Typewritten pages buried in an obscure book. Yellowing, unlined, composed by my mother with penciled corrections in her hand, they told family history in fits and starts, gleaned from my grandmother’s memory. On a wintry day, they fell out of the book so I sat on the floor to read them because my mother’s voice was in them. She was not long dead.
I read of marriages, births, a sorrowful line of infant deaths, beloved children who never grew up. An aunt in her 90s lived on a $12 monthly pension after her husband died in the War of 1812. Men taught school or farmed and served in all the old wars—Independence, 1812, Civil. A great-great-great, etc. grandfather, one of the first whites in middle Georgia, built a log cabin and schoolhouse. It garnered a great deal of attention by the Indians, still numerous and of a friendly tribe.
A great-great grandfather who raised breastworks for the Battle of Atlanta: He left his slave “Big Green” in charge of his slaves (15) and his home. “Big Green” hid the silver and stock when Sherman passed near.
I had not known the family held slaves.
I started a journey, twenty years so far, from shame and refusal to speak of it to confession to exploration to the question of whether anything in my story held value for anyone else. It’s not a singular story.
My mother was the teller of family tales. She and her siblings had a difficult childhood. Their father took the oldest son out to hunt, and while they were sitting in the brush, his rifle across his lap, a sudden move triggered the rifle and accidently shot his hand off. My ten-year-old uncle raced off for help. My grandfather died a couple of years later and the family lost everything. Tales of hard times and the fortitude of ancestors, I knew my mother’s stories better than my own. She knew the family stories better than her own.
She never told me about slaves though. In these pages of hers I hear the echo of white Southern mythology. Friendly natives. (What happened to them?) Loyal slave. History without truth. She taught herself to not-know. I knew her well, she could do that. She was gone, we could no longer talk. I still want to talk. It’s my story too.
I would ask her how she could have left the truth out. She’d say, That was a long time ago. It’s not like there was a huge plantation. Why would you want to talk about such things?
I might tell her I was shocked. I hadn’t thought they were that kind of people. (What kind of people? White people?) She would rattle off many things. You didn’t own slaves. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. I don’t think people care anymore. We can’t understand what it was like then. Most people who could, owned at least a few. It’s just what people did then.
I would say, What people? White people.
She might say, I don’t like to think about it. It was wrong. Or maybe even invoke the myth herself, they treated them well. Or she might say, Really? A family with roots two hundred years in the South and you thought none of them had slaves? Or you just never thought about it either.
I would have to sit with that.
Finally she would say, Of what use is it now?
That’s a question. What to do with truth. Is this just another story of white guilt, white tears? I learn that the German word for guilt also means debt.
My story is everyone’s story, in one way or another. People, a country, who profited off enslavement of others if they weren’t those who suffered under it. Rich or poor, white people, like me, don’t know how to live with that.
I’ve read histories of enslaved people who escaped, and there were many. There are archives of records about the cruelties inflicted, physical tortures, rapes, family members sold away, abusive work, degradation and indignities. It is an astonishing record of human depravity on the part of enslavers, of what terrible delusions people who feel entitled to do with or to people they have absolute power over. Not everyone treated enslaved people the same, yet at some level, they did by supporting the legality of enslavement.
The fight against historical truth that we see from politicians now are replicas of fights before and after the Civil War. Everyone, enslaved and free, knew the horrors of enslavement because those who escaped wrote about them. Many abolitionists devoted their lives to publicizing their stories. Even among abolitionists there was racism however, as some could not fully see Black people as their equals.
This ultimate failure is perhaps what stops white people now from allowing the truth to be fully told and wanting reparation to be made, an accounting of abuse and complicity. There is still psychological distancing many white people rely on to breach their sympathy and outrage.
There are slave records online. I asked a friend with genealogy skills to help me search. We discovered records of family members, men and women, who enslaved people, ancestors whose names I’d heard, and now I also knew they were slaveholders. Seven people held in one family, three in another, fifteen in one. As my mother said, they did not have big plantations.
Then I found a record for a Mr. Harrigan, a surname I never heard, a great-great-great-grandfather who held Black people enslaved at the beginning of the 1800s. John Harrigan Sweeney was his original name. Seventy-two enslaved people. Yes, he had a plantation.
I tried to imagine the first enslaver, perhaps his father or grandfather. How does someone come to do it? He had Irish ancestry. Families in County Mayo, for example, have this name. Did I need to give him a story?
Perhaps he came to the new world indentured and he too had a master, a settler in Virginia who despised his Papist habits and Celtic tongue, who thought of him like property. (And how did that man come to think that?) He too had no freedom, no say over his labor, his body. Sweeney slung a hoe in a tobacco field, picked beetles, horn worms. Ragged filthy years. His debt paid, a free man now, he fought with rebels for the pleasure of killing Redcoats. He hated Brits for how his people starved in Kilkelly.
Stink on his hands, infecting his heart. He took his soldier’s pay and migrated to South Carolina where fertile land was cheap. A small tribe of Cheraw, driven from the Yadkin down to the Pee Dee, were dying there. People more desperate than him. He felt pity and relief. A slave trader came by his little twenty acres, Negroes in chains walking behind him.
Sweeney paid some of his money to the trader, took ownership of a man who spoke broken English but knew how to grow rice. The low country of Carolina was good for rice cultivation. Together they cleared bald cypress, red maple, sweet gum, oak. Acres of virgin forest leveled for rice paddies and a house. Sweeney made some money. More money, more slaves—men and women to flood land, thresh grain if they didn’t die in the sweaty marshes. He was done with bondage, Sweeney. He fed the stew of servitude to people darker than himself.
Two hundred, then four hundred acres. Englishmen were his neighbors and he wanted to be one now, dropped the Sweeney and became Harrigan, even turned Protestant. His sons were educated, his daughters had fine weddings. His grandson became a doctor, got elected to the state legislature with other white men of property. Seventy-two slaves now, Ireland long forgotten.
What are the stories of the enslaved? I do not have their histories. I can imagine them, but it feels wrong, presumptuous or entitled, to create them as I did for Harrigan. A lot of necessary verbs come to mind (sweat plant hate sing hurt dance eat love work grieve weep cook sew haul ache) and nouns (field swamp house sky Africa sun heat hair stew path rice water fire wood rope whip pain sister song wife child child baby scar rape). I can’t link these words, follow their lineage, I can’t write their histories.
Why create a history for Harrigan? Does it matter what he thought or denied as he enslaved others and why or only that he did? Whatever the psychology of enslavers, it still within us. I imagined a slightly sympathetic story for Harrigan as a man who suffered, who put that suffering behind him in the worst way. The abused who became the abuser. It’s one way to understand abuse and oppression, but only one.
The online search site we used offered a will left by a son, the next generation Harrigan. He gave instructions for how the people that the state said he owned, should be handled (I think handled is the right word). Seven of them, namely (yes, their first names are there, an unusual inclusion) Johnson, Peter, Sophia, Mourning, Edmund, Dennis, and Sandy, he bequeathed to his son Barnabus. One of the women was named Mourning, a piece of her life inscribed on her.
To his daughter Catherine he left Sarah, Stephen, George, Robin, Ned, Jim, Rachel. Children of Rachel, those younger than Jim, were divided between Barnabus and Catherine. How old were they? No information. The will stipulates that the children were to remain on his land until required elsewhere. If Rachel’s children might be required elsewhere, without Rachel, they could be taken from her. To his wife he left the house and furniture and one negro man, unnamed. He resigned his Soul to a merciful God. He knew he needed mercy.
This generation, the sons and daughters who continued slavery, didn’t suffer the grandfather’s history. They knew prosperity and comfort. Born into a sense of superiority—what the elder Harrigan hated in his own (imagined) master but especially in the British. Aware that I am creating narratives, not unearthing them for the most part, I see these two paths. A person tries to undo their pain through displacement, passing it to others. The trauma of persecution, starvation, loss is too great to hold, it shapes the mind into doer-or-done-to relationships.
For generations to come who continue enslavement, they hold onto dominance, their grip on superiority. Still they know it is never secure. The ethic of doer or done to still operates, passed down endlessly. Where is the way out? We grasp the drive to feel superior, the fear of feeling inferior, but can we see the embedded illusion? This is psychological work as well as political.
Another step I took was a DNA test. Ireland, yes. Scotland. England, Northern Europe. A bit of West Africa in my genes, Senegal or Gambia, where captives were taken. Rape, white men raping enslaved black women, was common in slavery and continued into tenant farming. Someone’s skin was lighter, then a child, perhaps by another rape, was even lighter. Someone passed, married in, fooled the family. A man or woman with secrets.
I wonder if there is something about my body, my hair, my face, my mouth, that shows the traces? Why do I think I know blackness or whiteness in a body after so much transgression? Time for new glasses, a new mirror, double-consciousness, a map. Less than white, the one-drop rule said. I say, more than white.
I took an implicit bias test, the kind available online. If you think you are free of racism, this is a refresher course. The test forces choices or preferences among faces that are differently hued. It scrambles and confuses the task and the speed of the test so that the conscious mind is eventually by-passed. You think you are making unbiased choices and discover you are not. It’s a matter of degree not a question of whether. I found a bias for lighter skinned people.
A week before George Floyd was murdered, before a summer of uprisings, I googled one of the names I had found. Rachel Harrigan. She and thoughts of her children stayed with me. How long before they got separated from each other? Slavery in my family had moved from an unwanted discovery to a fact to a name. She and her family took on life and existence. They were people I dreamed about.
Why did I google her name—as if the internet is an omniscient being? As if those who were enslaved had their stories recorded? But I did, and I found a stunning site, unnerving as the first discovery in those folded pages. There is in fact a website by descendants of Rachel Harrigan. Census records, wills, legal petitions, family lore, reconstructed family. No birth or death dates before Emancipation.
Oral history told them their great-great-great-great-grandfather was my great-great-great grandfather Harrigan. Something like that. My brain goes on the fritz when I calculate this. My heart thumps around, goes hot, then cold, thumps, caves, hot, cold.
Distant cousins. Graphics on the site name my ancestors and silhouette them behind bars, imprisoned for their crimes. A gallery of black Harrigans is there too, their names with dates approximated in the1800s until actual names, photos, births and deaths appear, including those who live now. (The name Harrigan is not the actual name. I used a pseudonym for this lineage throughout this writing because of their website. I don’t have permission to repeat their names or describe them.)
When the Civil War began, forty-three of the Harrigans’ seventy-two slaves remained. As the creator of the site says, We can only assume some died and some were sold.
I tried unsuccessfully to communicate with them, to say that yes, I understand we are distantly related, that I am also a descendant of this crime. I made an apology, words that felt necessary and weak compared to the reality.
They are a varied group, with family pictures of some musical people, some religious, some activists. My family, that is, my white family, also varies, family people, some activists, not musical, some religious. Our history has a long record, except the omitted parts.
I return to the Harrigan website many times. My heart goes hot, cold, both. I have found more linkages to others. It turns out that even my wife and I have distant ancestors in the South, men who likely knew each other, though she comes from a family in upstate New York. I’ve met a very distant cousin who was a descendant of another family member, both of us with a history of enslavers and enslaved. The multitude of links I found, one thing leading to an unlikely other, suggests improbability at work. Without the internet I would have found nothing, except those pages my mother folded into the back of an old family book. I would be left with these pages, wondering about the rest of the story even more than I do now. The links would still exist, unknown and without significance to me. Their impact would continue in untraceable ways. We are influenced by what we carry yet do not know. Our skill at not-knowing does not disappear anything.
People play out their secrets and miseries. We deposit them on others or try to carry them ourselves. We hold onto them to observe the profound mystery of how deeply we are linked and how our denial of connection creates trauma. To tell the truth you have to know what’s true. We white people lie to ourselves a lot. We’ve lied so much we don’t even know when we lie. If a lie lives inside an illusion inside a bubble inside a whale of a story you don’t recognize it. This is the history people are still trying to hide.