One of the ritzier suburbs of Nashville lies about halfway between the central city and Franklin to the south. This suburb, Brentwood, is filled with multimillion dollar McMansions and those houses are filled with a lot of rich, white Republicans*, many of whom will pay good money to have parties where they “make” a bunch of meals at once and the freeze the resulting bags of semi-self-prepared meals so that they can “cook” at home by taking their bags full of premeasured ingredients that they paid someone else to wash and chop and measure (but, in all fairness, that they mixed up) and putting them in the oven.
One wonders why housewives with giant kitchens need to pay someone to help them organize a bunch of friends getting together to fix some food, but I am not a rich housewife. Perhaps even rich housewives hate doing the dishes as much as I do.
But, this is not a post pondering the ways of people three social classes (or more) above me. This is about the slave cemetery on the old Midway Plantation grounds. Most of the land is now covered in McMansions, but the city has preserved the old slave cemetery, and put up a monument to the enslaved people who worked the land, some of whom are buried there.
I just want to say, after seeing the raw emotions surrounding the whole “Can we have the Confederate Flag at the Battle of Franklin commemoration?” fiasco, I don’t envy the person who had to come up with what to put on the monument. It can’t have been easy to find something that the least amount of folks would object to.
But still, I post that inscription here for your amusement and amazement:
The city of Brentwood restored this cemetery to honor the unsung heroes who came from Africa and labored on the Midway Plantation in the 1800’s.
They survived the horrors of the Middle Passage, endured the shackles of slavery, raised their children, honored their parents and worked hard to make America a better place.
We deeply appreciate their contributions to the world.
I’m sorry. I have to take a minute just to read through it again.
Where to start? I take issue with the word “heroes,” not because I don’t think that what enslaved people went through wasn’t terrible and it certainly was something commendable to survive it. But because they were just ordinary people. White people didn’t enslave people vastly different than us, people who, because of their heroism, were better able to stand enslavement than we would have been. We enslaved people just like us. Often, we enslaved people who were by definition ‘us.’ Our blood relatives. Our half-siblings, our nieces and nephews. We did this to people who were our family.
Which brings me to point number two. Very, very few, if any, of the people who were enslaved in Middle Tennessee came directly from Africa. According to the woman I talked to at the Hermitage, most enslaved people of African descent were children and grandchildren of enslaved people**.
And that middle paragraph? Shoot, if one doesn’t want us to think too hard about the role of white people in slavery, one definitely shouldn’t have brought up the concept of “heroes” in the first place. Once you suggest that there are heroes, it doesn’t take too savvy a reader to wonder about villains. And yet, watch how that second paragraph just smoothly moves you from outrage to outrage to accomplishment without so much as a sideways glance at who put those stones in their pathway.
And, shoot, by the time you get to “raised their children and honored their parents and worked hard to make America a better place” this could be any old ethnic group we’re talking about. I mean, shoot, look at that agency. Slaves were working hard to make America a better place. That’s downright commendable. Never mind that they were working hard so that they wouldn’t be sold off or killed. No, this is a story of one ethnic group just like any other.
But here’s where I get stuck, right before the whole recasting of slaver labor as a mode of patriotic expression–“raised their children and honored their parents.”
What does that mean?
I mean, I know what it means on its surface, but what does it mean included on a memorial to the enslaved people at Midway Plantation? I wonder in general what kind of story that marker’s supposed to be telling, but it’s specifically those two phrases that give me the most problem. Is this an example of how they were heroic? Or is it a challenge to some notion that slaves didn’t have any respect for familial bonds? Is it as close as the city of Brentwood felt they could come to saying “They were good Christians (with following of the “honor thy mother and father” commandment and all)”? Is it saying, “Unlike now, back then, black people took care of their kids and elders”?
Why, of all the things to single out that one might assume people would do anyway, did the city of Brentwood pick out these two?
*To make a sweeping generalization.
**Which makes the continued discovery of cowrie shells at the Hermitage something of a mystery to the archaeologists. Were they handed down or was there some kind of vast, if loosely organized, trading system among enslaved people, so that shells that came across the ocean with new arrivals could eventually find their way from the coasts this far inland?