My maternal grandmother was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known. Though her family had inhabited a small area along the Rappahannock for three hundred years, the household’s dissolution upon the death of her mother more or less forced her to accept an offer of marriage from a Texan who happened to be stationed near Norfolk during the First World War. The life to which he transported her in central Texas wasn’t remotely similar to the cultural setting she had left behind. The dissonance that resulted did not send harmonious ripples through subsequent generations; I trace a lot of the complexities of my own character back to a schizophrenic kind of tug-of-war between a nearly antisocial independence and an invincible attachment to fine creations that “have no use”. I suppose my emigration to Georgia, now in its final stages, is a compromise between the Texan and the Virginian in me.
One priceless bequest I owe to my grandmother is a small (all too small) amount of oral history that roots in times far preceding the Civil War. I recall, for instance, a story that concerned the childhood of her own grandmother. The girl was privy once upon a time to an exchange between the adult womenfolk and a slave girl called (I think) Sally. The women were chattering over a rumor that so-and-so whipped his slaves. They were scandalized, and quickly reached the conclusion that the reports were malicious. Nobody whipped slaves! I imagine they treated the talk just as you would if somebody whispered that the strange man down the street had two Thai girls locked away in his basement. Such things were thrilling to talk about in their Gothic horror but not to be believed in the light of day. Sally overheard the discussion and ventured to disagree with its conclusion. Oh, such things did indeed happen, Miss Anne! Oh, no, Sally, you shouldn’t be so gullible—that’s all just vicious gossip. Oh, no, Miss Anne, I know what I’m saying!
And this went back and forth until Sally at last, in an argument that could not be rebutted, dropped her blouse and exposed her back. It bore the cicatrices of old lash marks from a previous owner.
My grandmother’s intent was to illustrate through the story that her family, at least, did not maltreat slaves. I recall thinking at the time that it also revealed a disturbing degree of isolation from ghastly realities needing to be faced and addressed. I now understand, further, that the vignette confirms what I’ve often read about slaveholders: that the bullies among them were held in contempt by their neighbors and socially ostracized, so that they would go to great lengths to conceal their sadistic practices.
Merely accepting the institution of slavery, you may counter, should disqualify anyone from entering heaven… but in that case, my friend, it may be you who inhabits a fantasyland. Our world, unfortunately, is colored mostly in shades of gray. You and I like to believe that our own lights shine bright—but time will humble us, I guarantee you. If moral perfection is a prerequisite for heaven, then it’s a very lonely place.
My grandmother, for instance, would often vigorously point out that the Yankee slave traders made a handsome profit off of a commercial activity forbidden in most of their states. (Not all of them, by the way; states like Maryland and Kentucky not only permitted slavery, but were not prohibited from the practice by Mr. Lincoln’s glorious Proclamation.) I would add on the basis of my own reading of slave narratives that simply setting your bondsmen free wasn’t always a clear benefit for them. Sometimes a freedman would run into a couple of ruffians who would tear up his documents and put him back on the selling block… and the result might be trying to survive on a big plantation’s chain gang rather than currying Mr. Jones’s horses and feeding his hound dogs. These outrageous recaptures, besides, could occur in northern territory, and even in Canada. Yankee laws didn’t seem to be overly concerned about the problem.
I’ll close for now with one more ambivalent vignette that my grandmother proudly repeated. After the war, her father was down at the waterfront as evening gathered. (He captained a small fleet of boats that harvested menhaden from the Chesapeake, primarily for fertilizer.) A strapping young black man appeared from nowhere and approached him on the lonely wharf with a plainly unfriendly purpose in mind. “Papa” had no arm with which to defend himself—but he did have his trusty pipe; and in the gloaming, as he pointed the pipe’s stem deliberately, it must have looked very like a Derringer or a “pepperbox”. The menacing stranger lit out with his hands over his head and was seen no more.
Why do I share this story? Well, it shows us that a) casual robberies and murders took place routinely far east of the Mississippi even in the 1870’s; and b) that not all Americans of African descent were angels, just as not all European DNA was diabolical. With the freeing of the slaves came an uptick in violent crime. How could it have been otherwise? The South was destitute: the economy into which the slaves were freed had been shattered. (Many sought jobs in the industrial north—and the bigotry and race riots that ensued somehow don’t reach the threshold of interest in most history books.) Organizations like the KKK are a permanent stain on our cultural legacy; but it’s not a moral equivocation to observe that some naive souls may have been seduced into sympathizing with them thanks to a perceived link between freed slaves and more dangerous streets. In the same way, the Bolshevik objective of exterminating the Catholic Church, with wholesale murder of clergy, persuaded more than a few distressed French, Spanish, and Italian bourgeoisie to embrace fascism in the Thirties.
I wish we could collectively remember, in these rabid and downwardly spiraling times, that we are complex beings whose history is a tangle of mixed motives and bad calls. There are no angels among us; but there are, indeed, a few devils—the very behind-the-scene puppeteers who would have us all choose a tribe, a camp, for the most simplistic of reasons and then raise barricades. No good can come of such non-thinking. We still have a little time, maybe, before it sucks us irresistibly into a vortex that will pull apart the last vestiges of our civilization.