Rogers: The ‘kind’ slaveholder’s legacy
Family lore on my mother’s side has a great-great grandfather fleeing Sherman during the Civil War and winding up in Texas Hill Country, where a trunk of the family split off and sired LBJ.
While president, LBJ shepherded the Great Society into being, nearly as sweeping as the FDR reforms a generation before that.
Pretty good for an SOB who ruled the Senate for a time as if Tammany Hall. Intimidation was just another tool, like tears, to this guy, the ugly, unlikely heir to JFK who may have shaped America today like none other. Consider the Civil Rights Act(s), Voters’ Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Head Start, Older Americans Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, National Endowment for the Arts, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the War on Poverty, Food Stamps, and that he nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court … all this while escalating Vietnam and spying on MLK.
I don’t know whether his branches of the family tree bore the casual racism of my mother’s, which had spread on to New York City and eventually California. Did they also speak of our common great-great grandfather as yes, a slaveholder, but one of the nice ones beloved by his slaves who I suppose cried in this legend as he rode off just ahead of the Union horde bearing down to burn.
What part, if any, did this family history play in LBJ’s work to set things right?
My mother’s parents, both born and raised Southerners, didn’t actively discriminate or do harm beyond politely snubbing those outside their circle by accident of birth. I’m told my grandfather loved his “colored” nanny, and I know he fully respected the talent of all his beloved Dodgers. He had trouble accepting my father’s Japanese best man, who by force of personality finally befriended him.
There was an order to things in my grandparents’ world, and of course their people were at the center, the top, though the ramparts might have creaked from time to time.
My mother at least fraternized across creeds, ethnicities and orientations while holding on to an unspoken if polite superiority. Certain assumptions, certain myths persisted even as she reached out. She still takes them for only the truth of the way things are. But, you know, some of her best friends …
Her comments can make me wince, which I’ll take as a small sign of progress through our generations.
In this era when calls for reparations have risen, how guilty are today’s descendants of families who had slaves and/or benefited from slavery for our collective leg up?
This call is not entirely out of the blue. The U.S. government has paid Japanese-Americans held during World War II, paid Native American tribes, paid communities of Black Americans for such atrocities as sterilization and mass murder. The United Kingdom paid reparations when it abolished slavery in 1833, but only to the slaveholders.
Mauritania was the last country to outlaw slavery, in 1981. Morocco, an historic center for the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa and the Barbary Coast, has an estimated 85,000 slaves today — an illegal hangover from antiquity, but among the least in Africa, according to the Global Slavery Index which as recently as 2018 counted North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan as the worst in the world.
The Silk Roads might have been more accurately called the Slave Roads. The word slave comes from all the Slavs the Rus (“vikings” who went the other way) caught and sold as they raided their way through eastern Europe and modern Russia.
The Roman Empire codified slavery. China neutered many for a whole class of clerks. Japan made concubines out of Korean women from 1910 into World War II and are hated to this day for it.
Go back far enough and all our family trees surely included slaves and likely owned servants, too. Most slaves might have been white once, when Europe was a backwater and the Rus were most active.
But isn’t this just like a scion of American slaveholders to point out? Throw off guilt for this specific stain by going deeper in time? Everyone did it? That was then; this is now? Buck up, kid?
In my gut, I don’t feel guilty. I don’t believe the sins of our fathers and mothers are our problem, our burden. But that might only be a vestige of the legacy only slowly diluting as it seeps from one generation to the next, drip by drop.
After all, here’s a story my children have heard, too, though retold as cautionary instead of evidence of the benevolent slaveholder, a grandparent’s truism, which at least we recognize as the oxymoron it is. How might this tale reach my grandchildren and then theirs?
My hope is that it doesn’t. I think this tale, at the very least, needs to die out before we can be free at last. Never mind our other debts left to the next generations.