I don’t really know how to feel about Zion. I have a jumbled up bunch of feelings about it. It’s a beautiful church and a beautiful campus. And yet I couldn’t ever just enjoy it for as beautiful as it is. I couldn’t not know that it was not just a monument to God, but a giant, potent symbol of what slaves did.
One thing that is obvious, too, is that one way white people made slavery psychologically okay for ourselves was by removing the human scaffolding from the edifices of slavery. Slaves built the Zion church, but the graves of white people surround it. I’m sure that, for a large portion of the history of the church (though I want to be clear that all evidence is that recent generations at that church are trying to understand their history in a different way), when they spoke about who built the church, they spoke about the white families who gave money and provided the labor force, not the black people who made the bricks and cut the wood and framed up the building and put the roof on. Not letting slaves have legal last names is another way they’re easily written off, a way they’re just faded into the background.
There’s no language for saying “Oh, the men of the x family are great iron workers” because there’s no last name to associate them all together.
And the thing is that we live in a community heavily shaped by slavery. Roads go where they go here in town because slaves literally put them there. The rock walls all over town were put there by slaves. The beautiful open spaces we have were often cleared by slaves. The old buildings we have were often built by them. But the undifferentiated “them” is nebulous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still horrible. It’s something to stand along a stone wall and pick up one of those stones and feel how heavy it is and know that someone spent whole hard days putting those stones there and he had literally no other choice.
But standing in a churchyard, knowing a name–Jack. Knowing that Jack could have built this building. At the least that Jack knew Terry, Lizette, and the others in that graveyard, that those were his friends and neighbors, the people he went to church with. I don’t know. It just makes all we don’t know about him and them less a glossing over and more a deliberately destructive omission.
I was telling E. this weekend that one of the things I find so fascinating/horrifying about the late 1700s/early 1800s is that, as bad as things were, slavery-wise, we know they were about to get much worse. And there’s something I find really compelling about this moment, out here on the frontier, when white people’s lives and black people’s lives were open to other possibilities–possibilities which were sometimes realized in small, imperfect ways. We could have, then, chosen to put an end to slavery. But instead we chose to double down and make it worse, to codify the biggest horrors of the institution into its everyday reality.
That missed opportunity and the generations of suffering that come next… well, what do you even say in the face of that?