In the middle of my life path, I found myself lost in a dark wood.
Dante writes that sentence at the beginning of his Inferno. He is preparing to make an epic spiritual journey through hell and purgatory, toward paradise.
Of course, I haven’t endured Dante’s particular hell. Yet a kind of darkness did envelop me that day in the 1990s, when my cousin Diane informed me that our great-grandfathers in South Carolina had owned many black slaves. We sat in Diane’s living room in North Carolina, beside her chest full of old family records.
I had always believed chattel slavery was a criminal institution. Here in mid-life, I was learning that my ancestors were among the bad guys of history.
How could I not have known?
Yet how would I have known? Growing up, I had met silence from my white Southern family on all matters involving race. Even after Brown v. Board, when one black female student integrated our local high school in 1956, my parents spoke of segregation in hushed tones. The adults around us were terrified of “stirring up” the racial past, just as Edward Ball’s relatives were years later when he researched his groundbreaking 1998 book, Slaves in the Family.
I reached adulthood and moved North in 1964. My sister L.B. and I became the two “Yankees” of the family, living in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We lost touch with all our Southern relatives.
Not until the 1990s did I travel South to re-connect with my cousin Diane, who had been my best friend within the family. She told me then that our ancestors had been slaveholders. Was that possible, in a family far from rich, with no plantation? Could ordinary white farmers afford slaves? Was black labor that cheap? Yes, it was.
Diane’s comment was simple: “That was the way people made a living back then.” White people, she meant.
Afterwards, large and dark questions began to occupy my mind. How had our family’s character been affected by the brute fact of owning slaves for generations? Had my family not known that they were violating human decency? What kind of people did my ancestors see so long ago, when they looked into their mirrors?
And what did they tell their children? Was my own family history wound up with the origins of racism in this country?
A dark pathway of research seemed to open before me. Each step would be a risk.
Photo Credit: Murrayhead4, Flickr