One of the stories passed down in my family dealt with a Black woman purportedly owned by someone on my mother’s side who lived in Maryland. As my mother told the story to me, the woman was old and liked to drink alcohol. Embedded in the account I heard was a trace of amusement. Apparently the family had found the elderly slave woman’s drinking habits funny.
Over the years, I have repeated that story to acquaintances, usually in the context of a discussion of the horrendous mistreatment Black people received for hundreds of years at the hands of White people, who considered them less than human and, therefore, appropriate property to own and abuse as they saw fit. Reflecting on those moments, I think I somehow thought casually injecting my family story into the conversation and admitting my complicity in the awful practice of slavery would somehow absolve me from the condemnation commonly heaped on racists and the ancestors of racists in today’s America. But I now realize my hands won’t ever be clean no matter how many times I own up to that historical fact.
I recently re-read Edward Ball’s 1998 award winning non-fiction book, Slaves in the Family. Ball traced his family’s slave owning roots all the way back to the earliest Ball to begin amassing property and slaves in South Carolina. He heads out in search of any descendants of those early Balls who might be able to help him recover the truth of his family’s practices way back when. He discovers, fairly early in the process, that some of the Ball plantation masters fathered children with slave women, making his family, at least in some strands, bi-racial. That gives him three avenues to explore–White ancestors, bi-racial ancestors, and ancestors of people once owned by his family.
For the most part, his White relatives excuse themselves and their ancestors by clinging to the specious argument that we shouldn’t condemn slave sellers and owners because their actions were consistent with the values of the time in which they lived. After some strenuous searching, he hears a different story from the other two groups–stories of Black families being separated and sold away from each other; stories of unbelievable cruelty meted out to Black men, women and children by overseers and sometimes his own descendants to keep their “property” in line; and, yes, stories of Black women, sometimes barely girls, who were raped and assaulted by White males from the big house who slipped into the shabby slave quarters in the dark of night.
As the weight of Ball’s stories bore down on me, I gradually came to see that admitting my family may have once owned slaves did nothing to remove the horrific reality those Black people endured for hundreds of years in this country, and it certainly didn’t absolve me of complicity in a system endorsed by White Americans for so terribly long. It gave me a new appreciation for the reparations movement still simmering in parts of this country (not that there’s any amount of money that could amend even a sliver of the damage done and still being done to Black people here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.)
I’m not sure what I can do to make amends for my family’s part in the unrighteous subjugation of Black people. But I can confess my inherited guilt and complicity and commit myself to working for an America and a world where no human being is ever treated as less than any other. I know that’s not much, but I hope it’s at least a start.