It is hardest for me to find cruelty in the normalcy of hatred and neglect, in the way a parent simply ignores the big purple A on the spelling test or the partner takes for granted the perfectly edged lawn on a humid afternoon. I want to pitch those things darker, redden them with rage or a raised hand or at least a voice.
And yet, our loathing is usually softer, pillowy because it’s easier for us to carry it that way.
This is how I see the history of slavery in the U.S. – something we have eased with the irony of harsher stories. The images of backs scarred ragged with the whip, the legacy of children torn screaming from their parents at a human auction, the young woman sold away from her partner because she misspoke. All true. All horribly historical these things.
But their power, their bright horror makes the wider oppression harder to see. Comparison easing off the pain. The men studded out like stallions to impregnate women so that the “stock” would increase. The nightmare of being stopped by patrollers even when on a sanctioned errand with papers because she cannot read the documents and know if they give her permission or damn her to rape. The quiet hopelessness of years ahead of a 13 year old boy on the first day he takes to the field with a sickle, the daunting weight of a hundred acres of wheat before his uncalloused palms.
Normalcy makes things seem less horrible. But normal isn’t better. Sometimes it’s worse.
Language is built for the great horror – the whip scars and shackles on the shack wall. Our culture craves sensation. And yet, my stories – the ones handed to me like hot coals on my lips, gifts that burn away delusion and complacency – they are not sensational except in the quiet way that each of our lives on each minute of every day is bigger than the sum of our lives.
So I tell stories, of these people and of my family – enslaved and slave owners both. Quietly but solidly. In the hopes that the horror seeps in like water on granite, cracking us open and leaving us raw.