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 wisdom, a particular knowledge, to little children who sit around she who reads the book.
She who reads, reads to dark, small children who sit 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. Dark little children surround their demi-goddess: that is the idea, spoken through these and other rosebud lips.
Those little children. The book, the knowledge imparted, believe that this female owns them, same as she owns the book. One for the other. Perhaps she values more than the others.
Safe and secure. Only the threat of freedom rising is imagined to be powerful enough to shake its foundation. Such a threat is kept at bay by words held in books, held in hands, held in minds, spoken through rosebud-lipped generations, all from a porch.
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 the rock of their lives? What happens to the 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 Lady of Arlington degraded Arlington’s enslaved people as “ungrateful” men, women, and children, “beguiled off by the Yankees” into free lives.
Wouldn’t these enslaved men, women, and children choose to stay with her after their emancipation? Surely she thought that they would not leave her home, surely they would not leave Arlington. If Arlington was the lady’s home, wasn’t it their home, too?
Surely they would not abandon her kindness that was shown through their bondage. She read to them, “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.
She and her family had found freedom at Arlington. Couldn’t the enslaved stay and find their freedom at Arlington with her family?
The ‘she’ of whom I write is Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. She is fascinating to me because I don’t know what to do with her. I read about her personality and recognize similar traits in myself. I read her words and am repulsed.
In reading descriptions of her harvested from those who knew her and preserved in my favorite biography of her husband Robert Edward Lee [the biography is Reading the Man by the late and truly great Elizabeth Brown Pryor], I discover that 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.”
These words are taken from letters written in 1823 and 1824 by contemporaries of Mary A.R.C. Lee.
Reading the words of Mary A.R.C. Lee reveals something more 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 words are taken from a letter written by Mary A.R.C. Lee in the spring of 1867 .
Revelation: I would not like Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. She and I deeply disagree on very basic beliefs of decency and 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, are we the same? As much as I sit in judgement, if thrown in her circumstances what 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 smoothers [as in]: “All will be well if I can drown your sorrows,” “All will be well if I say so.”
“All will be well because even though my ancestors kept yours in bondage, I respect and listen to Pac and Kendrick.”
“All will be well because while I quote the Declaration of Independence, I admit that Jefferson fathered kids with Sally Hemmings.”
“All will be well because I know what ‘woke’ is.”
“All will be well because I can Google things on Urban Dictionary.”
“All will be well because I saw Black Panther. Twice. And I saw Crazy Rich Asians, twice. 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 because when my ancestors kept yours in bondage they saved your souls and taught you your words, all from our own family’s porch.”
Blind Kindness is done to you, but for me, so that I and my ancestors may sleep in peace, and 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?
How much can I understand about our world if my mind has never gone “off the porch” to see our history not as I think it is, but how it is?
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