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Perceptions of Slavery

Lately I've encountered a few slavery non-apologists, people who either think slavery was good for blacks, or others who wish to dismiss it as ancient history with no relevance for our lives today. The former remind me of those who argue the Holocaust didn't happen. The latter seek to blame blacks for their condition, seek to start the clock today with no historical context. I've encountered blacks who do the same thing, wanting to blame history for all their, all our ills. Both points of view are far too simplistic.

In any event, if it's not too late, you should catch the current "Weekend Edition" on National Public Radio (I hope its broadcast on Sunday). It features a lengthy piece of personal reporting by Edward Ball, a white descendant of a slave holding family. Ball spent his early years growing up on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The island was a holding "pen" for slaves. Ball said those who died enroute from Africa were thrown overboard. Those who survived were sold into slavery. The sick were held in a cage of some sort, with the dead buried in mass graves. Those who got well, well, they were sold into slavery.

There were several interesting things about the broadcast. First, it was oral. Ball recorded the words of his family members and the words of the slavery descendants. I swear I heard my grandmother speaking, members of my family I haven't heard since childhood. The other interesting thing was how the perceptions of the slave holder descendants are so different than the perceptions of the slavery descendants. In many ways, it mirrors the situation today where whites and blacks see the same things so very differently.

Ball's family members say they treated their slaves very well, even as they didn't understand them, then or now ("that's (black culture) a different culture from ours", "white people have no secrets from their nigra servants, but nigra's have a lot of secrets from us", "more consideration is given to breeding farm animals than breeding nigras -- They'll breed with anybody!"). Ball told of white northerners visiting the former plantations and complaining about the treatment of the blacks, how there was a legal ban on black education. One of his relatives would call over one of the Negro boys, Scipio, and have him recite "Carpe Diem". The northerner would be contrite and impressed, but it was a joke. Scipio didn't understand a word of the poem he recited. The family members said there was little brutality. Slave families were sold together. There was no interracial sex.

Ball engaged in a search for descendants of the slaves who lived and worked on his family's ten rice plantations. His search through public documents at the library and historical society was revealing: The slaves only had first names. In a devastating montage, Ball voice could be heard reading the names he found while the story went forward.

Upon first meeting an elderly black woman who was born on one of the plantations, she said to him, "I'm feeling much better now". Again, I could imagine my grandmother saying that to a stranger she had just met. She talked of her grandfather who was a slave on one Ball family plantation who was sold to another Ball plantation. He had two families, one on each plantation, because he had been sold without his first family. He tried to sneak back and forth under cover of darkness to keep up with both families. Counter to the good treatment the Ball's talked about, this woman said the slave owners, the Ball's would "sell you like they sell chicken". She talked of blacks burying their dead at night, of the screams and crying that would be heard at night, because there was no time to bury the dead during the daytime. They had to work. "Slavery time was no joke at all."

When Edward Ball told her he had been told the Ball's were "gentle masters", we heard an incredulous laugh, "Ha!". She then talked about how the overseer would do all the licking. Her grand aunt once struck the overseer to keep him from licking someone else. The overseer started to hit her, but was stopped by the master who said, "You can't touch her. I'll lick her", and he did.

She told of the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her grandmother, 12 then, was standing in the doorway when a Yankee soldier on a horse took her skullcap off her head, threw it up in the air and said, "You're free as a bird!" She knelt on her knees and said, "Thank God."

I can't portray it adequately, but the difference was striking. Not only were the whites lord and master and overseer during slavery, but the disparity between the two groups today remains wide, even in terms of attitude. Ball took the old black woman to the plantation where she was born. She showed the house she was born in. At the end of the story, he said to her: "I can't speak for everybody in my family. I can only speak for myself, but I apologize for what my family did to your family." He says it was an inadequate and self-serving remark, but she received it with grace. With GRACE. She said, "It come in long time, but it come in due time. Due time. ... You mend many fences...You just keep up the work boy, keep it up. Cause it's a lot of work to do.

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Meanderings 1.02 -- March 27, 1994