Next week – specifically, from 5 to 7 pm January 26 at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in Tuscaloosa – I will participate in a conversation about “intimacy” across the color line with University of Alabama Professor of English Trudier Harris, Wayne State University Associate Professor of English Lisa Ze-Winters and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, New York Times best-selling author of Wench and the recently published Balm. It will not be an easy conversation.
Discussing race is never an easy task.
I was just asked by a reporter why this conversation is even necessary. To start answering the question, I’d have to share the origins of the event. It springs from the publication of my book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015). The book uses old letters and business documents that unveil the degree to which enslaved and freed people were folks in whom southern white men invested themselves emotionally (imagine the difficulties of finding a barometer for measuring that) and financially (that barometer is easier) before the Civil War. One Huntsville, Alabama, man left his $200,000 estate – that is the equivalent of $5.5. million in today’s currency – to nine children with five enslaved women and their immediate kin. Of course, his relatives were not happy. His lawyer’s papers, unveiling this story, sit in UA’s Hoole Special Collections.
There are many issues to think through including how it is highly likely that most of the people under discussion next week never thought for a minute that their lives would be addressed before the public. I only hope that they would see that efforts were made to present them as fairly as possible given the all too troubling aspects of the slavery era.
But back to the reporter. I told this individual the following (by the way, the entire interview was via email, something new for this former journalist who once talked to people in person or by phone, sites where one could get a better sense of the other’s motivations and intentions):
It’s an important discussion especially now. What if we could imagine the degree to which we are all complex people with a shared past that is also pretty complicated? What then would we make of all the things that keep us apart, racially and otherwise? The biggest hurdle to even thinking in this way is knowing we’d have to next make adjustments in our attitudes. That’s where the real work is. My grandfather was born and raised in Mississippi. He once told me “There are good people and bad people in the world. Not all of the good people are black and not all of the bad people are white.” That’s heavy coming from a man who lived through the Jim Crow period and yet he saw this so clearly. My grandma who still lives has told me the same. We see the horrors. The horrors are always there. But something else is there, too. I want us to talk about it.
REQUEST: If you reference my grandfather, please use the entire text following that anecdote and most especially the horrors. To not do that would make him look like an apologist (i.e. one who is saying the Old South was problem-free), which he is not. Neither is this talk. Thanks!
Is this blog post my wish to make sure everything I said ends up the way I said it? Yes. Indeed, it is. The horrors of slavery are so well known. Never let it be said that I never acknowledged as much. But I am asking for us to acknowledge more.
I think now of Louisa Picquet, a real life woman of mixed race in my book who was purchased at age 14 in Mobile, Alabama, by an aging New Orleans man (she is pictured on the cover of an 1861 memoir). He told he’d kill her if she disobeyed him. She found a way to survive her time with him. How often did she smile in his face or while doing some chore under his watchful eye or that of someone else in a position of authority when she really wanted to scream or cry?
We don’t have a clue. We do have her memoir in which she told a New Orleans minister offering condolences on the death of her “husband” that her master was hardly her husband.
Before his death, according to her and the Buffalo, NY, minister who wrote her memoir, he promised to free her and their children. He even asked her to help him to a table where he could write out his will by a fireplace. One could only wonder what was going through her mind as she helped him especially considering she probably entertained the idea of hurting him or running away from him many times. She was so fair, she could have passed for white. Earlier in her book, she shared that her first love, also a person of mixed race, indeed invited her to run away with him.
While his brother threatened to keep her because, in theory, as he said, she belonged to him because her master never repaid the loan used to buy her, she was indeed freed. The financial proceeds from the sale of their furniture were also given to her. She tarried a bit until urged on by a dark-skinned woman who could see she’d better leave before her master’s brother changed his mind. Picquet fled with her two children to Cincinnati, a city in which many women and children like them had also relocated. Cincinnati’s location on the Ohio-Mississippi river network made it a likely site. The abolitionist presence helped some, too. Just looking at the map below, which came from the University of Chicago’s Map Collection, one senses the enormous adjustments required of many new arrivals, especially ones arriving from rural spaces. Race riots were common on Cincinnati’s waterfront as arriving whites, many of them Irish, feared the loss of jobs owing to the city’s growing black presence.
This reductive blog entry is hardly an adequate place to address the thorny critique required of such relations and resettlements. This is admittedly one messy narrative.
Complex. Complicated. Messy. Those words show up with such growing regularity in books I read, they almost have little meaning. The real work, again, is in making adjustments in the research and the lived experience. That’s hard. Very hard. Certainly hard to even adequately approach via one sentence social media comments, one-page blog entries, lengthy monographs, and evening conversations. But try we will as we continue learning together. Ze-Winters is the author of the just-published The Mulatta Concubine
Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Congratulations, Lisa. My copy will be here any day now. I am looking forward to how it will further push my thinking and research.