“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” –James Garfield
**This is a tangent from the last blog, as I thought it was an important discovery. A Tale of Two Negros, Part Deux picks up next time.
*Names have been changed
Just about a week or so ago, I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine in Florida, named *Nick. Nick and I go back about 8 years and have seen some pretty dramatic changes in each other’s personal narratives, given that the roles that we have played in each other’s lives have been more like guest star appearances, rather than weekly features. I’ve seen him go from single, to engaged to married and separated. I’ve seen him switch careers and battle heavily with deeply personal issues. He’s seen me move abroad (again), go to school (again and again) go to war with vicious relatives (again infinity) fall in love and suffer through the slow, painful disintegration of a very important relationship. Ever thoughtful and often with a wry eye we have pried apart the subtle (and not so subtle) nuances of life over a meal, over a drink, over an endless thread of text messages laden with curse words and near incomprehensible pop culture references. And you would never know by watching us interact…but I could probably count on my fingers the number of times we’ve caught up in person.
And he is far from the only one to whom this rule applies.
What I love most about true friendship is its impervious attitude towards time and distance. There are some people out in the world whom I haven’t seen in years, but whenever we connect, whether by Skype or by phone or by hash browns at Denny’s 3am in the morning, we can just pick up right where we left off and be comforted by the thick, velvety feeling of acceptance.
My friends aren’t just people who I love or respect or whose laughter, well-being and happiness I covet in an almost un-natural way. These are people I learn from. These are people who challenge me. These are people who teach me about myself, and about what kind of person I want and need to be. They pop into my head at random moments; they invade my dreams. I wake up in the middle of the night afraid that one of them is hurt, and send subtle FB messages to just “oh, you know, I dunno, just wanna see how things are going”…without sounding too creepy about it. And despite the fact that we sometimes bear witness to the absolute worst traits in one another, it cannot be helped…they are all fully integrated into my personal narrative; as much a part of my story as the people who owned by family 160 years ago.
But as I’m often reminded by my girl Kellie when we catch up over brunch, we choose our friends. We (unfortunately) do not choose our families…or their stories.
I find it interesting that, during the ‘segregation sessions’ with my father, we would also happen upon another story unique unto itself: My family has a slave narrative.
For those of you who do not know, the American slave narratives was a campaign launched, funded and sponsored by President Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. It was a project initially promoted by abolitionists to encourage discussion on both sides of the spectrum about race and gender in America; a kind of distraction from the economic woes at the time. Up until this point, all written accounts of slavery had been either fictional (Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe) or diminutive (numbers on a ‘deed of sale’). But with the real-life contributions of former slaves Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Roosevelt decided to dig deeper and interviewed more than 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean.
I had heard of the project before; seen it on a documentary, or read about it in a reference book, but for some reason, I always assumed that my family didn’t have one…but they do.
Oddly enough, however, it’s not a slave narrative of a slave…in my case, Sara, my great-great-great-great grandmother.
It’s a slave narrative of the slave owner…Alexander Graham, the man for whom my great grandfather is named.
“Tragedy Strikes the Graham’s During Sherman’s Civil War March.”
That’s the headline. It’s a narrative told through the eyes of the former house slaves who lived in the home of Alexander Graham. Talk about a ‘hard read.’ The first few times I tried to absorb it, I had to put it down and walk away. I deleted it from my inbox…then resurrected it from my trash folder; always afraid of deleting a very important part of my history that I was not yet prepared to read. I didn’t tell anyone about it for weeks, because it made me so…angry. And when I started to tell people about it, I couldn’t tell them what it was about because I had not yet been able to read it. Even my fingers tensed holding a hard copy of the document in my hands. My mind would start to race and my heart would start to pound within just a few first lines. My brain which normally operates under Deloreanesque speed, slowed to a screeching halt and said “Bitch, please.”
These are the last people on earth that I wanted to read about. And I won’t even go into the gaping irony on the fact that this is a ‘slave narrative’ about the family that owned slaves. I felt as if someone replaced my favourite bed time story with a column from the Financial Times.
Initially, I failed to really grasp the significance of the discovery, because I was reading the narrative through my eyes; the eyes of someone who lived in Chicago and saw the election of the first black president in America. I was reading this story through the eyes of someone whose nick name during elementary school was “burnt cookie.” I was reading this story through the eyes of someone who’s been tortured for either being ‘too black’ or, more often than not, not nearly ‘black enough.’ I was reading the story through the eyes of someone whose father lived through segregation and whose mother was victim to generations of abuse and insanity. I was reading this document through someone desperate for answers, but also through the eyes of someone who wanted those answers to come neatly wrapped in sparkly paper and impeccably tied with a nice, camp ribbon. I brought way too much of my own story [read: baggage] with me when I first attempted to read the story. This inhibited me from being able to see the story for what it was: a small bit of truth. That’s it. And like any bit of truth, it stands on its own without my approval or disregard.
I wasn’t able to see that until I stripped myself of 30 years of bias, emotionally charged smart-ass remarks and virulent discord…if you know me at all, then you also know that’s no small feat.
They say that ‘knowledge is power.’ They’re right, of course. But why doesn’t someone say that ‘knowledge is a sacrificial lamb being sent to the slaughter whose screams will haunt your dreams for all eternity?’ Why don’t they say that ‘knowledge is your reward for being gut punched by midget Republicans’?
Knowledge is a blood sport.
Knowledge is a man named Alexander Graham who defied the Union Army, and paid the price with his life…
Alexander Graham was married to Elizabeth Torrey Purcell Graham; both of whom were descendants of highland Scots around the Paisley area. They had eight (legitimate) children; two of which died in infancy, and two more who went to fight for the Confederacy (i.e. “Slavery? Oh, is that, like, an issue for you guys?”). Alexander had two illegitimate children with his slave, Sara (the product of which was my great great great grandfather, Richard Graham…my father’s posthumous doppelganger). Apparently, life was prosperous and plentiful until the Civil War, when General Sherman of the Union Army (i.e. “Slavery can eat a dick”) marched his army into North Carolina on 8 March 1865. General William Tecumseh Sherman, by the way, is the most prolific bad ass of the Civil War era. He utilized a war method known as ‘scorching the earth,’ where he would not only kill any confederates in his way, but he would decimate the farm land, pour salt in its wounds and laugh maniacally as it died from a slow, bacterial infection; pillaging all available goods for his men in the process. Sherman wasn’t the diplomat, nor the thoughtful protagonist like General Ulysses S. Grant. If Sherman had lived through Vietnam, he would have been the acid-dropping platoon leader who sang show tunes while dropping napalm on villages of women and children. If Sherman had lived through Iraq II, he would have been the jarhead throwing IED’s into school huts filled with women and children while singing show tunes. He was the bull dog that you set loose. He was a Joseph Conrad divination; Kurtz…a man who teetered dangerously on the edge that separated insanity from genius.
…He was kind of fucked up, to be honest. But he got the job done I guess (Yay! Freedom!).
But according to the politics of war, upon marching through Robeson County, North Carolina (what is now known as Hoke County) they had to provide notice to farmers to move their meat and crops from the war path, which he did. So, Alexander Graham moved his crops. He moved his mules. And he moved his meat. Hording the meat in defiance so that it wouldn’t fall in the hands of the ‘enemy.’ All the while, hiding a little known fact that he had two sons off fighting for the opposition (Side ‘Slavery! Fuck yeah!’). Alexander himself moved to a neighbor’s place by the name of ‘Currie’ (who went on to serve in the House of Representatives); uprooting his entire life (keep in mind, he was a farmer) so as not to cross paths with General Sherman and his army of [motivated] black and white soldiers.
He was, apparently, a bit of a stubborn Scot and didn’t appreciate being run out of his home, so he left Currie’s house with the ominous last words: “Let them come find me if they can,” and he set himself up on Drowning Creek (now known as Lumber River) with nothing but a black mare, a pistol lent by Currie, a sheepskin holster for the pistol and some wagons of meat. Sherman and his army were on the war path for the families of men fighting for the Confederacy (Side ‘I fuck your freedom for breakfast’). There was a small group of Confederate sympathizers staying with the Curries who all went into hiding as well, for fear of being found out and shot to death by firing squad. In the days immediately following General Sherman’s march of war, people began to emerge from the woods to find that the Currie home had been reduced to a ‘bed of ash.’
…Everyone except Alexander Graham.
A house servant of the Currie house declared that, while everyone else was in hiding, she had witnessed Alexander Graham being chased by a group of rabid Yankee soldiers; some black, and some white. In the narrative, this is referred to as a “two mile race for life,” and even after a torrential downpour of rain in the days immediately following the chase, “the tracks of victor and villain were well pressed into the soft ground.”
“This showed just where the race ended and the death began – The animal [chasing Graham] circled around a big pine tree [as Mr. Graham hid on the other side]. Mr. Graham’s feet were against the big tree, his head pointing [in the direction of] the way they (the enemy) came from…his lifeless face buried deep in the mud. Calvin [house slave] was the first to sight Mr. Graham’s white hair glistening in the distance. The pistol and shotgun were gone, along with the wagons of meat, only Currie’s homemade pistol holder remaining.”
The brief rebellion ended in a brutal beating where Alexander Graham was robbed, and had his head bashed against the side of tree by Union soldiers. So unrecognizable was he after the assault, that he was buried with his top hat covering his face at the funeral.
Elizabeth Graham and the coffin maker were the only people who attended his funeral. Ten days after Alexander’s funeral, Elizabeth’s son, Thomas Scott, was wounded at the Battle of Bentonville and died in Raleigh on 23 March 1865.
Here’s something interesting: The home where the Graham’s lived was purchased in 1973 by Elizabeth’s grandniece, Ella Alderman McLean, and moved four miles to Riverton in Scotland County…where it still stands today.
But I haven’t been there yet.
Discussing this with my father during out interviews, I ask him how he feels about all of this new found knowledge; if he has an opinion or a reaction one way or the other. I myself am quite confused as to how I should wear this information. I worked myself up so much…should I be happy that the man responsible for so much grief was brutally murdered at the hands of the people whom he aimed to oppress? Should I be sad, because this is after all, an ancestor of mine? I found it hard to remove myself from the narrative, as I do when reading about Australian politics, for example. When I interviewed my mother, I was depressed for days after. While interviewing my father, I felt decidedly triumphant and determined. But with this…I mean, what the fuck??
“Jennifer, this is only one coward on earth. And that’s the person that doesn’t want to know when the information is there.”
“So, you know. If you’re going to take anything away from this, it should be that you are capable of knowing horrible things about where you come from, without having it change who you are and where you want to go.”
“Yeah, but dad…we’re all afflicted by the actions and histories of our families. It’s in the blood”
“That’s true. But thank God you’re also afflicted by the love, generosity and sanity of your friends. That should balance it out. Don’t forget, you have chosen these people because you have consciously decided to be better. That’s part of your personal evolution.”
“So, you’re saying that I get all of my awesome qualities from my homies and not you? Is that what you just said?”
“You know damn well I didn’t say that. Don’t be a smart ass.”
So, what exactly do I take away from this? Nothing. Other than violence begets violence, and history begets present. This is not an earth shattering revelation. It’s a rare glimpse into a different time. And as tempted as I may be to draw parallels between this story and certain tales of my brother’s time in Iraq (and Venezuela)…I’ll resist. For now.
I told Nick about this project of mine and tried explaining its significance at this point in my life (dirty 30’s and all). He agreed with me that I needed to find out where and why and how and who…he was impressed with some of my findings (the findings I relayed to him, anyway) but he also conveyed a hesitation to pursue a similar truth of his own. Without giving away too much detail, even under pseudonym, Nick expressed that there are some people out there that he does not want to meet; blood be damned. Given his current familial challenges, a small part of him is afraid of what else he might discover. What else lies lurking just beneath the surface…and while I didn’t dig too deep, given everything that I’ve learned so far, I can understand his fears…now more so than ever before. Because he’s not so much concerned about what he’ll find out about someone else. He’s afraid of how he’ll extrapolate their traits, their actions and their motives as underlying, sinister characteristics of himself.
Just like I tried to read into the slave narrative to find out something about myself. But it doesn’t really matter. What happened to Alexander Graham says as much about me as what happens in Paisley, Scotland today. The point is that now I know. I faced it. Just like I faced the fact that I’m also related to Billy Graham, the evangelist. Just like I faced the rapes and maternal neglect in my mother’s family. Just like I’ll have to face the results of that DNA test when it comes back in 6 weeks.
I respect Nick’s decision to distance himself from that part of his past. But I hope that one day he changes his mind. If anything, this journey has taught me more about what I CAN handle, than what I cannot. I can only hope that it would be a similar experience for him.