Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert E' Lee's Slave

I once wrote, on another blog, a short piece that was slightly critical of Robert E. Lee and his fighting to defend slavery. Turns out even insinuating any flaw in Mr. Lee is almost as dangerous as me writing about black women’s hair.

A comment responding to my blog disturbed me to the point that I did not reply. Not till now at least. The commenter told a story about Robert E. Lee’s manservant who even after the surrender at Appomattox, stayed faithfully by Lee’s side.

The story of Lee’s slave was new to me, but the type of story was not. It is the sort of tale, or detail rather, that has led me to detest “Gone with the Wind” and made me almost incapable of having a reasonable discussion with most armchair historians displaying a southern lean.

If I may, let me respond now.

Tales of faithful slaves or loyal black people dot the landscape of southern histories. Some are true, some are not. One cannot say two words relating the War of Northern Aggression to slavery, or criticize the Confederate flag, without one of these tales, most likely a tale of a black confederate soldier, being immediately thrown back in defense. To this I simply say, “Are you serious?”

Sadly that is completely rhetorical and a bit inflammatory, as I know good and well that they are. These stories, or even historical accounts, of the happy Negro exist and most white people take them at face value as proof that we cannot judge historical values through our modern lenses. The stories are used to show that things weren’t really all that bad, and in some ways were even better. You see, the races, black and white, got along better back then. We even loved and cared for each other. Our children played together, black women nursed white children, and soldiers of each race even fought and died together. Obviously the “peculiar institution” was not as bad as we may think, and historical figures like Lee should not be judged so harshly.

How short sighted.

To read these accounts and come to these conclusions is to make simpletons of all black people and displays a complete ignorance of black realities. These tales do not show that things weren’t as bad as we think but rather display how much worse they really were.

Let’s look at the example of Lee’s manservant, Rev William Mack Lee. A short history of his life was published in 1918.

Rev Lee, who was by this time quite old, was touring the countryside to raise money to fund the building of his church. In his story he tells how he was born on the General’s plantation and stayed loyally by his side throughout the war. He told how all the slaves on Lee’s plantation were freed ten years before the war but all stayed put till after the fighting ended. The autobiography goes on to tell how the Rev. stayed by Lee’s side till the old General passed away, at which time Lee left $360 for the Rev. to “educate himself.”

William wrote: “At the close of the war I did not know A from B…I went to school. I studied hard at the letter, but my greatest learning came from Jesus Christ”.

So, at face value we have a former slave who was freed by his master but stayed with him. Years after his old masters death he is still singing his praises. Not only singing, but thanks to the generosity of the old master he is also writing and preaching. What a great man this master must have been.

Or maybe he was just great in comparison to all the other white people William knew. An oft ignored aspect of life in the mid 1800’s and earlier, is that just because a state, or a group, opposed slavery, one cannot assume those states or groups actually liked or accepted black people. In fact the popular proposal of those who opposed slavery was that black people should all be shipped back to Africa. Some even did just that, founding the country of Liberia.
A black person, who somehow attained freedom, was in no way guaranteed rest and peace. More likely a freed slave was now tossed into an open market that did not want and often would not allow, black participation. An appreciation for the difficulty and outright persecution faced by free black people would lead us to look closer at the choices historical black characters made.
Some chose to stay put, like those on Lee’s plantation. A benevolent master, who didn’t beat you, at least not that much, may have been a safer bet than the rabble beyond the plantation gates. More telling yet, was that knowing the scorn the outside society held in store, many, many, chose to risk life and try for freedom.

General Lee appreciated William's education so much that he financed it. How nice. But then again, if it was truly important, why didn't he educate Mr. William Lee himself rather than through a gift in his will? It seems many a gracious slave owner was mostly only gracious after his death.

The Civil War, with its Northern Armies marching through the heart of the south gave the biggest opportunity for slaves to flee the farm for freedom. Rev. William Lee did not. It may have been his loyalty to that great man, or could it also have possibly been that to stand next to Robert E. Lee was also to stand next to the very military might of the confederacy. There is a famous tale, the one retold to me by the commenter, of how directly following the surrender at Appomattox, Gen. Lee retired to his tent and did not reemerge for the space of a day. All the while William Lee sat loyal watch outside the tent without moving.

Might I inquire where he would have gone?

If I were a black man standing in the middle of 8,000 armed soldiers who had just been in the business of killing others to defend their right to own a black person, many of their closest friends having died in the process, and who have just received notice that they lost the war; I might just sit still on a stool counting the seconds till one of these men finds a convenient target on whom to express his frustration. I could either run out into the midst of these heart broken sharp shooters, or I could stick close to the side of the one who may protect me or at least someone who appreciated my services. One may think I could run to the Union troops, they aren’t so far away; but then again how am I to know that those Union soldiers like black people? Truth is many union soldiers resented black people due to the fact that they saw themselves fighting and dying for a whole race of people they saw as inferior and best kept away from themselves and their women. To automatically assume that I would stay put simply out of devotion is to ignore everyone else and everything around me.

Of course I was not there. I did not know either of the Lees in question. Maybe we should just stick with what was in Rev. Lee’s book.

Like the following:
“Still limping from a Yankee bullet, an old darkey, with a grizzled beard and an honest face, hobbled into the office of the World-News at a busy hour yesterday.
"Kin you white folks gimme a little money fur my church?" he asked, doffing his tattered hat as he bowed.
Typewriters tickled their hurried denial.
The aged negro cocked his head on one side. "What, I ain't gwine ter turn away Ole Marse Robert's nigger is yer? You didn't know dat I was Gen. Robert Lee's cook all through de wah, did yer?" Every reporter in the office considered that introduction sufficient, and listened for half an hour to William Mack Lee, who followed General Robert E. Lee as body guard and cook throughout the Civil War. When the Negro lifted his bent and broken figure from a chair to take his leave every man in the office reached into his pocket, for a contribution.”

Before you send me more stories of the happy slave, do me a big favor and go look up the term “shuck-n-jive” first.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are They Called Negroes?

She was by far the oldest person at the family reunion. She shuffled around and everyone stooped down to explain, help, and give reverence to the reigning matriarch of the occasion. I’m not really sure how we are related, great aunt, great cousin in-law, I have never been all that close with this side of the family.

I found myself sitting next to her at a banquet table one evening. “what nationality is she?” she asked me, referring to my daughter, who was sitting near us.

“Her Mom is African-American.”

“Afro what? African? Amrination?” she struggled.

“Her Mom, my wife, is black,” I simplified.

“Oh. Well ya never know. Sometimes they adopt ya know. Now where exactly is Philadelphia? What is it near?”

I thought about how to answer her question and took the easy way out. “Its near New York.” I was not prepared for what she asked next.

“Now, there’s lots of Negroes in New York right?”

I don’t recall exactly how I answered. I think I stammered some sort of affirmation trying to be respectful to both an old lady and a whole race of people.

“Nancy says I’m not supposed to say Negro. Is it Colored? I just don’t know what to say. What was it you said earlier? AfreeMerin?”

She doesn’t hear all that well, so I thought it best to just stay simple, “just say black.”

“They used to be really mean to them I think. Wouldn’t let them sit on the busses, go to school. I just don’t know, but I think that wasn’t right. I just think it was mean. But it’s better now, right? That’s all done now isn’t it.”

I could have answered her a million ways. I could have been upset, could have just dismissed her entirely, or climbed high up on my horse and lectured my senior. I imagined what my wife’s face would have looked like had she been here to hear the whole exchange; mouth open, one eyebrow arched higher than the other, head slightly to the side.

“It was worse than mean. It was more than wrong. Things can still get better.” Is all I said.

I should explain something about this woman.
Earlier that same day the whole family had taken a trip to not only where this woman grew up, but where she has spent nearly all her life; Lyman Wyoming. I stood in front of a small wood home, looked right, looked left, turned all the way around and saw nothing but that house. Not a tree, not a building, nothing. Nothing all the way to the horizon in all directions. For most of her life she had to travel just to see another person. I think she may have met a total of 2.5 black people in her whole life. It has been a long life. Lest one think this isolation would amplify the affects of media, I should mention that for most of this woman’s life, they had no power. They had no power, as in influence, but mostly just in that they had no electricity. They lived “off the grid” as the hipsters would say today, but they did it in the 60’s.

What should I expect from a woman who lived in Wyoming with no TV during the 60’s? She is the equivalent of the average American today and our awareness of the state of indigenous tribes in Central America.

She is the generation of my grandmother. What should I expect her to have taught her children about race? Should I have expected her to address such an abstract in her world at all? We learn what we know through teaching and experience. On this subject she neither had, nor could give either.