2.15.2008

Happy Negroes, Unhappy Slaves

I had an interesting conversation with a man, recently. I don’t even know his name, but I talk to him every weekend while we’re both engaging in our favored Saturday pastime. I don’t think he knows my name either. Our names aren’t important. What draws us together and keeps us talking is the current political season and our shared love of history.

Seems his family, way back when, were slave owners. From my picture at the top of this column, you can rightfully discern that my people were slaves. He has papers to prove that his family owned “my” people. The papers list their names, how much they were purchased for, etc, etc. But he said his family never mistreated their coloreds. His family was good to its Negroes because mistreating your slave was like whipping a prized race horse...you simply didn’t do it if you wanted it to win races. In other words, if you wanted your fields plowed and your cotton harvested, you treated your slaves like people.

This was his analogy. For this reason, he told me, the historical image of the unhappy darkie and the murderous slave master during slave times was a myth....never happened. Most blacks, he said didn’t leave their masters when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Most Negroes, he said were happy in their circumstances. His family and their black chattel was proof of this.

Now, I agree with him to a point. There were blacks who stayed in their homes after emancipation. There were numbers of blacks who didn’t go north at the first opportunity.

My own family which originated in slave owning Kentucky is an example of this. Some of us bear the name of our owner, still live on the property, and today even attend the national reunion for everyone with the surname. Family story says they stayed because grandpa was the son of master. They certainly look alike in the old pictures that we have.

But, by the same token, many of my ancestors left Kentucky. They went north at the first opportunity looking for a better life. They chose freedom. That’s why I was born in free Ohio. Nearly all of my ancestors originated somewhere down south...Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina primarily.

Should we stay on the plantation with the devil we know...or should we leave, move north to make our way into the wilderness, not knowing what awaits except that whatever awaits will be our own choice, not one delineated by master.

This dilemma has always divided us. It played out during our vocal struggle for civil rights. Do we march with Martin or throw bombs with the black panthers. Do we leave with Marcus Garvey or simply separate ourselves with Malcolm.

Safe versus Free. Known versus unknown.

Today, do we back the Clintons because we have always backed the Clintons. Or do we back Barack Obama.

The known has worked to a point. Yes, I’m sure there were happy coloreds on the plantation sometimes. But I know there were many others who took a beating and longed for the day they could call the shots for themselves, if they survived long enough.

There were many of us who marched with Martin. There are many of us who still sing “we shall overcome someday” and still believe that all we have to do is wait for it to happen.

Yet, there were still others of us who believed that the Black Panthers had a point.....that Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa movement was a tantalizing scenario...that Malcolm’s demands for equality by any means necessary is still worth savoring.

The Clintons may feel black, talk black and empathize black...but the fact remains that they are an entrenched part of the establishment. They want us to continue marching and singing old anthems along with the grizzled followers of the dream, asking their permission for our freedom. They want us to be happy with what they give us. They point to their happy house Negroes in an attempt to convince us that they ultimately have our best interests at heart.

But there is another truth operating here....even house Negroes didn’t like master....they just didn’t have a taste for adventure. They would rather stay with what they know rather than try the unknown. They would rather stay in the pseudo comfort of the plantation. It’s easier.

We are at another turning point in our history. Do we stay...or do we go.....Do we follow the north star with Harriet Tubman.....or do we go to bed because early tomorrow morning we have to wash master’s laundry.

Safe versus Free...Known versus Unknown

Happy Negro...Unhappy slave
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