I grew up with the ringing of bells. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and 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.