What is the road paved with?

I grew up hearing adults say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Heck, I think it is the title of a song. And the older I get, the more I realize that much damage is done in the world by people who seem to think that they are doing the right thing. As a fairly new author, I’ve uncovered a good bit of evidence of this fact while researching for my books. For instance, a main theme of my novel Burning Prospects is the fact that Captain Isaac Ross wanted to free his slaves in his will through colonization. Specifically, colonization to West Africa through the efforts of the American Colonization Society.

Now, this seems like a good and noble thing to do. I grew up feeling proud that my great, great, great, great grandfather freed his slaves. And I have to say that after extensive research on Captain Ross I do believe that he had honorable intentions in wishing to free his slaves. The Mississippi Legislature had outlawed the outright manumission of slaves in 1828 before he wrote his will. It required an act of valor on the part of the slave (special circumstances) and a formal petition to the legislature asking for the slave’s freedom. Captain Ross’ hands were tied to a large extent legally speaking. 

Here is where it gets murky. His heirs fought his will in court. They wanted to keep the house, land and also the slaves. In their eyes, their rightful inheritance was getting loaded on a boat and shipped to another continent. So the American Colonization Society (ACS) hired lawyers to convince the courts to uphold the will. Here is a quote from the court case where the ACS lawyer gave the rationale for colonization and the reason the state legislature had passed the law restricting slave manumission in the first place:

“The practice of manumission was productive of great evil, by the rapid increase which it caused in the free negro populations. This kind of population was found by experience to be both oppressive and dangerous, constituting a heavy charge upon the public and a great nuisance to the community. It became, therefore, the necessary policy of these states to rid themselves of this evil, and as far as practicable to prevent its further extension… it may be safely asserted that every such limitation or restriction of the right of manumission, was intended by the legislature only to relieve the state from the accumulations within its borders of an obnoxious free black population.”

The argument worked. The slaves were indeed eventually sent to Liberia. But reading that quote makes you wonder how noble the intentions of the many members of the society were. My guess is that you had your mix of some who truly wanted slaves to be free and felt this was the only legal option and others that simply wanted all black people out of this country. Did the ends justify the means? Wasn’t that argument in itself so insulting that it negated much of the good it intended to do? 

Currently I am researching the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following the hysteria and fear of the attacks at Pearl Harbor it seemed reasonable to many, if not most Americans to keep “enemy aliens” under a close watch. “What can it hurt?” you might be tempted to ask? But this was an outrageous abuse of power and it totally trampled the civil liberties of these individuals. Looking at photographs of Manzanar and other “camps” makes my heart ache for the people carted off to them. I hope that I can write a novel that does them justice. “Good” intentions can surely pave roads to places none of us ever want to visit. I hope that we at least can learn from history and not repeat it.

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The peddling of human flesh…honestly just shocking.

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When I began researching the 1830’s and 1840’s time frame in Mississippi to provide the necessary background for writing Burning Prospects, I was shocked to see the way slaves were categorized. Their value was written down on ledgers as a legal record of their owner’s property. If it were not for these ledgers listing them as chattel, we may never have known any of their names. Some typical descriptions I came across were, “Adelle…old, no teeth…worthless” or “Tom, strong back and good worker…$1400”. I looked at long lists of names and felt such sadness for the real men, women and children who were so much more than just what market value at auction would have brought for them. They were someone’s mother, wife, sister, brother, son, husband, daughter…etc. Just as we all are. 

Here is an example from the press of the day. Taken from the NATCHEZ [MS] DAILY FREE TRADER, March 3, 1860, p. 2, c. 3

Slaves, Slaves,
At the Forks of the Road.
The Undersigned have on hand about Forty Negroes, consisting of Men and women, which we will sell as low or lower than any one else in this market. Men from $1400 to $1500 and Women from $1200 to $1400. We have no Virginia nor unacclimated negroes. We are bound to sell, and will sell. All who wish to purchase will call at the old Elam House and examine for themselves.
Griffin & Pullum.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it doesn’t take much for me to imagine the feelings of sheer hopelessness, terror, and complete lack of control experienced by these forty individuals as they awaited their fate. A fate that they had no decision in whatsoever. I doubt we will ever know what became of these poor souls sold as a result of this newspaper ad. But I pray that we all do everything that we can to honor their memories, learn from the past, and pledge to never be a party to devaluing another human being. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 

 

All are punished…

I read an amazing poem last week. I am not generally a fan of poetry, but this one really grabbed my attention. It was written in the 1970’s by Mitsuye Yamada. Her family was taken to a camp along with many other Japanese-Americans during World War 2 after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the interments. The title of the poem is To the Lady, and the very beginning of the poem states, “The one in San Francisco who asked: Why did the Japanese Americans let the government put them in those camps without protest?”

Okay, so already my dander is up! Really? Someone is going to blame the Japanese-Americans for “letting” themselves be put in “those camps”! The poem goes on, filled with irony, listing all of the things Japanese-Americans “should have” done to prevent this from happening to them and then goes on to list all of the things “the lady” would have done to stand up for her fellow Americans. The ending of this poem is probably what really has me pondering it a week later. It ends with the simple phrases: 

You let’m
I let’m
All are punished.

All are punished. That really spoke to me. I’ve been spending so much of my recent past mired down in research of my own family’s history involving slavery. Isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself? Any time a group of people is oppressed for any reason, it is because “we” as a society let it happen. And if it happened once, we’d be crazy to think it couldn’t happen again. All it takes is fear fanned by propaganda, which turns into hysteria. Anything seems justifiable it seems under those conditions. 

In writing Burning Prospects, I had to wrangle with my own feelings regarding the fact that my ancestors were slave owners. There were scenes that I wrote with tears streaming down my face. In fact, the novel is dedicated the the slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation. Obviously there is nothing I can do to help them now. However, the legacy of slavery exists today–we see it in the news every day. When we let fear or prejudice influence our actions, we are all punished. Not just the group that is being oppressed…but all of us. It hurts our nation collectively when any citizen is denied the civil liberties promised to us in the Constitution. Why? Because it chips away at our integrity and weakens our nation by dividing us into fragments. 

I do find myself grieving the blights on our nation’s history: The Indian Removal Act, slavery, the interment of Japanese-Americans and the Jim Crow laws. Let’s not become “the lady” who would ask why people would “let” themselves be unfairly treated. Instead we should be determined to learn from history and collectively refuse to let history repeat itself. 

Yamada, Mitsuye. “To the Lady.” Camp Notes and Other Writings / Mitsuye Yamada.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998. N. pag. Print.

Image courtesy of California State LibraryImage