HEY AMERICA #WEBUILTIT …AND DON”T FORGET IT! This tweet sponsored by a GOVERNMENT PROGRAM called #EMANCIPATION http://t.co/KioO1iLU — KosherSoul (@KosherSoul)
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Sitting here right now its almost sunset in the DC area and this computer is about to be shut off in honor of the Sabbath. It’s been a ride like no other…..this journey to making this dream of mine to find my roots and trace them through food–and bring people together across lines of “race.” There is an old Yiddish proverb–“A man plans and G-d laughs.” I know what that means now. In less than two days time I will find out whether or not my dream was a marketable venture enough for people to want to read about our travels and watch and copy recipes as my team and I wind our way through the South.
I realize that for many people I am only as good as my bio and my “branding,” and those are just buzzwords for a public face. But let’s cut the chase here–I need you because making it to and past my goal is the only way the Southern Discomfort Tour is going to take off and be of some meaning and use to people. I had to think about it long and hard—how do I make this project NOT self-indulgent and make it complex enough to be rewarding for other people and not just me.
When I was a very little kid for some reason I had issues with being Black. My Mother tells me that I often talked about Black people as being ugly or scary or not as smart. If you’ve ever seen the “doll experiments” you can guess why what that reason was. I hated when my Mother would remind me about that…it was embarrassing–still is. Of course things haven’t changed much in some arenas, although our opinions are. That’s the weird thing about “race,” its a construct, its a thing…like gender….like sexuality…like nationality…like religion. It does not really cross most human minds that we choose to opt in or out of these social constructs. Indeed, they do give meaning and structure to our lives and human existence but essentially they are only as real as we put meaning and action behind them. I choose to be an African American male-identifying Jew. I am not inherently any of that….well the male part I can’t help–but how much of that is how I was raised and the society and culture I came through?
Point being–when I became “ethnic,” my life changed. I became ethnic because I really wanted a reason to love being part of the culture I was born into. So many negative stereotypes and perceptions born in slavery, oppression, segregation, cultural and class “tracking,” all sorts of little social beasties that we still have a lot of trouble talking about not just in America but in the entire Western world. Because my Mom taught me to count to ten in Swahili (because that was popular back then and she lived several years in Kenya as a teenager), because my Dad had a Black inventors t shirt he made and sold, because I had Black history posters on my wall and because I went to family reunions, celebrated Kwanzaa, went to museums, listened to the whole gamut of our musical legacy, and watched an all Black cast of Oedipus with Morgan Freeman….LOL…I grew up ethnically Black.
Don’t get me wrong–I think ethnic Black and genetic Black are still related. I believe DNA carries memory. You can choose not to believe that metaphysical stuff–but I do. I think we ache with stories and spells and prayers we don’t know the origin of. We pine for genealogy because we know that part of the reason and rationale behind “us,” is in them–the dead and the spirit. Every culture on earth just about has a relationship with their Ancestors. In African cultures libation is poured, memorial prayers are said, altars constructed, shrines put up. In Judaism one honors yahrtzeits and yizkor and say Kaddish and visit cemetaries and place stones on the grave to say “we still respect you, we were here.”
And then there’s that food thing. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again–food is a powerful way to bring us all together and it serves as a vehicle for our identities–not static fixed identities but how they change even while they stay grounded in specific realities. To use Annie Hauck-Lawson’s term your “food voice,” is a shifting paradigm. However, for most of us it starts and ends somewhere–kind of like our identities…”I am this—but I am not that….I come from—I am…” etc. etc. That’s our reality. We are not one thing but many things. Many things working together. Kind of like a plate of something or specific dish–different elements in concert with one another cooking into something new and complex and impossibly un-duplicated.
Ever since I was a little kid this identity thing has been important to me. We pretend that culture is just coincidental–but its not. It’s not like a food preference or a fashion–even though that’s what “ethnicity” means to a lot of people. Culture is always there–its this language I’m typing in–its my thoughts on how the world is ordered and what’s right and what’s wrong. It isn’t something that ever truly goes on the back burner. We do ourselves a great disservice in the modern West pretending that one’s culture is waiting for us on a hook at home while everything else is the “real” us. Nope. You are not your suit tie skirt or pantsuit. You are not your gym. You are not any of those things. You are first and foremost a complex human animal with a complex thing balanced between nature and nurture called culture living inside of you.
I know that for some people this project is a little perplexing. I know some people won’t get it. I hope that people will get it. I want you to understand that I really want to know where I come from because it effects my cooking and food and scholarship. I want to know where I’m “located,” in the very culinary history I write about. I’ve been envious for years of people from Italy or Greece who can tell you about an olive or something from their region and why they love it so much and how what they do is different and irreplaceable. Those types always seem to be able to point out the antiquity of those foods and traditions. All I want is to be able to have the keys to do the same. The full story of Southern food has not been told.
Do you know what it was like to be an enslaved cook?
Have you ever seen anyone like me–a Black American male under 36 put on the funny clothes and cook and do the tasks of slavery to educate and motivate others?
Do you know the songs we sang when we cooked? Do you know the special tools and techniques that have been forgotten? Do you know the prayers and spells our grandmothers used to make things come out perfectly?
Do you have any idea of what its like to go to a Southern plantation site and see your culture and history marginalized, annihilated, obfuscated, removed, unremarked?
Do you know why we put the plates of our loved ones on our graves? Sang poetically about the gourd? Marked our bowls with sacred signs, and scratched secrets into the shells of turtles?
Can you name a single enslaved cook?
Do you know what those women and men went through from day to day? Do you know what they saw and experienced?
And then there is Africa….its my dream to know where my family comes from in Africa. Millions of people are watching “Finding Our Roots,” and “Who Do you Think You Are?” these days. I dream of that…being able to watch that tree grow and use genetic research to go where records can’t. I dream of being able to trace my Ancestors story in the flow of American and World history. This means the world to me–giving honor to my Ancestors and celebrating them and their stories and reaching others and saying hey–because of this dish or this food– we are essentially, “related.” We are one people. One humanity with many Ancestors–and what they left binds us and makes us whole.
Getting on the road means learning and listening to people even as I present what I know and share my learning with younger people. I don’t think one can truly know anything until they’ve traveled. For me–my family history goes back to six places–Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The first four contain the most leads and its my hope that I can see the plantations or the remnants thereof–of the land my forefather’s worked. And if you’d like to volunteer–just say so–and I can put you to work
I want my Ancestors to be at peace, and I want me to be at peace. Even more so I want us all to be at peace.
I’m almost up to 1600 words…So here goes.
I love you. Please help me live this dream. Please.
We need you–I know I’ve bugged some of my readers by saying this for three months, but this is the nature of crowdfunding—and its an opportunity for those of us without grants, loans or bank accounts above month to month survival to work for our public and pursue the dreams and Big Ideas that we hope will make the world a better place.
If I am engaging you, contributing to our project is a very small price to pay in order to keep enjoying the history, research and recipes I’ve worked hard with my friends to present to you here.
To my fellow African Americans–we complain a lot when sites and shows and movies and the like don’t reflect our history or experience. We want them to tell it like it is…but many of my colleagues have complained that so often we don’t empower each other to tell our won stories. “Them,” don’t owe us our story well told. “We” certainly do. We can take responsibility and ownership so that the world receives responsibly communicated narratives about the African American experience. It’s your choice. This is an opportunity to help a fellow African American teach our culture and share information about our culture with a lot of people and provide a lot of free content and information about our contributions to American civilization for the world to see. I need to know my community supports me and isn’t just giving lip service to the idea that Black history is important. I need to know that the same people who will rally in times of rain will rally in the sunshine too. And that day is today–but the clock is ticking.
I can’t do anymore, can’t say anymore, can’t think anymore. It’s up to G-d and you.
Friendly Reminder: Sunday May 6th at 11:59 pm our campaign is done. Its going to mean cutting places, venues, community service opportunies, and losing time to do genealogical research if we don’t make our goal–so please please please don’t take my work here for granted and all the sweat our team has put into this blog and this project and all the work of our network of volunteers. We just need 162 funders to contribute 18$ or more each to make this project a flesh and blood reality. Don’t just peek–do what you can while you can. We love you and know that you want to see the world a better place. G-d bless, Michael! Here’s the link to make your contribution: http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
Let’s start here….
So about 150 years ago, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors in upcountry South Carolina and my maternal grandparents ancestors in northern, central and eastern Alabama, Tennesse and Georgia all worked and lived on cotton plantations of various sizes. By the early 19th century, cotton already accounted for over half of the United States’ exports. My Ancestors helped grow, cultivate and harvest the four million plus bales of cotton produced in 1860–or about a bale per enslaved individual living at the time. How much is a bale? About 500 pounds. A man my size and age might be expected to pick anywhere between 250-350 pounds a day…so almost a bale a day. Hence–(I’m gwine to jump down spin around, pick a bale a cotton, gwine to jump down spin around, and pick a bale a day!”) Cotton didn’t just provide fiber to overseas markets—it helped fuel the industrial revolution in the North to which new immigrants from Northern Europe would provide labor. Most Southern whites were not slaveholders, and those that did largely at smaller holdings in terms of land and workforce. However these facts may be true they exist alongside a paradox–most enslaved African Americans lived in groupings of 10-20 or more. Without this kind of population bunching, family growth and cultural formation and continuity could not have taken place making for the cohesive Black cultural identity of the plantation South. Only a quarter of all Southern slaveholders had planter status (20 or more enslaved workers) With 20 or more able bodied workers you could live the life of a middling planter. When you had about 50-100 people you were pretty rich, and with over 100–which only a select few could claim–you were unbelieveably wealthy. Going back to the 5-10 people holdings—–you can probably bet these were not all whites trying to make their way up in the world in the 1840s-1860s. Most likely these are people owned by members of the same family—-they are inheritances and traded among cousins or siblings. In these situations, landholdings might be contiguous or relatively close allowing for marriages and other kinship patterns to emerge as if they were in fact part of a larger plantation community.
Scaling “the Wall”
Admitedly, part of this journey is about breaking down, “the Wall,” the barrier of time and space that so frustrates many African Americans doing genealogical research before 1860. You have to know your families’ “owners,” including the surname, the individual property lines, the counties, their biographical data, etc. etc. You have to learn all about them in order to discern whose who in your family tree. If you are lucky you will get some legal papers—andy many many were destroyed in and after the War…or you will find property or auction lists or wills. In South Carolina we belonged to the Twitty, Mungo, Reeves and Pate families of the South Carolina upcountry. In Alabama we were the property of the Bellamy, Townsend, Hancock and Hughes families. In Russell County, Alabama my great-great-great Grandfather, Captain Richard Henry Bellamy CSA, was both my families’ slaveholder and an ancestor. In Northern Alabama, my family was owned by the Townsend brothers in Madison County, Alabama who had large cotton plantations with lots of enslaved people. In that case at least we know that my Ancestors lived on one of the two brothers large holdings (they had eight plantations). The Townsend brothers both died with the desire to liberate many of their enslaved laborers and their families.
I bring all of this up because there were some very very complicated relationships going on in our history. Both my paternal grandparents came from enslaved Ancestors who were “married” in 1861. Some formal recognition was going on. And both families obtained land within years of emancipation to one generation after. This is not to say that there probably wasn’t significant brutality and oppression of my Ancestors. I think you have to be real—this was slavery, my great-great grandmother was taken advantage of against her will along with other women in my family tree–and frequently. These people didn’t get a paycheck–or an education—and didn’t have the right to vote, marry, or the right to move around as they saw fit. They were legally forbidden from reading or writing and they lived lives of severe restriction and control. Family values–forget it–my Ancestors were sold away from one another without any concern for their emotions, psychological stablity, familal bond, or the decency of Spirit. As a community they were told to believe they were naturally inferior, undeserving of G-d’s love and bound for hell if they did not obey their Masters who supposedly represented G-d on earth to them as “servants.” Enslaved children saw parents whipped, ate worm and parasite infested food, went naked much of the year and some were physically or sexually abused by their owners and overseers and patrollers who policed the Southern countryside on behalf of the planter class. Given the high volume of biracial Ancestors in my family trees some of them undoubtedly faced teasing, ostracism and likely abuse for their identities. My African ancestors arriving here against their will probably experienced unbelieveable heartache and traumatic stress in their transition to exile America. Those are the facts…
Not bitter, not angry–just telling the truth. I’m teach about the Holocaust in Hebrew school–how would have me tell the story of my Ancestors in slavery if not in clear terms of “it was complicated, it was bad, it was confusing, its legacy is unending and its our history and we need to deal with it.” Nuff said. Moving on.
Cotton and Slavery’s Food Supply–A Primer
Food and slavery was colloquial and discretionary. Judging from the strange and complcated relationships had my Ancestors with their “owners,” I can guess that the relationship with the food supply was probably interesting as well. If your ancestors lived on cotton plantations in the Deep South, by 1860 they probably lived on a diet based on corn and pork in their preserved form. Corn=hominy, hominy grits, cornmeal, cornbread, hoecake/ashcake, mush, kush—a cornbread scramble made with hot pepper, fat and onions, dumplings, meal breading, cornbread/cornpone, corn liquor, and corn on the cob (green corn). Pork=salted and smoked meat, offal (the heads, feet, tails, intestines, ears and the like) were the predominant carbohydrate and protein of the Cotton Kingdom. Only occasionally would people enjoy fresh meat in other forms–beeves, sheep, goats, chicken, fish, or game. And of course there were gardens….if you were allowed to keep them. In the word of King Cotton–industrial style slavery had taken hold. Probably–and this is me guestimating here–only about 2/3 of enslaved people living under King Cotton were allowed to keep their own garden spaces in any signficant way. Many enslaved people reported not being allowed to do any work or labor other than working in cotton or receiving garden truck from a large communal garden maintained by the elderly. The most commonly mentioned field crops were cabbage, cowpeas, watermelons, and sweet potatoes–often grown in their own separate fields and after that–enslaved people might grow greens gardens–usually collards and turnips—and string beans and white potatoes were usually the remaining big crops. Other foods like homegrown rice, red peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, herbs, pumpkins, okra and the like were infrequently dispersed and we should not think of them as being necessarily common. This system was not based in part on a new literature unique to the antebellum era where the management, care, and control of enslaved people was a frequent subject of agricultural and trade journals basically encouraging planters to maximize results and get more bang for their bale.
Rations of salt, molasses, coffee, white flour, orchard fruit (apples, peaches, etc.) and the like rounded out any sort of gathered, hunted, caught foods avaialble within the plantation ecosystem. I like to describe game as usually belonging to the four food groups–including possum, squirrel, rabbit and racoon. Living in largely landlocked places, various species of catfish, perch, buffalo, bream, bass, trout, gar, crawfish and freshwater clams and mussels formed the surf to your turf. Usually those If you’re ancestors were subjects of King Cotton like mine, this is probably how they ate.
Each plantation crop during slavery had its own unique food profile. Among the enslaved people of sugarcane alley and the rice coast, African, tropical American and Afro-Caribbean foods were available to round out the diet. In the old Tobacco Kingdom, personal gardens and access to Tidewater fishing grounds rich in both fresh and saltwater species, crustaceans, mollusks and reptiles were among the reasons why the Black population multiplied and reproduced at a natural rate almost incomprable with any other community of Blacks in the New world. Most enslaved workers on the sugar, coffee, rice and cotton plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean died within seven years of arrival, right up to the last days of slavery. Virginia and Maryland would lend most of their workforce to the Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while others would end up in Western Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. There they would join people from the Carolinas and eastern Georgia and the Lower Mississippi Valley sold across the Cotton Kingdom. When these two group merged so did their dietary practices. Rice cultivation and consumption spread from the Gullah-Geechee corridor and the Lower Mississippi Valley into the Lower South while the corn culture and turnip greens and the like dominated the Upper South.
Food tells you a lot about how we got to be how we are….In 1750 we were anywhere from 1-3 generations removed from Africa…if that…….We were not largely Afro-Christian and there were various dialects of Black English and Black French–read Gullah/Geechee, Patois, Creole, etc. In 1850 we were largely 4-5 generations removed from Africa (especially in the Upper South) while in the Lower South this number was lower owing to the late slave trade. We were largely Afro-Christian LEANING (varieties of Baptist and Methodist) with elements of folk religion and we spoke a generalized Plantation Creole English based largely on those dialects from Maryland, Virginia and upper North Carolina with inflections and loan words in the Deep South from Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Creole dialects of French in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Our music was the “Virginia music” based on gourd banjos, rattles, the bones, the fiddle, triangle and clandestine drums made from gourds, barrels, and boxes, flutes, quills and mouthbows.
How does it feel to pick cotton?
Cotton is an extremely beautiful crop in the Southern fields….it is heartbreakingly beautiful…soft, inviting, miraculous. Out an almost alien like green shell pops out a clear and delicate whiteness that soon envelops the boll’s space until the green turns to a brown husk. The field turns a blinding white–the whiteness of the link is set afire and gleams wih the sunlight until you can’t see anything else. It is repetiive, painful, and makes your back ache. Doing this alone you can understand why field hollers, the blues, and all of that music—was created to endure this mechanical, backbreaking process. And until you’ve picked cotton–you have no idea how a hoecake “should,” taste, or how far we’ve come….
1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal
3/4 cup of boiling hot water
½ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening
Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes. Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking. Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake. Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan. Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown. Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately once all the hoecakes have been cooked.
This project is sacred to me and the people who have elected to spend time working on it with me.
Making that video was not easy. Although I treated it as though it were a matter of routine, I began to feel emotionally wound up and hurt as I stammered out the names. I realized that these were not just names. They were labels that had replaced labels of clan names and lineages that my blood had borne for centuries if not millenia. It came through that these names had come to define my families and that as I began reading them I realized for the first time–HOW MANY DIFFERENT PATHS AND NAMES AND PEOPLE WERE INVOLVED IN THE ENSLAVEMENT OF MY FAMILY.
And there are more…plenty more. In my minds eye the generations started lining up and what was a few people soon filled the room. There were before me several hundred people who lived and died in American slavery. I thought it would be 50 or 60–and it was much larger. For the first time my family tree became real–and alive..the dead could talk. At the same time, I could feel myself talking to those people who owned and traded my blood–who sold them and sometimes left their genetic mark without thought to consequence and legacy. It makes sense why so many of us avoid this history–but it gives one peace to finally say–ENOUGH–I am going to deal with this and respond with peace and focus.
We are orphans–orphans of history and culture, orphans of circumstance, orphans of memory. We have this treasure in our food and food culture with its lost arts and skills that we have taken for granted, sometimes forgotten, and often left to amnesia on purpose. The food we have shared and passed down is an intimate sense memory that recalls these generations. It’s the heirlooms we plant like the yam
(white) potato, Cowhorn okra, stubby okra, Carolina gold rice and animals like the guinea fowl or the Spanish black turkey or the Guinea hog. It is our saying grace, our traditions of libation, our praying a seed into the ground. There is something beautiful, unique and heartbreaking about us that is only visible in our food. It is our edible jazz, our eaten scripture, our connection to the past, the voice of our dead.
We hope that you are considering making a small donation to our Indiegogo Campaign. http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour We are hoping to help out a lot of people through this project, but not the least of which, we want to bring people together. This is already a politically divisive year. The comments of Rush Limbaugh and others show that we are in for a long hard slog…that will do us as a country more harm than good. This project is born in love–of humanity, of history and of food. By bringing the voice of the Ancestors to the table, we are hoping that we repairing the wounds of the past–doing Tikkun Olam–repairing the world.
235 years ago who would have imagined that food would bring together Black and White people in complete equality in Williamsburg, Virginia?
As always I ask that you share our blog and our indiegogo page with friends. http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour Social media is crucial to our fundraising but also to making this trip worth it for us and for the communities we will visit. We need all of our supporters and all of our readers to rally around so we can finalize what will happen on the Tour and how we can best serve the communities we pass through. Please remember–somebody else will NOT do your good deed for you–so please don’t pass the buck…be a part of this project and remember to send in your family stories! Love and peace, Michael!
So you’ve probably been reading, sharing and looking at this gem from 1865. It apparently appeared in the New York Daily Tribune: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7035/6790780585_466117fe88_o.jpg
“Colonel” P.H. Anderson asked his former servant, Jourdon Anderson to basically come on back home and be his laborer. Mr. Jourdan, dictating his letter, responded in kind:
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
So I am struggling NOT to add my own humorous “Cliff Notes,” version to this text. It would be fun–and probably get me more readers, but that’s an iffy prospect given the seriousness of my project as it stands. So maybe another time. Again I’m struggling not to given my jocular nature, but let’s leave it at that.
As a living history interpreter who brings enslaved people’s lives to the present, and I know my friend and fellow team member, Nicole Moore can attest to this; a lot of people think they understand slavery and the lives of enslaved people. It’s convenient to make parallels between ourselves and our experiences (our “lynching stories.” as we call them) and those of our ancestors. However, I’d like to say here and now that one of the most salient things that an interpreter mentor ever said to me–Mr. Robert Watson of Colonial Williamsburg–is that usually, from day to day, our lives are better than one minute spent in slavery.
I understand the share-able appeal of this letter. It’s heroic. It’s by a “cool slave.” We all want that version of history. Need a great example, try Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks cartoon and the “Catcher Freeman,” episode where Grandpa and Uncle Ruckus argue over Catcher Freeman’s status–is he a cool rebel or a faithful attack dog for Massa? Grandpa’s story prevails with two distinct versions ultimately focusing on enslaved people as rebellious. My personal favorite is the scene where they laugh at their “Master”‘s repeated demands while picnicking—-and tell jokes a la Def Comedy Jam while rolling around on the ground to their heart’s content. If it was really like that……then sure great, awesome—-we would never have needed any of the M’s–Martin Delany, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Marcus Garvey….and the greatest M of all–our Mothers….
This pattern has been widely reflected in our public discourse about our history. Slavery is meh, but Underground Railroad gets us jazzed. It is almost as if you have to couch slavery in something else before people will pay attention or listen. We have centered our discussions about slavery in terms of resistance, and there’s nothing wrong with that–so much as you talk about survival. It took such genius to get out of slavery alive, you don’t even know. No textbook can really convey the negotiated strategies that enslaved people employed from day to day. There is still such a sense of shame about slavery, such a reticence, such an unwilingness to address it in the context of a culturally-defining moment that we really need to make an effort as a society to call out those elments of the Peculiar Institution that are not often discussed.
I could be wrong on some of the details, but Mr. Anderson apparently took advantage of the occupying Federal forces that came to middle Tennessee during the Civil War. You may not know this but huge swaths of the Confederacy were lost to the Federal army fairly early on in the conflict. These areas became havens for contrabands–enslaved Blacks escaping the plantations with their families—especiallly once the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, obstensibly liberating enslaved people living in rebel territory. Colonel Anderson must have thought Jourdan a traitor for joining and working for the Yankees.
Jourdan’s first message to his former owner is—-I’m an American, and you’re not. He calls him out for his defiance of the United States and his active participation in the rebellion against its authority. The next message is “I’m doing just fine on my own and I like it that way, and I’m paid for what I earn.” Enslaved people knew and definitely resented that they were making people wealthy without much or any remuneration. Any planter with say 25-50 able bodied laborers was the envy of his neighbors and weilded authority over a work force that could make him a cornderstone of his community. This is to say nothing of the very very very few plantes who had enslaved people in the hundreds or even a thousand plus whose fabulous wealth has been translated into plantation house museums and vast fantasies of Southern plantation life that produce wealth and tourism dollars to this day. If the goal was to be part of an America where you could make money and pass it down to your children and their descendants, then enslaved African Americans understood they were missing out on a key deciding factor that would affect their people’s legacy and history for the long term. This system would ensure a burning, defined financial inequality.
So Jourdan’s retort is, “if you’re going to treat me so good…you have to pay me, and on top of that pay me back for the money you owe me for time served as your slave.” Jourdan clearly references Old Testament/Hebrew Bible style language that admonish the unfair treatment and unjustice towards laborers. He emphasizes that taking away his ability for his family and children to build on what they have already earned is a sin. Furthermore, Jourdan understands that being “treated good,” is not really all its cracked up to be. One had to submit to white supremacy, one had to accept substandard food, housing, clothing and perpetual debt–and still not have access to any of the luxuries or perks of being free. That was unacceptable to Mr. Anderson and his wife Amanda, and he was wise to test his former owner by saying, “when you give me back what I’m owed, then we can talk since I know thats the proof you’ll be sincere.”—If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
While we are not sure of the identity of the two young women he mentions, it is clear that Mr. Anderson is referencing the open rape, molestation and abuse of young women of color on plantations. As a father and as a proud Black man, he refuses to watch his girls be degraded and treated like free-source prostitutes. I sympathize with Mr Anderson–many of the women in my family were forced to bear children from their teenage years onward from white men. These were not loving, equality-based, mature adult relationships. This was outright war against enslaved men and the stability of the Black family. It was a cheap form of release from Victorian sexual frustration, but it was also a means of power and control, not unlike what you’ve seen in Darfur or in Bosnia-Herzegovinia. It is beautiful to see tht Mr. Jourdan Anderson puts his life on the line rather than see his daughters or wife disrespected.
The most salient part to me is this. Mr. Anderson makes it plain–I want my back pay minus a few legitimate expenses; I will not accept violence or inequality from you; I want the rights of my daughters and wife to be left alone respected; and I want there to be universal education so that Colored people can move forward. Mr. Anderson doesn’t ask for very much. Not long after this letter was drafted and publicized, Tennesse would unfortunately see itself as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white “night-rider” groups that terrorized the formerly enslaved. Slavery would continue for most Black families under the guise of sharecropping, teachers and businessmen and faith leaders were lynched, and schooling was at best–separate and substandard. Mr. Anderson was wise–he stayed put.
Part of our goal in making this tour and the work around it happen is to open people’s eyes to the reality Mr. Jourdan Anderson and his wife Amanda and their children had to endure. As their foodways and resistance strategies bear out, these were smart, practical, self-reliant, self-respecting people–not victims. There are so many lessons this one letter can teach us about or own condition today. We owe it to our children and their children to live up to the values that Mr. Jourdan and my ancestors and many of yours laid down. This is the best way to honor this letter and the millions like it that could have been written, if only history had given us the chance. We have a chance–thats what makes us our ancestors best fantasy.
Maybe we should go to Big Springs…
Help us tell our story and keep Mr. Jourdan’s legacy alive: http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
For genelogical update on the Anderson Family story, please visit: