When I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna. She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people. Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.
After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.) He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.
But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light. Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.
The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.
So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine. Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.
Slave vs Enslaved
I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status. But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names. I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.
I don’t know if I do that well.
I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.
So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves. No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE. Always, in every way.
A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.
I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand. He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.
His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.
Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.