“A century before I was born in a large Southern city which shall be nameless, my mother’s family left Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where until the Civil War they raised cotton. Their house and everything in it had been garrisoned by Union soldiers before the war’s end, so when the family left, they left with nothing, and I was almost grown-up before I understood that that was as it should have been. Heading west, they joined a cousin in a not-so-distant state, a Methodist minister who wrote them there was pretty good cotton land to be had thereabouts. They got back on their feet – farming, ranching, banking. There was, briefly, prosperity – my grandmother had a white Shetland pony, and was the fanciest little girl she knew – and then the Depression, which put paid to any notion of a real comeback.
“A Southern family with a plantation background is a family keenly aware of dispossession, of what it is to be on the wrong side of history. This is different from an awareness that one’s ancestors were participants in and beneficiaries of a crime so vast and systematic that one’s nation is rocking from it still. I cannot say that in childhood I found ‘plantation tales’ charming and innocent, but the full horror of them was not yet available to me. Here’s one. When in 1860 my great-grandmother, Eleanor W., turned 6 years old, she was presented with her sixth slave, having already been given one for each previous year of her life. Like little Eleanor, the slaves were children.
“Coming along a century later, should I have felt personal guilt for this? Well, it didn’t make me proud. But my imagination, including my moral imagination, was affected by this story in a way that I have the sense to be grateful for. I can only have first heard it in the spirit it was told – by my grandmother, little Eleanor’s daughter, owner of the white pony — as a testament to the lost paradise of plantation life. It would be dense years of child-time before I could judge my grandmother for reckoning up the family’s glories this way, years more before I could understand the link between her own disappointments and her luscious memories of the subjugation of others.”
Don’t miss the one about her childhood visit to a country club the summer she’d tanned well.