, says, “Maybe by learning to live with their memories, white folks can learn to live with us and each other.”
Racism seems to be a disease that is similar to alcoholism: those who are infected are as sick as their secrets made them. To cure the disease, you must first admit that you have it. Nobody chooses to become an alcoholic or a racist, but those who suffer either disease can choose whether or not to treat it.Unlike cancer, racism and alcoholism can be cured by something like a religious ritual: confession, supplication, revelation, reconciliation.
As a writer, I cannot change anyone’s nature; but, if you, my reader, are curious and willing to let facts, not assumptions, influence your opinions and behavior, I may be able to advance the ways you’ve been effected by your nurturing. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
It has been 60 years since America first defied Dixie to launch the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, it seems ridiculous to me that we are still trying to explain racism to colossally ignorant white Americans. Do they need to be told again that it is wrong for police to kill unarmed black men, women, and children? Do they really need someone to explain why we should provide clean drinking water to a mostly Afro-American city? Do they really think it is acceptable to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens?
Facts must be faced. Although the future is promised to none of us, the prospects are less likely for those black people among us whose country never wanted them to have a future. America hasn’t even wanted African Americans to have a home or really any sanctuary at all other than their churches or a prison. Is it any wonder that so many black people are only optimistic about God’s promises, not some white man’s? Ask one of my African American neighbors, “How can such a bright future possibly come true for you?” and your answer may be a forefinger pointing skyward – God will provide.
I am not an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist, so before I can present possible ways to cure the plague of racism in America, I am forced to again answer the question, “How did this happen?” To answer, this book has to provide at least a little history – the history of racism, the history of slavery, and the history of the civil rights movement; and it cannot avoid being a gentle critique of the American political, economic, and justice systems. I’ll try to make it painless.
Trained as a journalist, a profession charged with finding and objectively reporting the truth while admitting that subjectivity can’t ever be avoided, I set out to report my immigrant’s observations and experiences and then to relate them to the American experience of racism and slavery as a way to uncover some truth. I moved into this African American community as its only white resident because I believe integration should not be left entirely up to black people. And now I finally live in a classless society.
My goal was to face certain truths about myself and my culture so as to make sense of the mess we’ve made in hopes we can clean it up before it buries us. White America rails at demands for reparations for slavery and discrimination, but it must make amends for the original sin we and our white ancestors have committed.The first step is to transform Afro-America from a far distant and threatening Otherness into something familiar and vital.
I am not in this community as a writer who means to expose an alien culture. I choose to live in this black community for the same reason that my neighbors live here: because we can afford the rent. This is no journey into a heart of darkness. I am not living here to engage in a one-way exchange in which black natives speak and act and I observe and write down my white man impressions.Like any culture, black America cannot be seen panoptically. This is a book about my experiences in a particular place with particular neighbors who happen to be Afro-Americans. Many of them have become more than friends. They are family. Almost from the moment I paid the movers and they drove off, I entered into communion with my new neighbors, the essence of community. Once I put my stuff away, I set out to educate my heart.I find some residents sitting outside, some smoking and all talking.
I introduce myself, describe my mission, and start asking questions. Studs Terkel-like I begin with “So, what’s your life been like?” Stephen, who lives upstairs, answers, “You want to know what it’s like to be black. Right? And you want the truth, not smart ass bullshit. Right? Okay, well, first, the true black story is a political doctrine that was forced on us simply because so far we’ve been weaker than white people. It’s the the that makes it true. Without it, it’s bullshit. You all associate us with every ‘the’ that’s alien – the criminals, the poor, the uncivilized, the degenerates, the backward, and the plum crazy. We hardly even get looked at, so we don’t get seen. We’re regarded as problems that need solving. Or better yet, problems that need to be locked up and re-enslaved. The Truth about Black Life in America? That’s the only truth there is in America and you might be the only white American who wants to hear it.”
I think I get it. To be black is to know certain things in a certain way that is subject to history. I’m trying to see Black from the viewpoint of someone immersed in it. But I don’t have the history, a history of projected superiority and inferiority, so how can I possibly see The Black Truth? The boundary that separates white from black is reinforced to this day by society, government, institutions, including such stabilizing influences as our schools and even our arts and sciences. Everything works to limit our real life experience and each of our own true stories. We see, hear, and feel only what we’ve been taught to expect.
One of the first lessons I learned had to do with the power of names. I thought I was being friendly when I addressed those I first met here by their first names. Wrong. First-naming is disrespectful, especially if the person you are addressing is older. You must preface each surname with the appropriate mister, miss, or missus. Once you’ve become friends, you can move on up to nicknames. Women here are addressed by Miss followed by a surname or first name.
Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: we humans cannot be biologically defined. The term race has no taxonomic significance. All humans belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. The term ra should be replaced by less ambiguous, emotionally charged words such as populations or ethnic groups. The word race is a false negative social construct used to define a group of people who share similar and distinct physical characteristics. One of those characteristics is skin color, which is simply another human polygenic trait.
Children immediately understand this truth without knowing the science that proves it. Racists are made, never born. It is unsurprising that when God came to earth, we are told that he arrived as the baby Jesus. The youngest children are profoundly moved by the moral truths they discover for the first time. You can witness their natural sense of justice, of right and wrong, on any playground. Bullying older children were taught by adults to abuse the natural social order.
We Americans must also acknowledge that the long lost world of our nation’s founders was explicitly racist. It is not surprising that those men could not imagine how to create a republic that truly represented principles such as “All Men Are Created Equal.” Instead, they simply incorporated the unacceptable institutions and prejudices handed down through the ages from the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were not equipped to create a new world. We must be grateful to them for imagining a republic that separated church from state while we regret the fact that they were unable to envision a “biracial” society. Even that great opponent of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe, could only dream of deporting freed slaves back to their original homes in Africa.
America’s founders were more influenced by ancient Rome’s representative democracy than by the direct democracy of the Greeks. The founding fathers recognized that direct democracy, which served the city-state of Athens for 186 years, could never adequately serve the growing and diverse population of people who were settling without a common language and with disparate origins in thirteen independent colonies separated by great distances and geographic barriers. They could not dream a future for direct democracy. Rome’s representative democracy had successfully served western civilization’s most extensive political and social structure for 507 years. For 200 of those years, dissimilar cultures of civilized and not so civilized people inhabiting an area the size of Western Europe knew peace and prosperity, which until then were unknown. By 284 A.D., Emperor Diocletian saw that the empire had become too vast for effective rule by a central government in Rome, so he divided it into two separate empires, west and east, ruled by co-emperors and governed by representatives who answered to a senate in the capitol.
Slavery was an integral part of both Greek and Roman systems, and women were denied equal rights by both. Neither slaves nor women were permitted to vote or hold political office in those two ancient republics. Therefore, it is not surprising that our founders made the fatal compromise of permitting slavery to continue while accepting the false and repellant notion that women and people of color were lesser human beings. We continue to suffer for those compromises and the antiquated prejudices that supported them. Voltaire said, “Prejudices are what fools use for reason.” He went on to say that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Americans have always too easily believed absurdities.
The founding fathers aspired to achieve tolerance of religious and most ethnic differences in hopes of absorbing them, but the 2016 presidential election proved it to be a failed aspiration. By studying the Greek and Roman systems of democracy, the founders of the new American republic were well aware of the threat posed by demagogues who spoke to the fears and ignorance of the demos, the people. The Greeks sought to deal with that threat of a Hitler rising through institutionalized ostracism. Every year, the people could vote to send corrupt and swinish public figures into exile for a period of ten years. Nevertheless, Greek democracy was brought to the edge of disaster several times over its history by evil men who won other men over to their pernicious views. Google the name Cleon to read about one such close call. Relying upon the knowledge, intelligence, and will of the people is a dangerous business.
The first emancipationists were committed to the emigration of freed slaves to Africa. The American Colonization Society was organized in 1816 to promote that program. Its members acquired land in West Africa and established Liberia as a destination for colonized free Afro-Americans. Before he became the chief architect of the Constitution, James Madison, governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802, was the principal proponent of colonization and the major contributor to the American Colonization Society. He was later rewarded when the Liberian capital was named Monrovia.
Around 1830, the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening changed the emancipationist’s focus. It made slavery not merely an evil. It was now declared to be a social and a personal sin that had to be expatiated immediately. American Protestants in the North began demanding equal citizenship for freed slaves, not colonization. Their most famous leader was William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the weekly Liberator.
In 1833, the great feminist Quaker Lucretia Mott, who is featured in my book, Free Love: Cultivating the Garden of Eden in America, joined Mr. Garrison and the wealthy Tappan brothers to organize the American Anti-Slavery Society. Most of the members were women who were feminists as well as abolitionists. They sought to convince all Americans, including Southern slave owners, that slavery was indeed a sin while fighting at the same time for equal rights for freed slaves. The populist President Andrew Jackson ordered his postmaster general to ban their literature from the mails, claiming it was encouraging slaves to revolt. Lower class whites gathered in mobs with businessmen who had profitable connections with Southern slave owners to assault members of the Anti-Slavery Society and to destroy their literature. Like today’s conservative populists who fear immigrants and minorities, they warned fellow whites that emancipation would result in a flood of freed slaves rushing north to take their jobs and corrupt the “natural” social order. They blamed “outside agitators” for riling up their otherwise happily contented chattel.
In fact, their slaves were resisting not by rioting, but by running away. The escape to freedom did far more to convert northerners to abolition than literature, sermons, lectures, and newspaper editorials. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, northern whites became convinced that their own freedoms were threatened. The Underground Railroad to Canada was created to resist that law. Slaves used all possible means to escape their shackles. In 1850, Henry Box Brown shipped himself in a box from Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia. He published his slave narrative and became a popular lecturer, reenacting his boxed escape for cheering audiences.
Full freedom came at last when James Ashley, congressman from Ohio, shepherded Abraham Lincoln’s Thirteenth Amendment to passage in the House on January 31, 1865.Without it, the abolitionists, and the brave slaves who ran, America would not have experienced the Ages of Lincoln and Obama that made true the promises of a Constitution that sanctioned slavery.
The concept for integration was not invented until the middle of the 20th century, so we cannot impose our world on the founding fathers. Five of those men, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, believed that slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution. The others who profited from slavery must have repressed this awareness. How could any freedom-loving white American not have realized that, like their national economy, their concept of freedom depended upon institutionalized slavery? Most of them came to the New World to get away from something. To these white European runaways, liberty meant escape, which is why D.H. Lawrence called America “a vast republic of escaped slaves.” And it’s why Walt Whitman wrote “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.” Yet, of the five founders who opposed slavery, only John Jay and Alexander Hamilton supported the abolitionist movement.
What kind of freedom were these colonists escaping to in the New World? To escape their commoner order, they needed to escape their estate, which we today call class. Their estate, whether royal, noble, common, or clergy, was a function of birth. A commoner might acquire noble status. One’s estate could certainly be lost. But no European could escape the fact of his or her birth. Unless, of course, that commoner could be born again in some new world. Born anew as a nobleman on a noble estate.
Put simply, the word “freedom” meant property. Most immigrants arrived from Europe as commoners with nothing but the stories they heard about free land for the taking from indigenous child-like savages who could prove no ownership. With their stories told, the myth that America is the land of opportunity was born
. Most new arrivals had heard about vast sugar, rice, and tobacco plantations that were worked for nothing by slaves. The majority of these early European colonists risked everything to come to these shores in order to chase their dreams of developing their own great estates. Freedom meant a chance to become part of the privileged class of nobles they envied who had been abusing them from the day they were born. All they needed was a cheap labor force to clear and cultivate the free and available wilderness. From the moment they arrived on the New World’s shores, this freedom to own property took the human form of slaves from Africa.
If you could somehow go back in time to visit a colonial town - say, Marblehead, Massachusetts, the first slave-holding colony in New England - you would see slaves making turpentine from pine trees, hauling water, tilling fields, repairing roads, building churches, barns and houses, preparing and serving meals in a rich white family’s house, doing almost everything that needed doing. Samuel Maverick, New England's first slaveholder of record, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 with two African slaves.The first colonial slave ship, the 120-ton Desire, was built in Marblehead in 1636. It was the third ship built in the Colonies. Captained by William Pierce, The Desire and its Marblehead crew set a new record to London - just 23 days. Like most of the American colonies, the first white immigrants were almost entirely fundamentalist Protestant Puritans. Christianity was no barrier to slave-ownership.
Puritans regarded themselves as God's Elect, sanctioned by the Law of the God of Israel. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination supported the Puritan position that black people had been cursed and condemned by God to serve whites. Cotton Mather told blacks they were the "miserable children of Adam and Noah," for whom slavery had been ordained as a punishment. Many black people believed him. More on this absurdity later.
A 1641 Massachusetts law linked slavery to Biblical authority. A rigid set of rules was written especially for slaves. They were based on the Old Testament’s “law of God, established in Israel concerning such people, (which they) doth morally require." When two Massachusetts slave merchants joined up with London slave raiders to massacre an entire African village in 1645, the Massachusetts colonial government registered its indignation, but only because the two Massachusetts men were guilty of "man-stealing," a Biblical crime. This theft would not have been a crime if the men had purchased the Africans in the approved way – in exchange for rum or cheap trinkets. Also, the local white men made the grave mistake of slaughtering more than 100 villagers on a Sunday, the Bible’s appointed day of rest.
Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland punished both races for miscegenation. The Massachusetts law against mixed marriage or sexual relations between the races [Massachusetts Acts and Resolves, I, 578], dating to 1705, was passed "for the better preventing of a spurious and mixt issue." A black man caught sleeping with a white woman would be sold off to a West Indies plantation. The law demanded a severe flogging for both offenders. If the woman had children as result of the illicit union, she was bound out to service to support them. What if the man was white and the woman black? Flog them both and force the white man to support any children born from the union. Oh, and sell the woman far away from her children.
Because slaves comprised about 10 percent of the population, you would have seen them hard at work throughout colonial New England during your time travel. White colonists would have told you that it had to be this way - their freedom required the enslavement of Africans.
These colonial slave masters came to identify British taxation as a form of slavery because it restricted their freedom to preserve and protect their property. They protested and, eventually, they rebelled. To this day, America’s concept of freedom is tangled up with slavery – freedom from the slavery of poverty, taxes, corporate “overlords,” surveillance, college debt. White tea party people who whine about big government know nothing about what it’s like to be owned as property by another, to be under that owner's control, to suffer the pain and humiliation of brutal beatings at the owner’s slightest whim, to live in the most squalid conditions imaginable, forced to survive on the master’s leftovers, all the time knowing that you and your family may be sold and lost to you at any time.
When the war for independence broke out, only one of the founders fully realized that the revolution might not be won, but it must not be lost. George Washington was determined not to lose. As commander in chief of the ragtag Continental Army of misfits who were pathetically underfed, under-clothed, under-equipped and armed, and utterly unsupported by the 13 colonies, Washington knew that, to win, those nation-states had to fight together as a union, not as a confederation of sovereign republics. Even if the American Revolution was not lost, Washington knew that the colonies were likely to turn on each other.
How to get the Northern states of skilled, immigrant labor engaged in a new industrial revolution to cooperate with the far away, slave, feudal and aristocratic Southern states? These colonies would be happy to go to war against each other, but how could they be persuaded to slaughter their cousins across the sea? The founders developed an “us against them” Common Cause and supported it with war stories about atrocities committed against brave patriots by the British and their proxies. This pitch became the Spirit of 1776, and it was used to convince the 13 disparate nation-states, north and south, to collaborate against George III and his professional, well trained, well-armed army. Because the king’s proxies were Indians and blacks, the Common Cause would also provide convenient justification for both an expanded slave system and the patriotic mission of Manifest Destiny to wipe out indigenous people and steal their wilderness. And so the founders committed the original American sin – they accepted slavery as an American institution, a blatant contradiction of the American Revolution’s goal to create anindependent and democratic society of free citizens. At the same time, they enabled a system of genocide. The unique promise of the new republic was made a lie.
So much for Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” phrase in his Declaration of Independence. In fact, it established a separation between “us” (Americans) and “them” (the king and his alien proxies, blacks and Indians), and it rallied all “patriots” to a Common Cause against those others who were “unfit to fully belong as members of the new republic.”
My book Girty: the Legend showed how the myth created about “the white savage,” Simon Girty, was used to motivate colonial settlers and their militias to wipe out the Indians who had been living along the Appalachian frontier for centuries. At first, European colonists and Indians cooperated and lived together in relative peace as the indigent people taught the Europeans how to live in the wilderness. But most foreign settlers were drawn to the New World not only as an opportunity to start over, but as a place to be exploited. They came to cultivate its free and fertile land and to hunt its fur and hide rich wilderness. To the new colonial order, the wilderness was a dark threat to civilization. Settlers were likely to go native just like Girty, jeopardizing the mission of Manifest Destiny. The settlers had to be motivated to destroy the wilderness and its inhabitants by axe, plow, and musket so they could be saved. Common Cause was developed through narratives about horrible massacres and crimes committed by “them” against “us.” These stories were planted inside newspapers to be told in saloons and around fireplaces and campfires. They soon became legends.
Whenever the Indians won victories, the humiliation was rationalized by blaming white savages like Girty. After all, Indians were innocent children, incapable of defeating organized white militias, unless white traitors who had become renegades inside the dark wilderness taught the inferior, unworthy Indians how to fight like white men.
Until a few decades ago, almost every white American, including Jefferson, believed that people of different skin colors possessed different human natures and developed very different societies. Whites believed that only Europeans could and should manage the new American society. For 300 years, white America would consistently oppose integration and miscegenation.
The early European colonists in the New World fought the American Revolution of 1776 to assert that power flowed up from white citizens, not down from the heavens to a sovereign ruler. But after George III gave up the fight that he could not afford, the common people turned out not to be the harmonious and benevolent lovers of freedom, fraternity, and brotherhood visualized in the first deluded American dream. No, they proved themselves to be self-interested individuals who gathered in malicious, provincial groups with partisan agendas. Isolated inside their mini-republics, these groups were vulnerable to the loudest, lowest demagogues. Those bullies were timid men who presented themselves as tough guys with tough solutions. They easily manipulated the excesses, opinions, and prejudices of yes men as well as the uneducated and ignorant people living in their communities. Just like today.
James Madison correctly believed that individual rights were far more likely to be abused at state and local levels where popular bias and prejudice persuaded opinion, judgment, and rulings. The common people toiling far away on farms and in shops were determined to resist a federal government that they feared would tax and rule them like the distant, unresponsive British Empire they had just escaped. It seems surprising to us today that the first insurrections began in the North, not the slave South. The first states to threaten secession were not South Carolina and Virginia. The cause for dissenting Federalists in New England, Rhode Island, and New York was virtually identical to the Confederacy's rally a half century later. They were determined to defend the principles of states' rights and self-government against an overbearing federal government. .
A full-scale revolt broke out in the fall of 1786 in western Massachusetts when Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army, led a force of farmers to set debtors free from prison. The revolt was quickly put down, but other resentful locals and anarchists took up the fight in rural Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. The weak national government was unable to gather a combined military force from the states to help put down the rebellion. The supreme government designed to unite the states was powerless.
The only thing holding together the confederation of disparate sovereign states produced by the “Spirit of ‘76” was opposition to the common British enemy and its colonial loyalists. Like all political alliances, it was destined to collapse in conflict and anarchy. How to bring these separate powers together in a manageable democracy of citizens willing and able to serve the national public interest in the long term?
Only men with white skin, not women, were citizens. By 1776, slavery had existed for more than 150 years in the New World from Canada to Chile. In 1770, more slaves toiled in the New York colony than in Georgia, and at least 40 percent of white households in Manhattan owned black slaves. Although some of the founders considered slavery an injustice, they did not want to live equally with freed slaves. They intended, like the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would later, to expel them.
After the triumph of the American Revolution, very few people anywhere in the world expected the new confederation to last. There were bound to be consequences for the hypocrisy of slavery. George III and other European monarchs and ministers predicted a civil war. All popular rebellions had ended in collapse. The American insurrection had special conditions that made failure especially likely. The confederation’s founding fathers had planted a garden with seeds created by John Locke and the Age of Enlightenment. But they forced slaves to cultivate it.
Skeptical Europeans were ready to swoop in to harvest whatever remained of the barren American garden. Thomas Jefferson, slave owner and author of the core principles of the American Revolution, hoped to avert the crisis that was sure to come when he began planning the western expansion of the new republic to assure it would accord with the core principles he spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. But first and foremost, a framework needed to be developed for a sovereign union that could manage and control the unruly states. The Articles of Confederation had been written to make sure the central government would be as weak as possible. It could not tax. It could not legislate. It could not fight. James Madison knew that the articles that unified the colonies after the revolution had to be replaced, not revised. A Constitution was required to bind the states to a supreme federal government.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention began to gather in Philadelphia, there was no national economy, no standing army, not even a national language. To get some idea about how these independent states cooperated in the face of so many differences, think of the European Union in our time. Until Brexit when the United Kingdom voted to leave it as stagnation grew out of crisis, 28 countries combined forces to serve as a geopolitical economic and political block for 508 million people, the world’s largest population after China and India, without a common language and without the management control of a sovereign government, protected only by the promise of NATO. The largest member nation, France, has had little in common with the smallest, Malta, or the most troubled, Greece. Remarkably, the EU has endured despite rivalries and resentments and identity changes since its formation as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1951 and 1958 respectively. Can it survive Brexit? Time will tell.
Of the 55 state delegates who agreed to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 for Madison’s Constitutional Convention, 25 were slave owners. Washington arrived with three of the 318 slaves he held at Mount Vernon. His favorite slave stood behind him for the entire time he presided inside the oppressively hot and tiny convention hall from May 25 to September 17. Washington probably never gave any thought to the hypocrisy of planning a supreme legislature, executive, and judiciary federal government to achieve a lasting union of free citizens, all created equal, all white men, with his slave at his side.
Thomas Jefferson had declared that slavery must end by 1800 in order to prevent it from infecting the new states sure to come in Manifest Destiny’s mad rush west. His declaration failed by a single vote. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison refused to permit a debate about the “peculiar institution.” They did not want a fight about the morality of slavery to prevent formation of a federal government. Instead, they agreed to compromise through a policy of silence. Employing the euphemisms and coded expressions commonly used by the politicians and planters of the slave states, even those few delegates who favored abolition pretended that slavery did not exist. Their policy of silence – “if we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away” - would hold until the Civil War. Even today, most people, white and black, are uncomfortable with the subject of racism. My black neighbors shunned the subject until I was finally accepted by them. To this day, almost three years later, they still don’t like to talk about it.
Few of my neighbors know the history of their names. African Americans were documented as property, not people. My white family was proud of the history recorded in hand-me-down bibles by selected matriarchs of successive generations. Names, addresses, marriages, births, deaths, recipes, school books, letters, drawings, and photos were collected and passed along. My grandmothers and mother proudly hauled out the family record for special remembrances of things and people past. The direct descendants of slaves are generally unable to turn to any recorded history. If family stories were not memorized, told, and retold, they are lost. Few kept journals or diaries.
Census records were incomplete and often misspelled. Before 1865, plantation slave records were kept by dollar value and head count, not names. Bills of sale may be filed in old Southern courthouses, but Union forces burned down many of those courthouses at the end of the Civil War. Surviving records are not digitized. Black celebrities are able to find their roots through DNA testing and scattered documents, but this research is way out of reach for my neighbors.
My friend Sarah said, “How I wish I could map my roots. I have no idea what African country my people lived in before they were kidnapped. Some of my family must still be living there, but where? Ghana maybe? Senegal? The Ivory Coast? I’ll never know. Just like I’ll never know where they were forced to work here in America. I guess they came up here from wherever during the Great Migration, but no one ever talked about it. And I never asked. Now, it’s too late. They’re all gone.”
Martin is proud to tell me that his ancestors were not slaves. “Not one,” he says. “They were French Canadians. They arrived in New Orleans in the first forty years of its history. They were natives of Quebec, not Acadians. And none were ever slaves for any white men.”
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