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.

The first in a series of “True History” portraits of my ancestors

 

R Love in truth

For several years I’ve wanted to make faux-historical-style “engravings” that told the true stories of some of my ancestors. Here’s my first one! (If you click on the image you can see it larger.)

 

The standard histories will tell you that Robert Love (my gr. x 4 grandfather) tell you some version of this: “Colonel Robert Love (11 May 1760 – 17 July 1845) was an American Patriot, Frontiersman, Statesman, Benefactor and Founder of Waynesville. He would conduct the 1820 Robert Love Survey, establishing the North Carolina and Tennessee border.”

 

He did fight in the Revolutionary War. But in 1776, at the age of 16, he was a wagoner on the Christian Expedition that systematically destroyed Cherokee towns, burned all their crops, and killed any Cherokee who got in the way. After that he became a “frontiersman,” which means he moved into Cherokee territory, took their land, and killed the Indians who were defending that land. He was a “benefactor” because, after taking Indian lands, he became a slave owner and got rich on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

 

So this is my true portrait of Robert Love.

Rendering unto Caesar

view

As I write this I’m sitting on my front porch looking at a tidy row of houses on precisely surveyed plots marked by hedges and fences. It’s a scene I take for granted and a marking of the land that seems normal to me. If I close my eyes and think beyond this porch and this street, I can see this grid of habitation and ownership extending, with variations and some interruptions, in all directions across this country like graph paper blanketing the land.

 

Four-hundred years ago this was not the case. North America, at that time, was settled as much of the world was, by various peoples who moved around as they needed to and did not answer to centralized authority. John Winthrop wrote, “The Indians … have [no] settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.” And “They inclose noe Land.” Their non-ownership of individual pieces of land, more than anything else, marked the native population as “savage” in the eyes of the colonists.

 

Over two hundred years ago – when New England was already full of “settled places” and “townes” – tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish, including many of my ancestors, moved into western North Carolina, which was then the western frontier of white settlement. Land was cheap and the new nation needed white bodies to displace the natives, who were oddly inclined to do things like “challenge for their owne possession” people trying to take their land. My ancestors had originally been lowland Scots who lived near the border between Scotland and England and raided both sides with impunity. To pacify the border, James I moved many of  them to Ulster in the 17th century, where they were to colonize the native population there on behalf of the English crown. Ireland was made up of multiple kingdoms or “tribes,” and like the Native Americans, the “wild Irish” were semi-nomadic. Many of them lived by “creaghting” – migrating seasonally with their cattle – and, as a result, they didn’t need permanent habitations. Cattle roamed rather than being fenced in, and the people roamed rather than being boxed in. Roaming, of course, was understood to be barbaric and wasteful, but it also made the population more difficult to control by a central authority. One of the first things the colonizers did in Northern Ireland was build stone houses and “bawns,” or stone walls, surrounding them, delineating their land and keeping the wild Irish out.

 

I wanted to understand these Scotch-Irish, my ancestors, who had colonized first the Irish and then the Cherokee. I dug deeper and found a description of lowland Scotland and its inhabitants, on the eve of the great migration to Ulster, from one of the standard sources, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1962), by James Leyburn, himself a North Carolinian. “Agricultural methods were of an unbelievable primitiveness. The people were utterly ignorant of any improvement elsewhere … since the Dark Ages.”  Leyburn goes on to say disapprovingly, “There were no enclosures, no dykes or hedges between the fields, or even between farms….The cattle had to be … put into the care of a cow-herd or shepherd, who took them out every morning … and who chased them out of the unfenced fields of grain.” He adds, “The dirtiness of the hovels in which people lived was accepted … as one of the inevitabilities of life,” and, “some of the people had to be content to wear skins of animals for clothing.” So the lowland Scots, like the “wild Irish” and the Native Americans, had once been semi-nomadic “savages” who did not own or fence the land they lived on. They had their traditional life and land taken from them by the English.  And then the colonized became the colonizers.

 

Who brought “civilization,” central government, and colonization to the English? The Romans, of course, who invaded what we now know as England but which was then a land controlled by multiple tribes. So I looked into the Romans and found Tacitus’s fascinating account, not of England, but “Germania,” as the Romans “discovered” it when they invaded. He writes, “It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them. Their villages are laid out, not like ours in rows of adjoining buildings; but every one surrounds his house with a vacant space,  either by way of security against fire,  or through ignorance of the art of building. For, indeed, they are unacquainted with the use of mortar and tiles; and for every purpose employ rude unshapen timber, fashioned with no regard to pleasing the eye.”

 

He goes on to say, “Nor do they attempt to make the most of the fertility and plenty of the soil … in planting orchards, inclosing meadows, and watering gardens.” And they “live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty…. Their food is herbs; their clothing skins.” Once again we see a native population, living in a system of decentralized power and communal land use, characterized as ignorant and barbaric and in need of correction and control by those who are “civilized” (and who want land, resources, and the power civilization grants). So the English, like the Scots, were a colonized people who became a colonizing people.  How does that happen? How do a people forget what was taken from them by force and then use force to take those same things from others? Is it a kind of Stockholm syndrome where we identify with our captors.  Or perhaps it’s simply people doing what they must to survive.

 

Coming back to the present, to my front porch, and feel the touch of Caesar’s hand. Because in it I see Tacitus’s Roman village, “laid out … in rows of adjoining buildings” and “inclosed meadows.”  I see that my street, my world, is the result of the centralization of authority on the land, an authority that needs to commodify, count, and control the land and its people. And like my Scotch-Irish ancestors, we in America are both colonized and colonizers

Ramps

ramps
Ramps growing wild in the woods. Photo by Arly & Art/Flickr.

On my way out of Sylva last week, I passed a ramshackle farm stand with a hand-lettered sign that read “ramps.” They are native to the Appalachians and grow plentifully in the wooded hills. I pulled over and bought several big bunches – at $2 per bunch – for my husband who’s part French and so a natural-born foodie. Ramps grow wild, are foraged rather than cultivated, and are only available in the early spring. Their flavor is a mix between scallions and garlic, with an undertone of sweetness softening the pungency. These days ramp season is an EVENT in the culinary world where, as food writer Josh Ozersky said, “The Church of the Ramp is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the religion of seasonality.” Hip farm-to-table restaurants advertise special spring menus around this humble member of the lily family.

 

In the 19th century, my ancestors and their neighbors, white, black, and Cherokee, would have been excited about the appearance of ramps as well, but for entirely different reasons. In a world where spring crops like spinach, lettuce and asparagus are available all year round because it’s always spring somewhere, it’s hard to imagine how desperately eager our ancestors must have been for spring. By the dog-end of winter, the last jars of beans and peaches canned the summer before would have been brought up from the basement storage shelves, and meal after meal would have been just grits and cured salty meat. So imagine the thrilled relief of seeing those hardy green leaves carpeting the woods; the joy of seeing something fresh and green on your dinner plate, of biting into the bright tangy taste of spring, at last.

 

All over the country right now, the first wild greens are growing in scrubby woods, drainage ditches by the side of roads, even in back yards. And in parts of the country, heavily tattooed hipsters are roaming the suburban wilds foraging. My grandmother, who wasn’t above harvesting dandelions for their greens, might laugh herself silly at the fuss being made over these edible weeds. But it’s also touching and beautiful, this return to our roots – mythic, cultural, culinary, and literal. It’s a ritual, whether it’s Persephone or ramps we are bringing out of the ground, marking and celebrating the turning of the earth, once again, to warmer days.

The mysterious 6%

My mother lived with us for the last four years of her life because she had dementia. We had a rotation of agency in-home care givers to help us with the hard job of caring for an adult who could no longer care for herself. Much of the time caring for her – moving her, cleaning up messes – was more than one woman could easily do alone, so the care givers and I spent a fair amount of time together and became quite friendly. One evening, in the quiet, relieved minutes after we had at last wrangled my mother into bed, the aide – I’ll call her Mary – and I were standing there just looking at my mother asleep now on the bed. Mary, who was black, turned to me and said hesitantly, “She looks like my grandmother.”

 

“Hold on, “ I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled out a photo album, leafed through it, and pulled out a picture of my mother’s grandmother when she was a girl. When I showed it to Mary, she gasped. “You know what she looks like….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. My great grandmother had wild frizzy hair, black eyes, and non-Aryan features. Anyone looking objectively at the photo, not knowing who it was, would say that she wasn’t white – in the American one-drop definition of whiteness. She looks “high yellow.”

 

Sallie Thomas Avery with son Lenoir
Sallie Love Thomas as a girl

My mother had always said we were part Cherokee. She never said how that might have happened, or which ancestor slipped out of our well-documented history of white-to-white marriages to mix up our gene pool. Of course, many Americans claim to be part Cherokee. The Cherokee, now that they’re no longer inhabiting lots of land that we want, have the dubious honor of being the most popular native tribe for whites to claim relationship to. Now, given that my great-great grandfather was an adopted member of the North Carolina Cherokees, and given that no one knew precisely who his father, “Richard Thomas,” was, we had more basis for that belief than most. But still, was my mother implying that her great grandfather, Will Thomas, was actually illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother had with a Cherokee? Not at all; she liked, I think, the romance of the relationship without wanting to know the particulars. Me, I always want to know the fascinating, gossipy particulars.

 

So when we started this project, I had my mother’s dna tested. She is 94% Scottish/English/Irish descent and 6% mystery. Now, for my mother to be 6% something-or-other, she had to have inherited it from a great-great grandparent, someone whose name and history we know. Genetic tests determine ethnicity by comparing your genes to the genes of populations around the globe. 94% of my mother’s genes are similar to the genes of people who live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. But that remaining 6% is uncertain and interpreted differently depending on the testing service. My mother has been tested three times and had three different explanations for it. The first test said she was 6% Native American. The second test said Western European and Middle Eastern. The third interpreted it as Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.

 

Interestingly,  some dna analysis of the Cherokee themselves, show them to be (by current limited testing definitions) part Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Does this mean, as some people have speculated, that the Cherokee mixed with early European invaders and that what we’re seeing is the traces of that? It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that my 3rd great grandmother, Temperance Thomas, had an affair with a Cherokee before or during her marriage to Richard Thomas. (My fondest hope was that we would discover she’d had an affair with the Cherokee chief Yonaguska and that was why he’d adopted Will Thomas.) Again, not impossible but, given the social mores of the time for women anyway, unlikely. And having almost certainly identified Richard Thomas (an Anglo-American) I have no idea where that 6% came from.

 

Which leaves me thinking about race in America. We European-Americans invented the Frankenstein monster of race to justify the taking of land and the taking of humans, and so race is encoded into our national dna. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are constructs created when we left the tribal/clan boundaries – whether Celt, Gael, Viking, Mayan, Iroquois, or Yoruban – that had defined “us” and “them.” In North America, we had to find a new us and a new them. The Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery created the lumped ethnicities we now have of white, black, and Native American, and left us, in America, with an obsession with something we call “race,” which doesn’t really exist. What exists are shared geographic and genetic origins. My mother’s genes tell us she is a mix of peoples who came from Scandinavia (the Vikings), Scotland (which the Vikings invaded), and England. Not long ago these groups, that we see now as simply “whites,” would have forcefully denied any similarities; they all hated each other, warred with each other, and considered each other barbarians. So now, in the U.S., each of us – whether the majority of our genes are Native, Caucasian, or African – is a mix of once-warring tribes that saw only their differences and yet, are now mixed and unified in our American bodies.

 

It would be a beautiful thing if this newly widespread tool of genetics could bring us to the realization that race doesn’t exist. If Mary, standing with me looking at the worn out, sleeping body of my mother, could have said, “She looks like my grandmother,” and meant only that, without the ellipsis of unspoken racial identity hanging in the air. If she didn’t have to cautiously state it so that I could ignore or misunderstand it if I chose, or worry that I would take umbrage if I did understand. Someday I hope my children – who have varying geographic/genetic origins and various amounts of pigment in their skin – might begin to see a world where marking difference by skin pigmentation will seem as bizarre and arbitrary as the Scottish hating the Swedes who once, long ago, invaded them.

 

But, honestly, even in that imagined post-racial world, I’d still want to know who slept with whom and where that 6% came from. I’m just nosey that way.

The words we use, the stories they tell

In her post on “southern bells,” Elizabeth wrote about replacing, withholding, and silencing words. But sometimes words themselves do their own work of historical silencing.

American_progress

As we write drafts of this book we find ourselves constantly inheriting the words of others who have created the historical narratives we know today. We have been thinking a lot about the power of these words to frame the accepted story and to marginalize or entirely erase unsettling truths that might challenge that story. The words we use color and shift the stories we tell, in ways that are often imperceptible to us. We’ve come to realize that, in order to tell a different and truer history of this time and place, we have to reexamine the building blocks we have inherited. We’ve come to believe that in order to change the story we must first change the words used to tell it.

 

Thus far we have been writing mostly about the interactions and conflicts between whites and Native Americans, so the words we’re considering here have to do with that history. As we move forward with the project, we will look more deeply at the language used to describe slavery in the United States.

 

Settler: Webster currently defines settler as “a person who goes to live in a new place where usually there are few or no people.” Here in a nutshell is the whole idea of the empty continent or “virgin land” encountered by white “settlers.” The word itself erases the Indian inhabitants who managed the land’s resources, farmed, hunted, and buried their ancestors in it.*

 

The etymology of “settler” goes back to setl, the old English word for seat or place of rest. If the ideal of “settling” a land meant to “sit” or “come to rest” on that land, then the mobile and collective occupancy native populations practiced could not even be recognized as settlement. Both the “wild Irish” and the American Indians had farmed collectively in shared fields and used less arable land, forests or hillsides, as free pasture on which their animals could roam and graze. These practices were devalued and eventually criminalized to make way for what was considered “civilized” practices – the private ownership of land with a fixed residence on it and the fencing in of animals. In fact, the Indians were sometimes compared to animals for the way they roamed the land. So the Scotch-Irish, themselves pushed off their land by economic crises, became the advance guard of British colonization, pushing others off their lands just as they had been pushed off theirs.

 

The term “re-settlers” would be a truer word to describe the activities of Elizabeth’s ancestors. She prefers “land pirate,” which is what Andrew Jackson once called her great-x4-grandfather Robert Love (it took one to know one). But that might be an insult to pirates!

 

* Academics have used the term “settler-colonialism” to describe the activities of whites who colonized areas like the U.S. and Australia. The problem with this phrase, for us, is that it doesn’t reexamine and critique the concepts of settler and white settlement.

 

Pioneer: Merriam-Webster defines this word as “One of the first to settle in a territory.” “Pioneer” carries all the same problems as “settler” but adds a new dimension, claiming the title of first or original settler in lands that were already held and valued deeply by others. The American-English connotation of pioneer adds to the first-settler meaning the subtext of Manifest Destiny. The word conjures up covered wagons moving westward across vast untended lands, sometimes being attacked by savage Indians. Which is very different from the actual story of these “pioneers” moving through and claiming a landscape that was the pasture, hunting, farming, and sacred land of long-settled peoples.

 

Interestingly, the word pioneer is derived from the older French, paonier or “foot soldier who prepares the way for the army.” (Peon and pawn are related words.)  American “pioneers” were often, in fact, the advance forces that made way for the larger Euro-American invasion. The old French shading suggests the military aspect of taking the land, while on the other hand the root word peon points to the lowly status of the squatters and land tenants who were the leading edge of colonization, preparing the way for more established interests to occupy the land. Sometimes these peons were even used as tools by land speculators to prove they had “settled” the land.

 

Frontier: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory,” simplified as “a distant area where few people live.”

 

Clearly the word has the same problems as “settler” and “pioneer.” In old French and 15th-century English, the word could mean the front line of an army or the boundary of a country facing another – two concepts that were closely allied in both theory and practice.

 

The term has had a long and storied history in American studies. In the late 19th century, Frederick Jackson Turner forever reshaped the understanding of U.S. history with his “frontier thesis,” an origin story for “American” egalitarianism and democracy that traced these to the leveling experience of the frontier. Thus it was the frontier that could perform the magic trick of transforming a system of racist domination into a motor of equality and innovation. The term continues to carry enormous appeal in politics and popular culture, even though it has been eclipsed in academic circles by “borderlands,” which aims to deflect the lingering connotations of Turnerism and Hollywood westerns but which also removes the underlying military sense that once gave the word a more straightforward meaning.

 

Expedition: In the 18th-century the military invasions led by Britain and later the U.S. against the Cherokee were called “expeditions.” Expedition has its etymological root in the Latin word for foot; to expedite meant to free the feet from fetters. In a pretty literal sense these “expeditions” did free white militia men to enter and overrun Cherokee lands, and many of the men came back after the war to “settle” the lands they had earlier scorched and pillaged. Robert Love was one of them: at the age of 16, he drove a wagon for the revolutionaries on the “Christian Expedition” of 1776. The British were a bit more blunt about their expeditions: commander James Grant who swept through the area of North Carolina where Will Thomas was later born declared that his army was “chastising” the Cherokee.

 

Removal: What we now generally refer to as the Trail of Tears – the massive and devastating forced expulsion of the tribes east of the Mississippi that took place in 1838 – was, at the time it was occurring, called the “Indian removal.” It is one the central events of our story. (Our book focuses on the Cherokee and their expulsion from their ancestral homeland in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, but other tribes were forced on the Trail of Tears as well.)

 

In the nineteenth century, removal usually referred to voluntary migrations or changes of residence. Whites were often said to remove, from one “settlement” to another. To re-move, or move again, fit the pattern of many settlers’ lives, as they migrated further west or south in search of cheaper and more bountiful land, and less competition for resources. Will Thomas’s mother’s family, the Colvards, are a perfect example of this pattern, moving from central Virginia to southern Virginia across the border to upper North Carolina and then southwest to the Cherokee border. They had no ancestral ties to the land and little reason to stay in one place if they could get a better deal somewhere else. Ironically these migrants were less settled than the Indians themselves, who stayed in their ancestral towns as long as they could avoid the invasions of the expeditions and the pioneers.

 

By “removing,” the white migrants were exercising their own agency, which would be heroicized later by their descendants and by white artists and writers such as Frederick Turner as a noble design to clear the wilderness, “tame” the frontier, and pave the way for democratic civilization. With its connotations of voluntariness as well as tidiness, “removal” sanitizes the expulsion of the Indians, as if they would leave their ancestral land as readily as white settlers jumped from one place to another. “Emigration” was another term favored by the Jackson administration. Emigration is, of course, a voluntary action, while the Indians were literally rounded up, interned in camps, and sent packing. Although no single term does justice to the complexities of this story, “expulsion” captures the mostly involuntary character of the migration and helps us overcome the historical blinkers that have blocked us from recognizing the many varieties of Cherokee resistance.

 

Southern Bells

I grew up with the ringing of bells. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, SouthernBelland dinner, my family would sit at the dining table, my mother would pick up the bell placed discreetly near her placemat, and she would ring it once, just a single chime. After a few seconds, the kitchen door would open and a servant would bring us our food. My father was a diplomat and I grew up in Southeast Asia. Looking back on it now, it seems surreal, alien, but then it was all I knew.

 

I inherited a number of those bells and they sit unused on shelves or in boxes of stuff I haven’t gotten around to taking to Goodwill. I never thought much about them. They were just part of the strange furniture of a life I once lived and that has very little to do with my life now. But as I’ve been researching this project – a social-cultural biography of my great-great grandfather William Holland Thomas – this inanimate inheritance has begun to haunt me: the bells, the dining table they sat on that was once at my family’s slave plantation, the two-hundred-year-old writing desk with its black spills from ink pots and quill pens that signed names and sold peoples lives away. My ancestors, the Averys, were the largest slave-owners in western North Carolina, and my mother and I come from a long line of women who rang bells that called people with brown skin to serve them.

 

In our lives, as in the lives of my ancestors, the bell took away the need for words: you didn’t have to yell crassly for your food; you didn’t have to poke your head in the kitchen, look in someone’s eyes, feel how hot it was for them cooking your dinner on a summer day; you didn’t have to speak to them, use their name. The bell did it all, and its chime made the unvoiced command seem sweet and sound pretty.

 

The women I descend from, the Southern belles, based their elegant, gracious lives on myths, on stories they told over and over again, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that they, the slaves, were inferior and needed white guidance. Those stories could only be maintained by inhibiting the words of the people they enslaved. Which is why slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write. The written word would have given them a permanent physical manifestation of their experience: the word made flesh or the experience of their flesh made into words. And that would have threatened the fragile stability of the system they all lived within. Because a system based on lies is easily threatened.

 

The bell was a mellifluous stand-in for an order the enslaved person had no choice but to obey. It allowed the white mistress to act out a masquerade of plantation life as genteel and hospitable. It was a world built on controlling words. It prevented black people from telling the true story of their lives, and whites from hearing the whip in their own voices. Words are dangerous things, because words make stories and the stories we tell create our reality.

 

I know all too well the stories we white people tell. I remember once, going through family papers with my mother, and coming across one of the plantation’s slave ledgers. She leafed through it and finally said, “Well, they bought them shoes once a year, so they must have been good slave owners.”  But, as I told my mother that day, the words “good” and “slave owner” are mutually exclusive. The simple act of “owning” another human being taints every other part of your life – in part because it is an absolute wrong, and in part because you must lie to yourself to make it acceptable. This “Gone With the Wind” version of life in the old South – relying on the silencing of some words and the assertion of others – is the story we whites have told ourselves and the world over and over again until we believe, against all common sense and human decency, that it’s true.

 

But, of course, the dissenting voices were not entirely silenced. Those who cannot speak subversion can, for instance, sing it. Using the codes of white culture as camouflage, the slaves sang of resistance and escape: “Tell ol’ Pharoah To let my people go!” or “Mary and Martha’s just gone along/Way over Jordan, Lord/ To ring those chiming bells.”

 

This project began as a fairly simple wish to tell the true story of my great great grandfather Will Thomas, the adopted son of a brilliant Cherokee chief – not just the heroism but the sex (and sex diaries!), the illegitimate children, the insanity, and all the other uncomfortable parts my family tried to suppress. But projects take on a life of their own, and this book will be not only about my great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, and his astonishingly complicated life. It will also be about the constructs we white people have made – about blackness, Indian-ness, whiteness, about manifest destiny and American exceptionalism – to justify the doing of whatever we wanted to do.

 

It’s important to remember that the myths we whites have spun cover up not only the truth about black lives and Indian lives, but also the truth about our own lives. Growing up, when one of us kids would mention some unsavory fact about a family member – their alcoholism or suicide – my grandmother would say, “We don’t talk about that.”  So we didn’t. And as in my family, in every shadowed corner of every “gracious” Southern plantation’s history, there are suppressed stories.  In my own family there is the baby daughter – of a slave woman raped and impregnated by the son of the house – given as a gift to her own white cousin, or the husband’s white mistress on the other side of town, to name only a few. These are all things those Southern belles, my great grandmothers, knew about, hid away, and never spoke of.  There is a cost to those lies too –  to the one who lives that lie, and to the ones lied to and lied about.

 

Looking at my mother’s bell now – its gold mouth resting silent against the polished wood of the table that once stood in the plantation house – I think about all the different bells: this small table bell that holds within it generations of stopped voices, black and white; the Southern belles, my grandmothers, who once held and used it; and the church bells that called people to gather, to sing out dissent, that rang out Judgment Day and a world where slavery would be undone.

 

With this book project and this blog, we hope to add our voices to the rising chorus of dissenting voices, to help ring not the bells of command and fear, but those better bells, the “chiming bells” that invite us to come together and sing out loud and clear.