An Open Letter to the Family that Owned My Family
The internet is a big place, and I write this hoping you might read it.
Some people like to say, “slavery was a long time ago…” as a way of making the pain go away. For some African Americans, those that separated themselves from all reminders of it by moving away, it worked. Slavery was something that happened… but not necessarily to them.
I did not have that luxury.
Growing up in rural South Carolina, I lived under a Confederate flag, trusted my public safety to Klan members, took field trips to plantations, and always used the colored entrance at the town drugstore.
Because… I’m not stupid.
I never realized how peculiar my life might have been until my father revealed a family secret to me when I was 13 years old.
“You know your 6th-grade teacher’s family used to own us.” My father casually mentioned one night.
And with that, my entire world was shattered.
Slaves Living Alongside Slave Owners
I was never fond of Mrs. Plowden. I mean, she didn’t treat me any different than any of the other students. I just didn’t like her. She was stuck up and not very caring. She was one of those teachers that cared more about the job than the kids.
However, after my father told me that my private school teacher, the one I tried so badly to impress, was the direct descendant of someone who owned my family, my stomach literally turned. I remember searching my dad’s expression for anger, but there was none. So, I backed down, figuring there was nothing to win by being mad.
I wanted to ask more questions, but it didn’t seem right. Perhaps, the fact that he said nothing while I attended the school was no coincidence. For the next couple of years, I searched state genealogical records to find proof of his statement. I couldn’t find any. I could barely find proof of my dad’s birth. So, I gave up looking and accepted the family history as truth. We had verifiably been living in the same town for the last 100 years, so it was likely true.
Plus, because the town had remained intensely segregated, it was easy to forget that white people lived there. Aside from at the post office and drug store you could go an entire week without speaking to a white person (especially if you used the back entrance like you were supposed to).
I’m pretty sure the white people that lived there experienced the same phenomena. Until my dad pointed out our family’s relationship with my former teacher, I completely forgot that the white people in our town were likely the slave-owners of the current inhabitants. They hadn’t left, and neither had we.
The Past Is Done
Standing in the remains of where my dad spent his childhood, it’s hard to feel compassion. It was a tiny house; marginally larger than the slave quarters you see at Charleston plantations. As I stood at the edge, observing the plants that had overtook it, I imagined my dad and his 10 aunts and uncles, living in that one-room house. I tried to picture my grandmother cooking after a long day picking cotton and my grandfather outside cutting firewood. Nostalgia released to pain as I remembered back to my teacher’s Tammy Faye eyelashes and overdone makeup.
But that was all in the past.
The reality was I was attending college in Ohio, and I was standing at an abandoned building on the side of a lonely SC highway on my Spring Break. I graduated from high school with friends from a variety of races and was continuing the trend in college. I was not my father because my father did everything he could to give me more opportunities, and his parents did the same for him. I came from slavery, but that didn’t make me a slave because a slave does not have time to go back and reflect while on Spring Break in college. I’d moved up from slavery without denying its existence.
My Future Is Bright
The awesome thing about having a background full of darkness is the light that is ahead. I used to hold a tiny space in my soul for the family I believed inflicted pain upon my family, but as I let go of some of the anger, I realized that it’s not 100% their fault.
They and other landowners were acting upon the acceptable practices of the time. Every one who knowingly participated in the act of slavery, via purchasing goods, using slave labor, or supplying slave labor were doing so because they were spiritually unevolved. I actually feel bad for them, but it is definitely not my place to feel anger, or wish them ill-will.
Things have a way of working themselves out. So, that’s kinda on Y’all to wear.
And *poof* I’m free to think about the good things in my life…
So, family that used to own my family — I forgive you for being stupid … how’s your business going?