There is an old American image.
You know it.
Angelic, white face. Eyes cast down to look upon delicate female hands, gently holding a book. This book is read aloud in a birdsong voice while it is gently cradled among lithe white feminine fingers.
There are rosebud lips, parted to impart what she thinks is wisdom, gospel even, to little children who sit around while she reads to them. Like a saint. Like their savior.
She who reads, reads to black and brown children. She sits above, on a wide wooden porch.
The porch is usually white-washed, columned as an ancient grand temple. The porch, the invitation to sit, is meant as a temporary welcome.
Those little children. The book she reads from states she owns them. This book, maybe the law, maybe a Bible is being intoned as proof that this female owns them. Perhaps she values one more than the others. Perhaps she’s more careful with The Family Bible.
Safe and secure. The only threat is their freedom.
And when the children who are read to, when they and their families choose to leave? When they are not dismissed back to commanded duties, but venture beyond the wooden floors that have been an anchor to their lives? What happens to the white, female, rosebud-lipped generations they leave on the porch?
Some may find it odd, on having learned of the fate of her childhood home of Arlington and the emancipation of the many enslaved people whose work sustained it, that the so-called Lady of Arlington degraded Arlington’s enslaved people as “ungrateful” men, women, and children, “beguiled off by the Yankees” into freedom.
In her mind, wouldn’t these enslaved men, women, and children choose to stay with her? Wasn’t Arlington their home, too? They had built it, hadn’t they?
Surely they would not abandon this lady’s kindness; a compassion that her mother taught her, that she would teach to her own daughters, to show. She had read to these people, “done all [she] could” for them. Her daughters taught their children on the grounds surrounding Arlington’s monumental porch, sitting together in a room covered in the shadow of its monumental walls.
This “Lady of Arlington” is Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. She fascinates me. I think I know what to do with her, and then I read remarks from her family and friends, preserved in the words of their letters. I see traits of her personality and recognize them in myself.
I read her own words and she repulses me.
The descriptions of her from 1823 and 1824, by those who knew her [preserved in Reading the Man, a biography of her husband Robert Edward Lee by the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor] make me realize that we, she and I, share “[an] artist temperament.”
“She [and I] spoke whatever [temper] came in her mind- but it was over in a moment.”
“She [and I] has wit & satire too, when they are required.”
Her own words reveal herself to me:
“a set of lazy idle negroes who roam about by day marking what they may steal at night & are kept attending political harangues of which they understand about as much as the African Gorilla.”
These are her own words, written in the spring of 1867 .
I would not like Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee.
She and I deeply disagree on fundamental beliefs of humanity.
But we share the same “artist temperament” and “wit & satire too, when they are required.” We pray to the same Savior. If we share the same personality, the same spirituality, could we be the same? As much as I sit in judgement, if thrown in her circumstances what repulsive shades of myself would appear?
After all, I, too, have been bewitched into believing my own gold-star superiority; my own sort of Blind Kindness.
Blind Kindness is not true kindness.
Blind Kindness never actually listens, it only justifies.
“All will be well. Even though my ancestors kept yours in bondage, I respect and listen to Pac and Kendrick.”
“All will be well. Even while I quote the Declaration of Independence, I admit that Jefferson fathered kids with Sally Hemmings.”
“All will be well. I know what ‘woke’ is.”
“All will be well. I know what Urban Dictionary is.”
“All will be well. I saw Black Panther. And I saw Crazy Rich Asians. And I can hum three songs produced by A Tribe Called Red. And I have more than one non-white, non-Protestant friend.”
“All will be well. When my ancestors kept yours in bondage they shared their front porch to save your souls. God be with you, brothers and sisters.”
Blind Kindness is done to you, but for me, so that I and my ancestors may sleep in peace.
No justice. No peace.
I have to wonder: how much am I the same as my ancestors and their contemporaries? How much of our present history, that is daily made around me do I choose not to see?
[2021 Edit: I only recently watched Segregated by Design. I’m beginning to realize how much I have been fundamentally lied to in my life.]
How much can I understand about our world if my mind has never gone “off the porch,” to see our history not as I was taught, but as it was?
So I need to get off the porch. It’s time. It’s done past time.
Welcome. Let’s step off.
copyright Off The Porch History 2018