Wednesday, November 21, 2007


(Old Slave Block in St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans -- The name over the middle alcove is "M. Barnett", which was my birth name)

My great-aunt Lee did not care much for Thanksgiving. She observed it, because there seemed to be no real alternative, but she took pains to point out that it was a "Yankee" holiday, imposed on the country during the Civil War when the actual founding colony of America, Jamestown, could be ignored. As a child, I was taken aback by her pronouncements, just as I was shocked when she showed no approval for my having memorized the Gettysburg Address: She said I could find far more admirable language to commit to memory than that of "Mr. Lincoln", a President whose virtues she felt were grossly overstated.

She certainly knew her history. She and my great-uncle John Thomas spent countless summers as re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg, residing in the Berkeley House in authentic pre-revolutionary style. They were both teachers of history and English, in public schools and colleges. They were instrumental in getting the Texas State Archives founded here in Austin. Aunt Lee is the source of our voluminous, impeccably documented genealogy, remarkable in a family line of poorly-schooled subsistence farmers. She was ferociously supportive of higher education for women, and she saw no schism between Darwinism and faith in an almighty Creator -- she had no difficulty believing in both, and scorned those who did have trouble. And -- she and Uncle John were John Birchers who longed for a return to an era when "blacks knew their place." Her given name was that of her hero, General Lee.

I loved her very much, contradictions and all. Having to sort through this love has been very good for me, enabling me to be much more successful as an anti-racist activist dealing with my own people.

And, I suspect Aunt Lee was right about the political mythmaking behind Thanksgiving's origins. According to Wikipedia, "On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, comprised of about eight thousand acres (32 km²) on the north bank of the James River near Herring Creek in an area then known as Charles Cittie (sic) about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, where the first permanent settlement of the Colony of Virginia was established on May 14, 1607. The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a "day of thanksgiving" to God. On that first day, Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving." However, "During the Indian Massacre of 1622, nine of the settlers at Berkeley Hundred were killed, as well as about a third of the entire population of the Virginia Colony. The Berkeley Hundred site and other other outlying locations were abandoned as the colonists withdrew to Jamestown and other more secure points."

My first white ancestor in North America arrived at Jamestown in 1609, Captain James Davis. What occurred at Jamestown and its environs over the next few decades is, I think, more essential to establishing the character of the futured United States (and offering object lessons about the problems we've still not addressed) than the 1621 colony of Plymouth Plantation in New England. But the New England version makes for a prettier story, with a hint of nobility about it if you ignore some details, and certainly the Civil War era marks a period of extreme anti-Southern public relations, most of which have economic reasons rather than a sincere moral antipathy toward slavery on the part of the industrial North.

In addition to James Davis, a Cavalier, I also have ancestors from the Camp, Carter, Randolph and Tarpley lines, names familiar to those who study colonial Virginia and especially the James River region. However, these enter my genealogy from another source, not the line that was shared by Aunt Lee. And they are in the minority. Most of my forebears, like hers, were indentured servants, Scots renegades of the class referred to by Sir William Berkeley (of Berkeley House and Plantation connections) when he said "I thank God, there are no free schools, nor printing; and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both."

America likes the notion that we were founded by hard-working folks seeking liberty, especially freedom from religious persecution, who came here and transformed a virgin wilderness into the richest nation on earth. We give thanks to this myth every November, and the voices who keep pointing out how very off plumb it is are considered killjoys.

Well, I come from a long line of killjoys. Here's the basics:

---The first settlers were funded by capitalists who expected to make a profit from these ventures, pure and simple. The push to find means of income, not just survival, scarred the early colonies deeply.

---Earlier European contact had introduced diseases which decimated many Native populations, and they were still reeling from this assault, emotionally and practically, when British Isles folks appeared. If tribes had been in their normal state, it seems unlikely any colony would have survived -- the land was simply not "available" for the taking, no matter what religious beliefs the colonists held.

---Colonists who came seeking "religious freedom" were in the minority and did not want freedom in the sense that we understand it -- rather, they wanted to impose their own religious doctrine on their communities. (Sound familiar?)

---If your ancestor came during the 1600s, the odds are greater than half that s/he was an indentured servant. The practice of indentured servitude was violent, destructive to family life, and set the cultural stage for the advanced, most vicious forms of slavery which survived in America far later than in other parts of the industrializing world.

Thus, class divisions between the early colonists were profound and had extreme outcome on survival. If you don't understand the details of this, you will be baffled as to why so many former indentured servants would jump at the chance of introducing African slavery even though they understood its evil.

A couple of years ago, PBS had one of its re-enactment series, Colonial House, wherein a group of ordinary people were trained in the details of life as it was in a 1600s New England colony and set down in a re-created village for six weeks, with cameras recording what transpired. For me, the most riveting outcome was the personal journey of Danny Tisdale, a progressive black man from New York, publisher of Harlem World magazine, who came to the "colony" in the role of a free man of color. Despite tremendous concessions to modern sensibililties, life there turned out to be so arduous, day to day, that at one point this highly intelligent man realized if the option of buying slaves sailed into the nearby cove, he would be tempted. This revelation was so painful, he left the experiment early, unable to resolve the internal crisis it presented.

I know we're currently in a period where Big Lies are the norm, and fundamentalist nuttiness is deliberately seeking to taint all history and science we've ever taken for granted. But the best antidote to dishonesty is, as always, honesty. Educate yourself: An excellent place to start would be to read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by Brandeis history professor David Hackett Fischer and/or read the extraordinary essays about this book (three so far, fourth yet to come) by Sara Robinson at Orcinus. Give thanks for what makes sense to you, resist the urge to buy and spend, and love your imperfect beloveds as best you can. Forgive the wretches who populate your family tree even as you make sure you are not a chip off their block. A good life lasts for generations.


Anonymous said...

I think that "nobility" thing is a big one.
It's much nicer and neater to think that our country, sailing bald eagles and all, was founded by persecuted folks who wanted to practice their religion than it is to think about it being founded solely for the possibility of cash.

The myth of america, or whatever you want to call it, is romanticized beyond belief. I don't think that it's unique to the US, either. England is even worse. about it, which could explain where we got it.

And, go Scots renegades! On my mom's side, those were our first ancestors to get to America. Then came the Manx, who became big time Mormons.....oy vey....

Blue said...

Thank you for the history lesson, Mags.

My family came on the big ships, as well, and one of them penned a somewhat famous (if arduously read) book. Supposedly we were wealthy, lost our money, were wealthy, lost our money and so on. I have little money, and honestly on Thanksgiving that's what I was thankful for. It's easier not to hurt people and the earth when you don't have the means to buy gas and Nikes.

Blue said...

And it's interesting, the parallel between my slave-owning rich ancestors, and my own propensity to "blindly" support slavery in how I spend my money, when I have it . . .

WereBear said...

The Danny Tisdale story is an extraordinary one. I will be thinking about that for a long while.