Reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl made me feel guilty for the deeds my distant relatives committed. I grew up poor and always heard that my ancestors were “mountain folk” (Appalachian Mountains) and sharecroppers. But I’ve recently learned through my genealogy hobby that in 1810, one of my seventh great-grandfathers owned a plantation in Kentucky and was a slave owner. He left behind a will in which he considered human beings no better than land, cattle, hogs, horses, and furniture. He not only gave each of his daughters a human female, but he also gave them all children that those women birthed:
I give and bequeath to my daughter Susanna Jones a Negro Girl named Delcey and her increase forever.
Reading his will brought to life for me the reality that at one time in my own family’s history, people of color were bought and sold and GIVEN AWAY as if they were no more valued than kitchen tables…as if they had no thoughts or dreams…as if they had no free will. Because in his eyes, they didn’t.
I wish I could find out more about Rachel. Winney. Sarah. Delcey. Fanny. Anne. Mary. Judith. Soloman. Cindey. Those were their names. These girls were listed in the will alongside the horses, cattle, hogs, and furniture. Like Harriet Jones’ account in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, these women were “compelled to live under the same roof” with a man who
told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.(Ch 5)
Harriet Jones’ master wanted to use her as his own personal sex slave. I have no knowledge of whether or not my distant ancestor acted in such a despicable way, but the mere possibility that he could have and that the law allowed such a thing makes my stomach turn.
Jones wrote that
The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe.(Ch 5)
I’m still wrestling with the knowledge that my ancestors over 200 years ago were slave owners. Human being owners. They participated in the vice, the degradation, the wrongs of slavery. It makes me want to take a shower and wash away the DNA that once thought that slavery was ok. As painful as it is to read, slave narratives like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl help provide context to history that we wouldn’t understand if those brave souls hadn’t put their pens to paper. They help us build empathy not just for them, but for their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, and their seventh great-grandchildren. They highlight the generational wounds that still haven’t healed. Harriet Jones’ words mattered to the world back then, but they also matter today.
I will not write the name of the slave holder because I don’t want to issue any acknowledgment to him. But in hopes that somehow our nation might one day repair the gaping wounds that slavery inflicted on our nation’s soul, I will write theirs again:
I see you. I love you. May you rest in peace in the only freedom you ever knew.