An Open Letter

Dear One of My Third Great-Grandfathers,

                You’re quiet, I’ll give you that. It’s deafening. The words that they plaster onto your memory, in your defense they say, are all I hear. I still remember the first time I saw you. It’s those memories that impact you so deeply, that are so formative, they direct your path for eternity. They cut you off, they grab you by the shoulders twisting you around whether you like it or not. This moment, when I first saw you, my breath caught.

The memory of this moment formed a visceral imprint on my life. When I remember it, I can see the way the light poured in and over us. I can smell it, I can taste it. I can feel my pulse pounding beneath my young skin.

                I was given a family history project at school. No worries there. I am privileged and blessed enough that the archival system seems to care about my ancestors, about you, and to be related to your descendants who have built a foundation of paperwork and pictures for me to easily fill in the family tree. That is a privilege. Part of the family pictures kept and protected was a copy of a daguerreotype. A copy of your portrait.

There you were. In your butternut gray uniform, because you had been told to fight for South Carolina and The South. That was the first time I questioned my morality, looking down at your daguerreotype copy.

I was seven and wondered if I was condemned to evil because I am descended from you. Blood of my blood. I think sometimes I even have your eyes.

You fought for evil. You are not the only one. You are not the only one in my family, but you’re the first one of the family that I saw. You’re the dictionary picture, putting definition to the word-vomit answers I would get when I would ask, “So. The Civil War. What was our part in it?”

Other family members of mine (those you’re related to, and those you’re related to only through me) who also fought for The Evil have left their own words. They have left their pride. They have left their ego and their blind, passive-aggressive, short-sighted prejudice in the documents that have been kept and protected.

And where are you? I know where you were. From the references I read, you saw more than any other of my fighting family members.

Is that it?

A daguerreotype, a picture from later in life, and a small snippet of something you wrote to your wife?

That’s it.

I see.

Well, that just makes me want to scream.

In case that wasn’t obvious. I know no subtlety. Just ask the people who know me.

Do we have that in common? If I were to ask those who knew you, who you are, would I see a masculine portrait of myself unfurl? Just- FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE SCREAM SOMETHING!

Because what they’re telling me…for your defense, they say…do you agree?

I have to know if you agree. I need to know if you want to see these monuments topple to the ground you fought for. Were you present when they went up? Did you help? You were a master mason after all. Were the monuments your idea, or did your voice contribute to their creation? Or did you curse their existence every time you’d pass them, since they were reminders of victories lost, and the men lost to them.

At parades for the people, did you ever have to wrap a tight smile across that portrait face I saw, when you were approached, your hand was shook by those who would die for a monument to dodge the battlefield you refused to dodge for yourself?

Tell me how many of those monument men’s names you knew.

Tell me how many times on a field somewhere you found yourself spontaneously fall into prayer because you knew in your bones that you were about to become one of them. That your infant son’s memories of you would only be a name carved in a monument. Did you want that? Did you just want it to end? Even if it meant your separation from him? And my grandmother, your wife? What of her who was left behind for duty’s sake? Did you only want your name, your son’s memories to be held in the stories your wife would tell him?

Did you ever tell him your stories from your lips? What only your eyes saw, what only your ears could hear? Or did you surrender, cause he could never understand.

I’ll admit, that my civilian brain cannot understand the realities of military service.

I cannot understand what you saw.

My humanity can imagine why you would never want to see or hear that war again, even in memory.

The historian in me sees how others speak for you.

The historian in me wishes you’d left tomes and volumes pouring forth every detail experienced by you.

What would they tell that is different?

You still fought for evil.

Blood of my blood, that’s not a lie and it never will be.

You did as you were told, even if you never owned.

Were you ashamed?

Were you happy?

Would you do it all again?

Even if they didn’t tell you to, would you enlist as soon as was possible?

Did your wife want you to go?

Did she need your protection?

Of all those who served and spoke, it’s you I want to hear from.

Describe to me the feeling of finding life continuing.

Describe to me the absolute knowing that you were able to walk off that field, marching home over hundreds and thousands of bodies.

Describe to me the screams going silent and the sulfuric smoke rising.

And what made you special? What made your life worth more than another soldier?

What survives beyond you?

You’ve given your power to those who never knew you.

Because silence is now acquiescence.

Dear Seven-Year-Old-Me-Holding-That-Daguerreotype-Copy,

Do not be silent. Do not do as you are told.

Be loud. Ask them: Why they are Proud?

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

What’s in your name? Colonialism.

Colonialism is in a name.

Enslavement. Enslavement is in a name.

In 1800, Virginian Edmund Jennings Randolph (of constitutional Virginia Plan fame) was mortgaged to the hilt.

To satisfy creditors and manage his finances and those of his family, he made the following agreement:

“…Now this Indenture witnesseth that in order to secure the payment of the debts aforesaid more effectually and the sum of one dollar in hand paid by the persons first named, he the said Edmund Randolph hath bargained, sold, aliened, assigned and transfered, and by these presents doth bargain, sell, alien, assign and transfer to the said Thomas Jefferson, Foushee, Hylton, William DuVal, Samuel Macraw, Lewis and Philip Norborne Nicholas their executors, administrators and assigns the following slaves partly in the possession of the said Edmund Randolph, and partly in the possession of Wilson Cary Nicholas on a hire for years, to wit; Dick, Judy and their children Sukey and Lucy and Sam, Aggey and their children, Succordy, Mourning, Edmonia, Lewis, in the said Edmund Randolph’s possession; the following negro slaves hired by the said Edmund Randolph to Wilson C. Nicholas for a term of years, and especially Blenheim, and his wife Phillis and children Charles and Moses, Harry and Nanny his wife and children Watt, and Billy and Jemmy and his wife Dolly and child Lydia and Jenny Willard Lewis and their increase present and future…”

“….on a hire for years….

Dick, Judy and their children Sukey and Lucy and Sam, Aggey, and their children, Succordy, Mourning, Edmonia, Lewis….

and especially Blenheim, and his wife Phillis and children Charles and Moses,

Harry and Nanny his wife and children Watt, and Billy and Jemmy and his wife Dolly and child Lydia and Jenny Willard Lewis

and their increase present and future…”


Let’s examine that, even if you have not found any indication, any evidence (yet) of your ancestors outright owning, enslaving people under the American race-based slave system, that doesn’t mean that your ancestors could not have hired or rented enslaved men, women, and children. The way Edmund was “hiring,” renting out these people to “Wilson C[ary] Nicholas for a term of years.”

That the American race-based slave system supported the rental of human beings. The way you can rent furniture today.

Let’s focus on Blenheim.

Blenheim is a battle. A vital English military victory. It is an event.

Blenheim is an English palace. It is a home. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Blenheim is this man’s name.

Blenheim is a father of two men, Charles and Moses.

He is recognized to be the husband of Phillis. Since churches under America’s race-based slave system did not acknowledge the marriage of “property” (as enslaved people were deemed to be property under 1800’s law and social practices), Blenheim and Phillis would not have been given their right of marriage recognition. It is likely that they jumped the broom.

Whatever America said, Blenheim and Phillis were united under God. So were Harry and Nanny. So were Jemmy and Dolly.

How does an enslaved man, deemed legal property under America’s historic laws and social practices, carry the name of an English palace, an English military victory?

Perhaps Blenheim (the man, the husband, the father) was born on the date of the Battle of Blenheim‘s victory. Perhaps Blenheim’s birthday was 13 August. Or 2 August. Depending on Julian or Gregorian calendars. Either way, maybe Blenheim’s name gives us Blenheim’s birthday.

Maybe Blenheim was named simply because whoever named him had been reading up on English history and decided Blenheim was an excellent name for an English victory, and an enslaved man.

Maybe they simply liked the way “Blenheim” sounded.

But consider, this enslaved man was of African descent. His heritage, his history was likely African. I say likely, because we do not know his parentage. And we know that American enslavers could force privileges with enslaved women under their legal and social power. There is no evidence that anyone in Edmund’s family fathered Blenheim. But we do know that extended members of Edmund’s family fathered enslaved children with women they enslaved.

This enslaved man, of African descent, through his name, carried the history of his colonial enslavers all the days of his life.

But Blenheim lived his own life. I am sure he made his own life, beyond the history of his name. I am sure that Phillis, Charles and Moses, they were Blenheim’s light. They were Blenheim’s life.

In researching names of enslaved individuals, consider the origin of their name. Consider that colonialism, and enslavement could imprint itself on this person’s name.

Hearing your name called, imagine every time you hear it, you know it is not your history or your heritage being honored, but the history and heritage of those who captured and continually suppressed your heritage, and oppressed your ancestors, your descendants, and your own life.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021

Get off the porch


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