[Reproduced from my blog on Coming To The Table (comingtothetable.org)]
Every so often I look at a sheaf of photocopied deeds, wills and succession papers sent to me by cousins in the south. They represent transactions carried out by my maternal ancestors, involving the lives of the black people they presumed to own.
From the remove of over a century and a half, some might say I have no real reason to feel anything in particular about the slavery that was so integral to my ancestors’ lives and fortunes, or about my ancestors themselves, except to regret what they did and be glad the slaves were freed. My ancestors are a part of me, as I am a part of them, but I didn’t buy and sell people, as they did. Why should I carry their burden?
But I do carry it, because if my study of history has educated me in anything useful, it is that every small act, every littlest gesture, is as important as the bigger events to which we attribute so much more influence.
This truth is written clearly across all the documents described above, and one of them in particular. In 1858, my fourth great-grandfather, James Wise, died on his plantation in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana. Whatever the reason, after James Wise’s death everything on his plantation, including his thirteen slaves, was sold in spring 1864, in the last year of the Civil War.
The catastrophe made the settling of James Wise’s estate a prolonged business—even with their world crumbling around them, these resilient southerners carried on with legal processes and duties as if in peace time. Only in March 1864 was the estate finally sorted out and the land, buildings and belongings inventoried for auction.
The sheriff’s sale papers tell much about the luxuries available to white people who, without slaves to work their fields, could never otherwise have boasted such a long list of belongings, including the human beings listed along with livestock, sidesaddles and dining room chairs. The papers also tell something about someone who was listed among those valuable possessions.
While family members or friends watched or bid, a young black woman threaded her way through the white throng. She was Ginette, mother of four children: Oliver, Buell, Oace and a prettily named daughter, Satin. Ginette and the children had belonged to James Wise, and like the sugar tongs and the china, they had been offered for sale in 1858. Some time between the original inventory and this March day six years later, the slaves had been sold. I have not found any indication of who paid for Ginette and her children. All I know is that she reappears in the auction papers as “the girl Gemetto”, purchasing a bowl for $2. This was no small sum in 1864 Louisiana or for a woman who had never been paid for her labor. Why did Ginette buy the bowl? Was coming emancipation so heady in the air she believed she’d be free soon to use the bowl in her own home? Was it a memento of a household whose break up was as traumatic to her as it was to the white family she had served there? Did Ginette do it because she could forgive?
Ginette was not the only Wise slave to come back to the plantation that day: a young man named Warren also made a purchase (three blankets). And they were not the only ones to evince some closeness to the family who had owned them: another former slave, Moses Wise, lived next door to Joseph Wise, the son of his former master, in the years after the Civil War. (Joseph’s wife, Carolina Lambright, was the daughter and granddaughter of slave-holders in Mississippi: they were my third great-grandparents.) What was their motivation? Here’s where my burden comes in, because it is not just the weight of sorrow for what my ancestors did to Ginette and her children, to Warren and Moses. It is the burden of needing to believe that these three people continued to draw close to my family, on the eve of slavery’s end and after, because my people were somehow different from other slave-holding folks—that they had been kinder, more patient, more generous than most; that they had never overworked their slaves, or broken up families on the auction block, or made their lives any more miserable than there is every reason to suppose they were—maybe even that the 1858 sale was engineered to sell the Wise slaves to be done with the business of slavery itself.
But then, if even part of this fantasy were true, if the Wises were such good people, people of conscience and fairness, why in Heaven did they own slaves in the first place?
My Southern grandmother always told me to be sure to count my blessings. To her, it was a sort of ritual, related to the powerful Christian faith which had helped her survive the Great Depression, the deaths of infant children, and the challenges that beset her in old age. Though a quasi-Buddhist, I do count my blessings as she instructed me. I count among them the fact that had it not been for Ginette, or Warren, or Moses, or the other people to whom James Wise held title, I would not be this much farther along in my own pursuit of happiness. I am thankful for the years and labors these people gave so that my ancestors could be prosperous, and smooth some of the way for their descendants—Ginette sweeping the porch and minding the kitchen meant that my fourth great-grandmother had the leisure to teach her own children to read. Out of that may have come me, a writer, generations later. But I cannot rest easy in that thankfulness until I know that being freed gave Ginette, and Warren and Moses, something of the lives they hoped to live—that they not only were able to pursue happiness, but capture it. This is why I hope some day to find their descendants, if only to ask them: “Are you happy?” What else is there to say? And what else is there that matters?