This morning, I was going through the TSA line at the airport in Birmingham, Alabama, when I had a familiar exchange about our shared past. A TSA agent noticed a bath bomb from LUSH, my favorite store (I always get stopped for bath products) and needed to take a look at it.
As he quickly looked it over, he saw the title of my latest book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015). I was on my way to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) conference so I had ten copies between my suitcase and backpack. I thought that was the reason why I was getting stopped. I am aware of weight issues, but I had packed lightly to make room for these books. I was relieved the books’ weight were not a problem.
Anyway, I told him in a sentence about the book’s difficult thesis concerning the way in which southern white men quietly invested in the future of select enslaved women and children before the Civil War, freeing some and even making financial arrangements for their future. The children were likely these men’s own progeny. Even if it is hard to make sense of such arrangements and the unspoken coerced moments that possibly set in motion such messy ties, they still happened.
“And a lot more than people want to talk about,” said the agent, an African American man.
Before I could say more, he added, “Too often we want to share the parts of history we are proud of.”
“On both sides,” I said.
He nodded. I gave him a copy of my book and signed it.
We were both clearly aware of the horrors of the slavery era. But what about the grayer areas that also figure into this part of American history? I’ll address this difficult subject as part of a panel with Dr. Hilary Green, my University of Alabama colleague, and Cindy Jones, a doctoral student in UA’s School of Education, 10am in the Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel, 4th floor, Salon BC/AV, this Friday. I will sign copies of my book at an author signing 6:30-8:30pm tomorrow in the Continental room on the hotel’s mezzanine level.
Being in Cincinnati again will be like coming full circle. Indeed, many of the freed women and children I studied settled there owing to this city’s position on the Ohio River, which links to the Mississippi River pouring into slave territory. When the rivers were suitably high, it was fairly easy to send them north where some of the children could attend schools like Wilberforce and Oberlin College. This Friday, I will focus on the descendants of Huntsville, Alabama, planter Samuel Townsend who left an estate worth $5.1 million in today’s currency to ten children from five enslaved women, nine of the children his progeny, according to a deposition by Septimus Cabaniss, his attorney. Some of the Townsend children attended Wilberforce.
Telling this story again and again is especially challenging amid today’s headlines. Conversations with people like that TSA agent are encouraging as are conversations with my students who are really thinking through so much this semester. Between the national anthem debate and ongoing discussions about partisan battles on Capitol Hill and beyond, folks have a lot on their minds. But it is through honest conversation about our present and past shared ties that we will survive it all.
P.S. While riding through Birmingham to get to the airport, I was struck by all of the construction on the interstate highways. This seems to be a city on the forefront of much needed change if power brokers keep the needs of all Alabamians in mind. Here’s to a shared better future.