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.