Tomorrow, Allen

Last month, I went to the city archives and I tried to learn about the slaves Nashville owned. Tomorrow, my story about it comes out in the Scene. I’m really proud of the story. But the difference between the version I turned in and the version that’s running gives me great pause. See, the version that’s running is very much like the version I turned in, but the edits have substantially improved it. They cut a paragraph or two, rearranged things where they made the cut and they turned the ending from sad into a kick to the throat.

I like the story I turned in. I 100% thought it was great. But it’s much, much better now.

And that’s always what frustrates me about my fiction. I think it’s good. I know it would be better with an editor. I know I’d learn a lot from that experience. I don’t know. I can’t actually do anything about it at the moment but fret over it. But I have to figure out how to make that happen. I need to get over a hump I don’t even understand the scope of. Yes, I know, this directly contradicts my happiness about things earlier on this week. So, the truth is I don’t know.

Anyway, Allen is the slave I focused on, because he’s young, like my nephews. It’s easy for me to imagine what his life should have been like–had he not been the captive of our city.

But it got me thinking a lot about what we owe the people of the past. I mean, I drink water out of pipes Allen placed in the ground. I directly benefit from Allen’s enslavement. It’s not such a long time ago when I can open a faucet and, ta da, thanks, Allen.

One thing I think is that any discussion about this leads directly to reparations because it’s such a big distraction. It’s a way to talk about the issue in such big, abstract, impossible-to-achieve thus easy-to-dismiss terms so that we don’t have to consider a much more basic question. Like, what do we, as a city, owe Allen? And, given that we can’t give him what we owe him–what would come close to making us even for what we stole from him–what should we do to acknowledge that debt?

That’s the real trick. When you owe a debt that cannot be repaid, what responsibilities to your debtor do you incur?

So, the question isn’t “What do we owe Allen?” because it doesn’t matter. The legacy we inherited as the living embodiment of the city is that we can’t make it right with Allen. But what is our responsibility to Allen?

I think, in part, since we robbed him of his own people, we have to acknowledge our responsibility to act as his descendants. We stole it, but we’re his beneficiaries. Our responsibility is to remember him and to admit that we owe him a debt we can’t repay.

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4 thoughts on “Tomorrow, Allen

  1. we have to acknowledge our responsibility to act as his descendants.

    It depends on whom you mean by “we,” I guess. Really, I’m going to disagree with you pretty strongly here. I would say, first, that those of us whose ancestors in Allen’s day would not, could not possibly have been slaves owned by the city of Nashville do not get to claim the mantle of descent from him: we don’t get to claim his life, or his suffering, or his achievements, as “would have been ours.” Doing that lets us take ourselves off the hook for the things that were done to him in the name of benefiting our ancestors (the one who would not, could not, have been slaves) and our ancestors’ descendants.

    Second, there are others around whose ancestors were slaves owned by the city of Nashville, or by residents of Nashville, or by other cities and their residents. (I realize that although your “we” doesn’t include you personally, or me personally, it also does include people from this second group.) And I feel that if I took their ancestors’ experiences as my own, I would be appropriating something fierce — it makes me think of a high school friend of mine, of English and Scots-Irish descent, who was hired to do “Cherokee dancing” at some theme park in Georgia; he was a good dancer and tried to do honor to the dances, but he also was asked to explain the history and culture behind them; as if there was no one of Cherokee descent who could possibly have done that job. And when it’s not the case that no one in the group that was harmed is left, acting as if it was the case bothers me.

  2. Yeah, but we have to be the ones to honor him. Who else is left to do it, since we stole (and continue to be in the process of stealing) his opportunity to have his own family do it?

  3. Well, we could honor him by doing whatever can be done to allow his descendants, and those descended from his fellows, to honor him properly. We could give them back some of the opportunities we continue to hog, or, even better, decrease our ability and the ability of others like us to hog them. We can, in other words, address the original injustice and the continuing injustices. If we don’t do those things, any claim to be honoring Allen’s memory or achievements rings hollow.

  4. I think, just on the scale of wrong done, any effort does ring hollow. Because there’s nothing that’s enough. There’s no rectifying it.

    I just think it should still be done.

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