Thursday, July 4, 2013

When Paula Deen Found Out Her Ancestor Owned 35 Slaves . . . (Video)

Reading a post about Savannah's history at, 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."


Anonymous said...

"I mean, don't act superior and start complaining 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."

L.A. Lady said...

I must admit I do not know too much about this story. What I do know is that Paula Deen was questioned in a deposition if she had ever used the N-word and she said that she had. Now she is being ostracized by society and deprived of her livelihood by sponsors rejecting her and her TV show because she told the truth.

I in no way condone the use of that denigrating word, but it does seem a trifle unfair to make her the scapegoat for every white person who has ever used it. How has she used the word in the past, as a racial epithet or in a manner of speaking, and, does she still use it today?

Mores in our American culture have changed, no where more than in the South. Deen was raised at a time when white society's usage of the N-word was acceptable, not that everyone approved or used it. As a young girl, a neighbor playmate used the word to refer to those we called "Negroes" then, and it rubbed me the wrong way even then.

I am not trying to downplay or "whitewash," if you will, Deen's admitted use of the word. I disapprove even when African-Americans use it. I had many heated and often bitter discussions with my father about this topic and others dealing with racial discrimination as well.

However, we cannot hold Deen -- who grew up in an era (and place) where this term was ordinary and accepted -- responsible for all the prejudice that went with its use. If one was to punish all the white people in the South who have ever uttered, wrote, or even *thought* the word in their head, I daresay few would escape, especially those older than 55.

I'm just saying, is it morally and politically correct to place all the blame for our racially dysfunctional American family on Deen's shoulders? She has become a social pariah, denied her employment by the cancellation of her Food Network cable show, her sponsors and acquaintances deserting her (perhaps "friends" too), the object of scorn, gossip, and vitriol. This shunning and mean-spirited crusade against Deen is akin to a witch hunt. She is not a witch, just a person who, like the rest of us, has erred grievously in their lifetime.

How much longer will this social blood-lust continue before the public appetite is satisfied? I did not see it but I understand she made a public apology on the Today Show. That must have taken courage -- especially for such an emotionally-charged issue as this.

I could be wrong, but I don't believe others who have sinned in the public arena, such as Martha Stewart for insider trading, or Tiger Woods for his numerous adulterous affairs, have apologized to society-at-large. Tiger Woods held a brief news conference, but as I recall, he said he was primarily disappointed in himself and how he had let his father down, and apologized to his wife. He had to do this to save his career -- and he still has one as a result. Martha Stewart returned to cable TV and is doing quite well even after a prison term. I don't think she ever admitted to anything publicly.

Are we going to accept Deen's apology and move on from here, or stigmatize her forever? If the latter is true, then we must examine our consciences and recognize that it is either guilt or blame that drive us personally and societally. How does society forgive transgressions of financial integrity and sexual morality, but not the use of the N-word? The transgressors to be pardoned and reassimilated, but not this lone plump diabetic white grandmother?

Whites should realize they cannot make someone else accountable for their own guilt and indiscretions nor those of their family, in current or past generations; and blacks should realize they cannot blame some *one* for all the harmful prejudice directed at them in previous generations or the current one. These simple realizations may tweak social consciousness enough to lessen the current racial tension and hopefully improve the climate in the long run.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Dear L. A. Lady:

In a previous post, which I linked to more than once in the post you read, I wrote in deliberate detail about the Paula Deen lawsuit. In that earlier post, I made the case clearly that this news story is not about the N-Word. I am sorry that you did not read that post. I try my best not to judge people who comment on news stories without knowing the facts, but I do find such oversight frustrating. Therefore, I hope that you will read my earlier post or a post by someone else discussing the Paula Deen lawsuit that will place for you in context what she said in her deposition ("Fed Up With Misrepresentations of the Paula Deen Case"). Perhaps it will give you something to think about that will indicate to you may be off base here. --

In the meantime, let me ask you these questions: Have you considered that it's strange that so many sponsors dropped Paula Deen so quickly? Is that typically the way sponsors handle celebrities who admit to using a racial slur and who also apologize? The behavior of the sponsors should be enough to cause anyone supporting Paula Deen to consider that possibly her company is in trouble for good reason. And make no mistake, we are talking about the behavior of a corporation, not simply the behavior of some popular Georgia cook.