Having family roots in Tennessee and Texas, I have always felt the weight of what C. Vann Woodward called “the burden of Southern history” and what Katherine Anne Porter saw as “the never-ending wrong.” I have on my wall a portrait of my great-great-grandfather, known as “Squire” Martin, the leading man of a county in Tennessee, west of Nashville, near the Kentucky border. He died in the prime of life the first year of the Civil War, and left a sickly son, who went off to Vanderbilt medical school to find a cure. Squire Martin has a handsome face suggestive of firm and benign character. Yet he was a slave-owner, with a modest plantation, really just a farm with a small house made of bricks made from clay found on the property. He is buried in a family plot there, overrun with weeds. He was said to have been a kind master and, my father recalls seeing old “Doc” Martin reunited with a former slave, his playmate in childhood, the two hugging one another like long-lost buddies.
A kind master? On a recent trip, I read Frederick Douglass’s early memoir, written when he was only in his late twenties, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. In the stark prose of a self-taught escaped slave, it is a gripping story steeped in an unmitigated hatred of slavery. Young Douglass had bad masters and good. The good ones punished – which means whipped – but they did not enjoy the cruelty. His best master – or, in this case, mistress – was a young widow in Baltimore to whom he was given as a house servant. She was new to the role of an owner and smiled at the boy with a benign glow. This amazed him since he had never seen any white person look upon a black person that way. But, as she learned to be a slave-master, she lost her gentleness, becoming mean and heavy-hearted. Slavery had stolen not only his happiness but hers as well.
Young Douglass secretly taught himself to read and to write. It was forbidden to teach a slave even the alphabet, but he invented a game to play with a white boy, over who could form letters better. The white boy always won, of course, but, by imitating him, Douglass himself learned to write.
Finally, Douglass formed a daring escape plan, and got a few other slaves to join him. He did not know anything about the nation’s geography except the idea that north was where freedom could be found. But, when he got to Philadelphia, he discovered that an escaped slave was still not safe. He could be turned in for a reward, perhaps as little as 25 cents, and sent back. Douglass made his way to New England, where the strong anti-slavery sentiment gave him protection. He worked for pay, and worked hard, and did not mind any form of work, however toilsome, because it was freely chosen and compensated. He started attending abolitionist meetings and was invited to relate his experiences. At first, he found it completely unnatural to speak his mind to white people but, as he got over this reticence that was protective in slavery, the words came to him, and they came and they came. William Lloyd Garrison heard him and got him to write his story. The book sold thousands of copies here and in England and provided a mighty force against slavery.
Looking back at Squire Martin, the “good” master, while I do not condemn him in personal terms — he probably was a man of integrity and decency, living well the role time and circumstance had given him – I notice that what kinds of goodness we can develop, just like what kind of intellectual tasks or interpersonal skills we can achieve, are empowered and shaped – and therefore limited by — by the conditions of life we find ourselves in. This is not an excuse. Some individuals rise heroically above their circumstances in spite all, and that is what we should all aspire to do.
Impoverished by the war, “Doc” Martin ended up a country doctor in West Texas, accepting as pay canned okra and hominy. His children picked cotton and lived in a cleaned-out chicken coop. All honest labor, without the moral stain of the South’s “peculiar institution.” No longer masters, they were better off.
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