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.