Reading a post about Savannah's history at Examiner.com, I discovered a link to a video in which Paula Deen, appearing on the finale of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? last year, discovered that her great-great-grandfather, John Batts, owned 35 slaves.
Deen had denied for years, she says, that her family ever had anything to do with slavery; however, she did not seem particularly shocked about the revelation. Her facial expressions even had elements of duping delight indicating she may have denied her family's history but always suspected they'd owned slaves. However, sometimes people look like that when they're uncomfortable. In any case, a white person whose family's had any whisper of wealth at some point and who traces itself through a Southern state should do some genealogical research before assuming his/her family never owned slaves. It's possible the family had at least one slave. But Deen's family, with 35, was a planter family, which means her great-great-granddaddy owned a plantation.
Discovering that one's family owned slaves should not make anyone feel ashamed because we don't control the past. We can, however, influence the present, so, slaveholders' descendants should try not to justify and perpetuate racial oppression and social injustice today with declarations such as, "I personally never owned slaves. You black people need to let the slavery complaint go." Oh, really?
On the practical side, black people in the South can't afford to hold any personal grudges that show. This is why it's stupid for people to assume black folks are going to one day rise up and take revenge for slavery. African-Americans who are upwardly mobile can't even limit their friendships, acquaintances, or employers down here only to whites whose families have never owned slaves. That would be dumb and unfair.
In most cases, the current generation doesn't even know who did what pre-Civil War. However, I've gotten to the point that I recognize the names of slaveholders' descendants because I do genealogical research. That information coupled with knowing the parish a person's family came from generally tells me that a person I know or meet comes from a slaveholding family.
But I have to put that information in a mental box. I never comment when I encounter people of that lineage that I know something of their family's slaveholder history. What purpose would such a comment serve?
And I only feel anger when I perceive through their attitudes, behavior, and speech that they'd be comfortable with owning a few black people even now and have that smug sense of entitlement to privilege without even so much as a glimmer of recognition that they stand where they stand because of slavery. Politicians and their old-family influential supporters are the ones most likely to step in that kind of mess. I mean, don't act superior and start complaining about the welfare state or black people getting free stuff and entitlements when you know darned well your family's social status and wealth came to you through the free labor of Africans your family held in chains.
Also in New Orleans, even some people who identify themselves as African-American (I say identify as African American because sometimes they are clearly of mixed ancestry in appearance) or those with a combination of African and European lineage who live elsewhere but know their ancestors once lived in Louisiana should also not assume their families never owned slaves, especially if that family's inherited wealth for more than four generations.
It should be noted, however, that although there were some well-known free people of color who owned slaves to work land, often African-Americans who bought slaves in Louisiana were buying the freedom of family members. I come across entries in the Louisiana Slave Records often that have notes such as "Mulatto buying his wife and child."
And once reconstruction kicked in, these family's were persecuted in the backlash right along with everyone else of African descent, which is why so many of them fled Louisiana.
With the current controversy surrounding Deen, which I wrote about yesterday, I'll say here that the lawsuit against her, her brother, and her company in which they are accused of racial discrimination and sexual harassment was filed two months before the broadcast of the Who Do You Think You Are? finale. So, if Deen told the truth on that show when she said she didn't know her family owned slaves, then her desire to have a plantation wedding with only black people serving springs not from her awareness of her personal history but from something else like the collective white Southern psyche.
Her denial aside, I have seen people ranting on Facebook who say they know people who work for Deen and these people insist that Deen is a bit obsessed with the idea of being a Southern Belle and has romantic notions of life in the antebellum South. If so, she's the third white female from Georgia that I know of who has such fantasies while also claiming not to be racist.
We think this story is about Deen, and it is, but it's also about this nation's history and its dysfunctional human relationships. This story is a karmic singularity that demands some national navel gazing, but more than likely, America will miss that opportunity to mature again. I hope at least Deen herself recognizes what's going on, that the universe is giving her a time-out so she can sit down and consider, "Who am I really, and how does my existence influence the universe?"
Lagniappe: If you read this, you may also appreciate Cassandra Jackson's post: "Paula Deen, the N-Word, and Sh*t Black Folks Can't Say."