The glitch in the Matrix

 

As the family story keeper – the one who receives and passes on family tales – I have always been fascinated with the moments when the story doesn’t quite add up – the jump in the film, the glitch in the Matrix. I remember, as a kid, annoying my mother repeatedly by interrupting her and saying, “But Mama, that doesn’t make any sense!”  I’m still at it. And what I’ve learned from researching this book is that the moment where the story jumps is also where that treasure called the truth lies. Because that is what your people are afraid of facing and that is often who they really are.

 

In my family history, we seem to emerge, like Athena from Zeus’s head, full grown in the 18th century as well-to-do frontier gentry using the term “Scotch-Irish” to cover over a multitude of things – some of them sins, but and some of them just the hard-scrabble white-trash history of who we were before we became the cultured educated people we are now.

 

In our family history, my fourth great grandfather, Robert Love, is remembered as a well-to-do member of the elite. He was the “founder” of the town of Waynesville, NC and donated the land for the Haywood County courthouse. Within the family we remember proudly that the Loves brought the first piano into western NC. We are founders, we are cultured, and how we got to be those things is not examined.

 

But Robert Love did not start out as either of those things. He was the grandson of a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant and he was born in a border settlement in the Shenandoah mountains, known as “the drunken tract,” where the Scotch-Irish had been shunted off by the English coastal elites. At the age of sixteen he set off, like so many poor sons, to make his fortune in the world by joining the army. The year was 1776 and Robert was a wagoner in an armed campaign to “chastise” the Cherokee. It was an ugly, vindictive campaign, purposely attacking innocent noncombatants. Its purpose was not reprisal or retribution, but instead a warning to all the Cherokee not to ally with the British in the American Revolution. It was essentially a bloody message saying, “See what we can do to your most distant and protected of your people? We can do worse to you.” This warning, timed just before harvest to ensure maximum suffering, entailed the mass burning of Cherokee towns and fields of unpicked crops as well as the murder of any Cherokee – regardless of age or gender – they encountered. The whites had far superior firepower, so most of the population hid in the mountains surrounding their towns. Among them was another sixteen-year-old boy. His name was Yonaguska. This was the second time his town – the sacred mother town of Kituwah – had been destroyed by white armies. The first time was when he was one year old. He wouldn’t remember that attack, but he would have been told of it by his mother, in whose arms he had then been carried to their hiding place in the hills. But he might remember the widespread hunger afterwards, and the work of rebuilding their home and town in the following years. What he felt watching his home burn, watching the council house on the mound at the center of town be desecrated, isn’t known. What young Robert Love did is not known either, but one of his fellows left this account:

 

“[Some men] found an Indian squaw and took her prisoner, she being lame, was unable to go with her friends; she was so sullen, that she would – as an old horse is – neither lead nor drive, and, by their account, she died in their hands; but I suppose they helped her to her end.”

 

I think often of those two sixteen-year-old boys: one watching the cruel and unprovoked destruction of his home, the sacred mother town of Kituwah, from the hillside above it; the other somewhere below, lighting a match, holding a gun, destroying a world. That is the moment where my family history became inextricably tangled with the history of the mountain Cherokee. Yonaguska, the helpless witness of white destruction, would go on to become a “peace chief” – one who eschewed violence and pursued negotiation. He would also lead the only successful resistance to the Trail of Tears. The tactics he used were those he used on that day – withdrawing deeper into the mountains, camouflage, evasion. Some of it done with the help of a young white boy named Will Thomas that he later adopted as a son.

 

Robert Love would move to “pacified” territory in Western North Carolina, become a merchant, slave owner, and a wealthy man. He would mentor a young man named Will Thomas, just starting out his life as a merchant. They were deeply involved in each other’s lives. Robert Love chose Will, who was exceptionally personable and capable, above his own sons, to be executor of his estate. Will, taking the tactics he’d learned from his adopted father, used charm and evasion to persuade Robert to write letters attesting to the harmlessness of the local Cherokee to legislators who were trying to oust them. I like to imagine this too: Will saying, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll leave eventually. They’re just not quite ready to do it now.” And Robert, wanting to please the young man, writing to his friends in the legislature that the Cherokee were very civilized now, model citizens, and would no doubt join their people in Oklahoma … eventually. And so, Yonaguska, who watched his world burn and learned from it, and exacted justice from the young wagoner who helped burn it.

 

Later Yonaguska’s devoted white son would marry Robert Love’s young granddaughter. The mingled descendants of these men would choose to erase this part of the story. They’d focus on Robert Love’s wealth, Will Thomas’s heroism helping “those poor Cherokee.” But there would be a jump in the record, a glitch in the story, discernible to anyone, willing to look hard. And as one who always chooses to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, unravel the comfortable lie and see how far the uncomfortable story goes, I want to urge any of you who are willing and interested to do the same. You might not love what you find, but I guarantee you that you’ll know yourself, your family, and your nation better. And the ride is wilder than any rollercoaster and incredibly fun! Go ahead, take the red pill.

Hi, my name’s Elizabeth and I’m a moron

 

Right now I wish more than anything that somewhere, in some dingy church basement, there was an Academic-Morons Anonymous support-group meeting I could go to tonight. I’d stand up in front of them and say, “Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a moron.”

They’d all say “Hi Elizabeth!”

 

Then I’d say, “Guys, I need help. It’s only been three hours since I realized I’ve been stuck in another moronic assumption about our collective American history. I’ve only just realized that the heartwarming story of my great-great grandfather’s adoption by the Cherokee chief took place at a crisis point when white incursion had become an unstoppable tide, the Cherokee were frightened and angry, there was violence on both sides, and the Cherokee were looking for white allies to manage their increasing legal problems. This was precisely when the head chief of the mountain Cherokee just happened to decide to adopt a white kid who was literate, numerate, fluent in Cherokee, and had a brilliant encyclopedic mind.”

 

“How,” I would ask the other Academic Morons before me, “could I have not seen the obvious connection? The white boy who lived and worked in Cherokee territory needed protection from justifiably pissed-off Cherokee and the chief who was looking for white allies probably thought that having a white son could be pretty useful! I mean, DUH.”

 

And then I’d tell them that I’m feeling shaky about whether or not I’m up to this task. They’d all nod supportively and murmur encouragement. I’d sit down and someone else would come up to the front of the room and admit their struggle with moronic assumptions and I would feel better about the fact that now I have to go back and totally rewrite chapter four, just when I thought I was done revising it. Maybe I could even have a sponsor I could call at two in the morning when I felt an uncontrollable urge to relapse into my old comfy and intellectually sloppy white-person assumptions.

 

But, seriously, unlearning everything I thought I knew, and getting Kirk to unlearn all those years of believing in the sanctity of documents created by white people, has been the hardest thing we’ve had to do. I’ve always prided myself in not buying into my family’s white, Southern narratives. But working on this project I have had more I can’t believe I didn’t SEE that before! moments than I would have thought possible.

 

Here is a short list of things I’ve had to unlearn and learn differently:

  • My Scotch-Irish ancestors weren’t “fiercely independent” pioneers who wanted to replicate their lives in the mountains of Scotland and Ireland. They were people who had been ethnically cleansed, multiply displaced, and in North America were simply desperate for any land anywhere.
  • The adoption of my great-great grandfather by Chief Yonaguska is a heartwarming cross-cultural story. But it is also a story taking place in a less than heartwarming desperate and violent political context. (Duh.)
  • The North Carolina Cherokee weren’t saved by my great-great grandfather. They were a collectively governed group who decided, with their chief, to save themselves. My great-great grandfather helped them with their plan and was the interface between them and the white legal system.

Anyway, I’d like to think that every one of us is some kind of recovering moron – whether we’re recovering from gender, race, or colonialist assumptions – and that if we take it day by day, page by page, we can overcome our addiction to safe, unexamined assumptions. And if we are tempted to fall off the wagon, we can always turn to that higher power, people who are part of the dispossessed group we’re trying to write not-stupidly about.

Why I call it rape

A couple of years ago, Kirk and I were talking about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. We had just discovered that, at the age of two, my great-great grandmother Sallie was given another two-year-old girl, a slave, who was her own first cousin. The slave child, Caroline, was (documents indicate) the daughter of Sallie’s uncle and an enslaved woman named Dinah. We were trying to wrap our heads around that – a child being given as a gift, a pet, for another human to own, and that human being her own first cousin.

 

So we were talking about sex between masters and slaves, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and I said off handedly, “Well, of course, what he did to her was rape.”

 

Kirk, who is a wonderful man, a deep, careful thinker, and an excellent historian, was taken aback. “Well….” he said using the delicacy and caution you would use to approach a possibly dangerous stray (me, rape, women and men, and slavery), “you know, I think it’s more nuanced than that.”

 

“No.” I said. “It’s not.”

 

My immediate, forceful, and seemingly unconsidered answer came from the fact that, as a woman, much of my life has been spent considering rape and the fact that I could be raped if I walked home alone at night, took a walk in the park, went to a bar, went out with a man I didn’t know. I have friends who’ve been raped waiting for the bus, working alone in an art studio, sleeping in their own beds at night. I’ve had conversations with friends about what constitutes rape and what doesn’t. Rape is something every woman has considered long and hard.

 

“OK….” Kirk, who knows this, albeit intellectually, said. “Explain.”

 

“Could Sally Hemings, a fourteen-year-old girl, in Paris, a country where she had no friends or family and didn’t speak the language, have said no to Thomas Jefferson? Could she have said no to him without negative repercussions?” Kirk thought about it for a moment and then said no. “Well,” I said, “if Sally Hemings couldn’t say no, then she couldn’t say yes. Without the ability to refuse, there can be no real consent. Sex without consent is coerced, and coerced sex is rape.”

 

“Yes,” he said. “You’re right.” Because he knows a good logical argument when he hears one.

 

I see this as similar to my argument, in “Southern bells,” that there can be no such thing as a good master, that the fact of believing you can “own” another human being taints everything in your life.   Thomas Jefferson had been against slavery until around 1792, when he factored up the profits and losses of his plantation and noticed that the enslaved people were yielding him a predictable and reliable profit when they had children. He wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” In the 1790s he wrote that a friend who was having financial difficulties, “should have been invested in negroes.” Greed overcame his ideals and his humanity; slavery, the belief that you can own another human being, taints and twists you, so there can be no “good” slave owners, only bad or worse slave owners.

 

Jefferson once punished a slave boy named Cary – some mother’s child – by selling him “down river” to Georgia slavers. Jefferson said he did it, “to make an example of him in terrorem to others, in order to maintain the police so rigorously necessary among the nail boys.” In terrorem, an example and threat of punishment. A few years ago, a letter came to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in the plantation’s nail factory. (It was that profitable factory that paid the mansion’s bills. This letter about children being whipped was deliberately deleted from the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, which still serves as a reference today for research on Monticello.)

 

This world of punishment was the world Sally Hemings was born into, this was the master who brought her, at age fourteen, to Paris to look after his daughter Polly. Abigail Adams wrote to Jefferson and said of Sally, “The girl … is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of the opinion [she] will be of so little service that he had better carry her back with him.” Adams also wrote that Sally was “wanting more care than [Polly],” that she was “wholly incapable” of looking properly after Polly Jefferson “without some superior to direct her.”

 

Sally Hemings was fourteen years old when Thomas Jefferson first had sex with her. She was a child herself, one who needed care. She was away from her kin in a foreign country where she knew and could speak to no one but the Jeffersons. Could that child have said no to his advances? The answer, in this case, is clearly no. But, if we look at it honestly, the answer, when speaking of sex between a master and a slave, is always going to be that the slave cannot say no without fear of reprisals, without living in terrorem.

 

This is why I call it rape. Because it is rape.