Posted by: jiminmontana | September 7, 2012

Tombstone reads “Nigger”

I grew up in Tennessee — between Nashville and the Kentucky border on a farm which had been in the family for eight generations.  My mother and father are buried in the small family cemetery there with my father’s kin.  The cemetery faces exactly east so that those who are interred there can properly respond to the Coming of the Lord.  Although I live in Montana now, there is a plot reserved for my corpse next to Mama (should I so desire to be buried there).  There is not much room left for plots inside the cemetery fence, but my wife could also fit.

family cemetery under the Hackberry trees, going back to early 1800’s — the tops of  family tombstones are visible

Outside the ornate wrought-iron fence (thickly coated with black lead paint), you can find another cluster of headstones, none of which are standing upright.  Behind the family plots are the buried remains of the slaves who lived and died on the farm.

Because their markers were not protected from the “beefs” that roam the fields, their stones have laid flat now for at least two generations.  Their stones are small — maybe eighteen inches tall (if they were standing) and not deeply engraved.  The bodies of those buried there in the early 1800’s are surely very decomposed and the inscriptions on their stones are nearly vanished, but as a boy I could make out the single word on one of the slave’s headstones.

Growing up in the South in the late 20th century, I was not entirely sheltered from the cruelty of “racial” bias.  I recall being with Mama in the car going home at about the age of 5 when we were required to stop so that a Klan march could proceed on the north side of town.  It was on the road between Dad’s favorite liquor store and the GM dealership owned by our neighbor: a sweet old man who seemed to live on, forever.  It was the same road which the Union Army traveled during the Civil War on their way to sack Nashville.  I was amazed to see mostly fat men wearing white sheets and pointy hats carrying signs and acting very oddly — aggressively walking down the middle of the highway.  I asked Mama what was happening, and she said, “Trash.  Just white trash — full of hate.”  I had to know, “Hate what, Mama?  What do they hate?”  With hot eyes and through clinched teeth she said, “Colored people.”

Klan march in Macon around that time

All I could think of was the singular colored person who I really knew — and that was Miss Cassey, the aging black woman who came to our house several days a week to clean up after us and help Mama with the chores.  Miss Cassey was a widow lady who lived “across the tracks” in the government housing called “The Projects”.  I learned much later that there was a “White Projects” and a “Black Projects”; they were in two different areas of town.  The parade was very near to the “White Projects”.

“Black Projects” where Miss Cassey lived — note the uncommon absence of trees due to the lack of ownership, being obvious even from Space

Cassey always seemed tired to me.  She moved slowly and deliberately, never wasting a motion.  She had a rich alto voice and would quietly hum gospel hymns that I knew from church.  She would sing quietly when Mama was out of the house.  Very “black” and bluesy sounds — she was the only source of such music to my otherwise segregated ears.  All the rest of my young life experience was entirely “white”.

Hot Wheels 100% 1956 Chevy Orange / Black

Cassey drove an orange and black 1956 Chevy for the 15 years that I knew her.  When I won a bobble head tiger at the county fair and I was pleased to give it to her.  She had me put it in the back window of her huge car where it remained for at least a decade.  I noticed that the colors of the orange and black tiger were more and more faded every time I put the bobble head back on – permitting it to bob about as the car jostled down the street.

Mama’s mother, “Mom-mee” (not sure how to spell that), warned us that we ought not let a “nigrah” in the house — that’s how it was pronounced — “nig-rah”.  The excited, shrill voice just knew that Cassey would “rob us blind” and “steal the silver”.  That seemed absurd to me, even when I was pre-school.  Cassey loved me.  She was the only person who ever talked to the Lord about me in my presence.  When she gave me a bath as a little boy, she would say something like, “Lord, bless this child and keep him sweet.  Save him, Lord, and keep him on the right track.”  As I think about it, she rarely spoke directly to me — maybe once or twice a year.  And I knew that she loved me.

Mama recognized a man in the parade and rolled down the window to shame him.  The name of the fellow meant nothing to me then so I do not remember it, but Mama said, “I know that’s you ___  _____ and I think what you are doing is contemptible!  Disgusting!”  The man in the white sheets gave her a mocking, highly flourished bow as if he was the star of some play at the curtain call.  She gnashed her teeth and we never spoke of it again.

My paternal grandfather was wet-nursed by a young black woman at the turn of the century.  Although slavery had been abolished for a generation, the blacks who stayed in the area found it practical to maintain friendly relations with their former owners.  And Tennessee slavery was not like the slavery portrayed on most television documentaries, especially in the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.

In flat areas where row crops are still the norm — places like Alabama and Missouri — slaves were used like we use tractors today.  With thousands of acres of cotton, beans, or corn, slaves were very numerous:  stored in rough quarters, chained, fed poorly, and treated without human compassion.  By comparison, in the hilly areas like the Smokey Mountains, slaves were scarce because there was little farmland to be worked.  Our family’s farm, in the Middle of the state and full of “rolling hills” offered farming opportunities only for animal husbandry and “patch crops” like tobacco and vegetable gardening.  With only twelve flat acres here and eight flat acres over there, the several slaves that lived on the farm at any one time had diverse skill-sets and were much less likely to see abuse or neglect.  Although they were certainly considered to be chattels, they were not entirely dehumanized.  The slaves did live in separate quarters to be sure, but they attended church with the family and some were educated to read, write, and do very basic math.  But the one headstone that could still be read after many decades in the elements had one word inscribed, and that was all.

At the age of ten or twelve, I was on the horns of a painful dilemma.  Do I remove the stone with the ugly word and simultaneously eliminate the only remaining evidence of that person’s existence?  Do I leave the word over him — and is that my tacit approval of the sin?  I walked away conflicted.  Destroying a stone could not erase the past; it could not destroy the ugly feeling inside me.  The tombstone still reads “Nigger”.  Some sins are etched in stone.

Slave quarters in Virginia

The school I attended had several other students with my surname.  Only one of them was white.  Ironically, he was arguably the worst offender of God and man in the entire school as he was often in the newspaper for some crime or other through the years.  The others were all very black; none of them would have claimed a Scott in their ancestry.  My mother suggested to me that most of them were descendants of those slaves who were buried behind the family cemetery, having retained the family name.  Each one was friendly to me; I recall one younger boy saying with a big smile, “We have the same name!”, not realizing that our history likely went back generations, albeit separately.  At his happy statement, I remember the twinge of discomfort that went right through me to my ethereal roots — complex discomfort with hints of pain and apprehension and sorrow in the mix.  It was a creepy shame of which I was not guilty, yet it lingers because I somehow cannot feel innocent.

I do not remember that black boy’s full name, but I am absolutely certain that the epitaph on the tombstone could never define him.  That his long forgotten grandfather was covered by that slur — is today still covered by that slur,  carved on stone as though to define him eternally before his Maker — it burns me like a small cinder from Hell.

God, help us!  The river of blood spilled in our Civil War has not washed away the harm — not even now.  How I wish that the first black President of these United States had been a success!  How I hate it that racists throughout our land can point to him with their low expectations fulfilled in his monumental failure as our President.  I wonder what profound resolution could be fostered had a Walter Williams or an Allen West been the first black President.

When I was in college, I clearly remember being told that the ultimate goal for social issues is this:  that men and women could interact with one another and not notice what ethnic group the other person is — that we would totally forget about those differences.  Since I was only learning how to think at the time, I knew that what this “professor” was saying was messed up, but I could not put my finger on the flaw in his thinking.  Today I know that we are to not deny the existence of those differences, but are to enjoy those traits which make each one of us different and unique.  Each person has a unique voice with which to praise his God and Maker.  Each person has a unique experience through which he or she comes to understand the joys and the sorrows in that particular life; those experiences become a part of the human equation in the fabric of a shared history.  We do not each receive the same potentials, but we do all have the same destiny.  The Throne of God is both the Mercy Seat and the place of inflexible Justice, but we will each experience that Throne in either one way or the other.  Each one of us is on the docket and the date is set when every life that ever breathed will meet there as a contemporary.

The day is coming when I will hear the voice of my Believing mother sing again — still with a thin quality, I wonder?  What will it be like to hear her worship without reservation?

The day is coming when “Miss Cassey’s” big, black, alto voice will be heard — fully expressed, I am certain.

——————

An interesting read on the end of Slavery in Tennessee from that era = “The End of Slavery in Tennessee

Front Cover

Booker T. Washington’s crucial and disregarded wisdom to those emancipated slaves in “Up from Slavery“. (Link to free ebook)

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