Dose #26: Part I: "Man(Kind)"? - Without Consent, The Slave In America
Hello, everyone! Summer is about to end, In Small Doses begins. I hope these past months have been all you'd hoped they would be - fresh air, light shoes, and fireflies. I return to In Small Doses with renewed enthusiasm. This year I hope to publish weekly, but will let content rather than a calendar be my guide. If you don't receive a post some weeks, it just means one is on the way.
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A visit this past Spring to what had been a rice plantation in the mid-1700s, sparked a desire to learn more of the history of slavery and its connection to present-day America's attitudes towards race and privilege. This longer than usual post is divided into parts I & II, this week and next. When I began writing I didn't know we were approaching the 400th anniversary of the day the first "20 and some odd" slaves were brought to our shores, August 25, 1619. The post was completed before I learned of The New York Times plan to publish "The 1619 Project" - stories and poems we all should know.
"O'beautiful, for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening, they're beating
plowshares into swords...this is the end of the innocence". ~ Lyrics, "End of the Innocence" - Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley
In the New York Times bestseller, "Sapiens; A Brief History of Humankind", author Yuval Noah Harari, asks us to imagine what few differences a man living in 500 BC might encounter should he return to earth 2000 years later in 1500 - then imagine his shock and confusion were he to reappear in only 500 years, in 2000.
We think of prehistoric knowledge of earth's elements and seasons, birth, death and in between, as raw and crude. Modern sapiens (Latin for "wise man") enjoys the luxury of unraveling the planet's mysteries at breakneck speed - speed made possible by tens of thousands of years of slow-moving, but persistent resourcefulness unmatched by any group before us. Today information gathered over millions of years is shared in seconds. We are 'au fait'...
We know we won't disappear at the horizon. We cross the globe in a single day mimicking the flight of winged animals. While there's magic still for those innocent enough to be in awe of this breathtaking universe with its community of stars and planets, what was imagined is explained and reassured within the framework of science. The primitive 'false' gods of rain, fertility and healing and the gods we should revere and never cross, are replaced with 'sophisticated' objects of faith called wealth, status, possession, movie stars and politicians. We are 'enlightened'...
Lately I, and others are paying attention to conditions of race and the history of race relations in America. News of discrimination and reparation, violence in Black communities, police shootings of unarmed teenagers and excessive rates of imprisonment of Black men and women, make it impossible not to know and not to question. Disparaging comments about men and women of colour spill out easily from high places, giving rise to thoughts of cultural regression and the decay of decency as a people.
I listen to what's said with an older heart. A heart less sure, less absolute. I catch a discussion between a t.v. documentarian of eastern Indian heritage and a 'white' man. Each challenges the other, "who's white", "who's not," who's meant to lead, who will follow, and as I listen I think all the knowledge in the world does little good if misunderstood, ignored or twisted to fit old beliefs. Sapiens capacity for accelerated adaptation and progress is evident, but how, I ask, does it fail us when it comes to embedded prejudice? False gods persist.
It's not entirely the man's fault. The human wish to grow is shaped but also hindered by conflicting needs for predictability and permanence. Holding to what we know and what we're told, right or wrong, informed only to the degree it's comfortable to know, we live in the safety of delusion. The fearful are slow to change, the uninformed see no need.
I'm not blameless. My interest in the problems of race and inhumanity brings with it a disappointing realization of how unlearned I've been. Ignorant is the better word. I grew up in the North. I played and studied with people of different backgrounds. The high school class president one year ahead of me was Black. I was taught a basic understanding of Abraham Lincoln, American hero, the man who freed the slaves in spite of fierce opposition. Once told the story, I would conclude opportunity belongs to us all - if only we would do our fair share. I was one of the 'educated', history class behind me, the story tied neatly with a bow, I went on to focus on other things.
This Spring I made a fourth visit to a South Carolina inn, once a rice plantation, home in the mid-1700s to a wealthy English landowner and hundreds of African slaves. Earlier visits were meant for restful quiet - this time I went with a wish to know more.
A sapphire blue river separates the inn from the side of the plantation that was the homestead. I feel the silence of paths and small curving roads covered in sand, no slap of foot strike as I walk. Large moss-laden trees, long witness to times of joy and determination, dreams and prayers, stand in a kind of grace, too dignified or too weary to reveal what they've lived. The feeling I have is one of reverence, the only sounds the low, gentle voices of Black women pushing carts filled with fresh linen, soaps and bottled water, stopping for a moment to wish "good morning" to guests out for early walks. Their presence brings a feeling of comfort, every need met for the asking. What are they thinking, I wonder, walking where their grandmothers walked?
A brick stairway in a formal English garden leads upward to the home's foundation. Centuries-old bricks hold together with sand and water, clean and brown and red, mostly intact. I think - "defiant" - as they might have been the day the 56th Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army arrived from my home state of New York with the goal of destroying a way of life. I walk through the door of a single preserved wing of the old mansion into a sitting and dining room with large, heavily draped windows, a polished mahogany table set with fine silver and English bone china, as if awaiting the family's return.
Later, standing at the window of my room, I see the grassy waters where Africans taught the white man how to grow a crop that would bring unimaginable affluence to the already moneyed Charleston, turning it into the wealthiest city in America in the 1600s. Slaves brought language and plants and culture to our country. They taught us how to grow tiny white kernels that would turn to gold.
The next day I sit under a hot sun on a long wooden bench with other visitors as a white-haired man with a soft accent tells stories and lists names of slaves sold in Africa and brought to work and live on these grounds. He tells us once it was realized how profitable bodies could be, ships built to carry 150 were fast replaced with larger and larger vessels until as many as 450 men, women and children could be transported in one crossing.
The white-haired man says mornings at sea ship mates would go below to the dark, cramped hold, removing those who didn't make it through the night, throwing them overboard, the only way to prevent the spread of disease. Slaves were priced based on skill, laborers able to work in sun intolerable to the white man, the most available, most expendable, and least costly. Still, even the loss of one, meant a loss of revenue. Our little audience has grown solemn, perhaps embarrassed, as the white-haired guide tells us slave ships were recognized on the high seas by the schools of sharks trailing behind, waiting for what was discarded.
As I listen, my imagination runs wild. What if I, at the age of 16, was taken from my home by people whose language I didn't understand, placed in the bottom of a ship with hundreds of others, carried over rough seas in dangerous, unsanitary conditions, no understanding of where I was headed, no one to soothe, no one to answer my questions...then weeks later arrive in a strange land to work for people I don't know - no word of when this would end. What would I feel? Fear. Disbelief. Despair. Hopelessness. No choice but to go on, scarred, never the same.
That evening as I walk the paths and breath the air, I wonder how did the African see what I see? Through what lens did they go about their day, surrounded by singing birds, blue waters, cool nights? How many hours and days did they think of lives and dreams and home - forever separated from a wife left behind, a parent in need, wheat coloured fields, dignity, the human blessings of choice and self-determination.
The next morning I walk into the chapel. A post on the wall tells the story of slaves asking for this place of worship to be built. It's a small wooden room where they could sing and talk to their God, asking for strength, offering gratitude for perseverance. Three pews deep, a single wooden cross on a mantle, scratchy recordings of gospel songs stream through the tiny, sun-filled room. I think the voices sound tired. I walk around the building to find three stones marking graves, two for adults, a miniature stone for a small child. What was their story?
I study old photos of women dressed in worn cloth, holding the hands of their beloved Black sons and daughters. Did they whisper to the children's father in the night, the man they could not marry, late enough so no white man would stop them from talking of how things will one day be? Did they look into the eyes of their babies and feel hope in spite of where they were and what the next day and the day after that would be? I hope so. I hope so.
This walk into the past leaves me with feelings of sadness, deep disappointment in man's lack of humanity. As I wait to leave Charleston airport, the words "mankind" and "humankind" come to mind. What do they mean? Benevolence. Brotherly love. The human race. Most immoral. Most predatory. Most dangerous. What...?
To be continued...
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