When I was growing up, one of the things I loved about visiting my grandmother in West Virginia was when she would go to a cabinet in the front room and pull out a box. She’d open the box and very carefully take out a handmade, handwritten cloth-bound book. It was about thirteen inches tall, maybe eight inches wide, around two inches thick, and inside it’s cover, in penmanship that looked like it came off the Declaration of Independence, was the name of my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Fields.
James was a Virginian, a tobacco farmer and the son of a tobacco farmer. The book is a collection of math lessons. It’s full of tables and measures and problems, including:
30 Days hath September
April June and November
All the rest hath 31
Except February hath 28 alone
But when of Leap year it doth combine
the time when February hath 29
for February its fourth year doth Come
Does gain a day from the Traveling Sun
It was the back pages of the book that always fascinated me most. They include poems that were transcribed (poet unknown). Both are filled with Christian imagery and implore the reader to be faithful to Jesus. One stanza reads:
Sweet rivers of salvation
Through Canaan’s land doth role
Bright darling berms of glory
Illuminates my soul
As ponderous Crowns of glory
All set with diamonds bright
And there my smiling Jesus reigns
Who is my heart’s delight
The back pages also include a record of the births (and sometimes deaths) of James and his wife Elizabeth’s children. Beginning in 1815, they had eight children, with the last born in 1834.
Alongside the births of his own children, James also records the births of “black children” – slaves.
George born September 3rd 1826
Malinda born August 12th 1828
Ann born January 9th 1830
Mary born June 15th 1832
Stephen born September 20th 1834
Five additional children are listed as born to Malinda:
Charlotte Elliot born March 5th 1846
Berry Frank born July 29th 1848
Julias Gilpin born May 17th 1851
Sarah Ann born May 27th 1860
Robert Lee born January 14th 1864
That last name gets to me most. Little Robert Lee, born just over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation and fifteen months before his namesake’s surrender at Appomattox.
When I was younger, those names were not much more than a curiosity to me – few slave owners bothered to record slave births by name. I was captured much more by the reality that James Fields had created these pages with his own thoughts and hands, and that they had been preserved and passed down parent to child until they had reached me. It was like a string across nearly 200 years of history connecting me with my ancestor in a way that the abstraction of genetics never could.
The mythology of the South was what I knew – states’ rights, Northern aggression, the prevalence of a benign slavery, freedom from federal government interference, the high moral character of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
And like everything involving real people, the realities of the country, the war, and slavery are incredibly complicated.
But that mythology? It’s just that – myth. Slavery is always inherently violent, the South fought the war to defend it, and southern generals led that violent conflict. That strand that connects me through 200 years to my ancestors is a thread of violence woven through our whole history.
My family owned slaves – children – to the end, and they fought for Virginia and the Confederacy to defend their “right” to own those human beings.
I’m glad I know. Many people with southern roots don’t. I’ll not be ashamed of my family history – I’ll not hide it. I mourn what my relatives did, and what they believed that allowed them to record slaves births and celebrations of their faith in Christ on the same page. I am not proud.
It’s a heritage I’ve seen so clearly at work throughout my lifetime and especially today – that ability to hold tightly to a “Christian” faith and to the way things are at the same time.
I understand it because I lived it myself for so long, and no doubt there are tentacles of that belief still entwined in my life. Those tentacles are woven throughout America – North and South – as well, and too many are blind to them. But I will root them out and repent of them, every one I find, both in my own life and in this world.
Because if there’s a Jesus worth following, his work is to proclaim good news to all of us who still live in poverty of many kinds because of racism and the generational impacts of slavery and its successors. If there’s a Jesus worth following, he proclaims liberty to all of us who are held captive by the normativity of whiteness, and the recovery of sight for all who are blind to the air of white supremacy we breathe every day. And he sets free those whose lives are marked by the oppression of suspicion and violence because of the darkness of their skin.
I come from people who claimed ownership of other human beings to support their way of life, who fought to defend that practice, and who named an enslaved child after a general defending slavery. They were willing to die for it.
What am I willing to die for?