I’m just staring at this letter from James Tucker to General Cocke. Tucker has just told Cocke that Cocke’s “boy” Jeffrey was killed when he fell off a horse that he was riding while drunk. He has explained how the accident happened, how it was not his fault, and why it has taken him almost two weeks to write the General to let him know of Jeffrey’s death.
Everything in the letter is disturbing, from the fact that this man is quite clearly more disturbed by the fact that the General could be angry than that a young man has died to the fact that he holds another enslaved man, Pompey, responsible for not seeing Jeffrey since they crossed paths . . . in a snow storm. . . at night. This letter does not endear me to James Tucker, to put it mildly.
Then I get to this sentence.
By Charles I send you two beaves one I hope is very good the other I fear is not tho they have eat enough hominy and oats to make them good.
This man sent two cows (or beaves – the plural for beef) as recompense for Jeffrey, a human being. I don’t even know how to begin making sense of this. My heart breaks open.
So often in the process of writing this book and discussing it with people, well-intentioned folks say, “Well, that’s just the way things were then” when I tell them about people being sold or forced to work from first light to last light six days a week or being hired off the farm and away from their families for years at a time. . . And they are not wrong – this is the way it was then . . .
Yet, this statement about “the way things were” is also a glossing over, an excusing, a rationalizing for behavior that, were it happening now, we probably would find repellant (although our culture’s willful ignorance about modern day slavery and human trafficking is rather appalling). But because it is history, we are not supposed to be repulsed; we are supposed to be accepting, to just take it for what it is and move on.
I’m done with being accepting about the things that happened during chattel slavery. Absolutely done. We abused, tortured, oppressed and enslaved other human beings. Yes, it was a common practice at the time, but no, it does not make it acceptable. Ever. Even then.
People then knew this – William Lloyd Garrison knew this; Frederick Douglass knew this; Sojourner Truth knew this; Lydia Maria Child knew this. People knew better.
It’s very easy to write away history as something that naive, ignorant people did, and to pretend that horrible practices were simply a product of that time, not a a part of our inherent ability as people to be depraved. But we dishonor ourselves, our history, and most importantly the people who suffered through chattel slavery by pretending that’s “just how it was.”
The bottom line is never it is acceptable for a man to die and for another man to offer two cows as his worth. Not then. Not Now. Never.
Why do you think we like to excuse the atrocities of history? What do those excuses give us?