Last night, I was watching Mercy Street, and in this episode, an enslaved man, Caleb, had escaped from the plantation where he was held and made it to Alexandria, a Union-held city during the Civil War. There, Caleb begins to search for his wife Aurelia, who, as is the way of love, has fallen in love with a free man of color, Sam, because – it seems likely – she presumes her husband lost to her forever. Now, Sam and Caleb must deal with the way the institution of slavery has led them – though neither Aurelia or either of them – has done anything wrong. Still, there is this love-triangle, and unlike the ones in young adult novels, there is nothing beautiful or easy here.
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day today, I am thinking about the way romance worked on plantations, about how all the things we still struggle with today – patriarchy, homophobia, sexual assault and rape – were present there, too. But then, beyond those hardships, there was the hardship, the brutality of enslavement, where it was possible to love someone and lose them through no act of volition on either lover’s part. I think about how a woman might love a man and have to watch him studded out to other women on other plantations. I think about how man might love a woman and have to watch her raped by her master. I think about how a man might love another man and watch him sold away because of their love, no matter how quiet.
Then, I think about how many men and women sought out their partners once freedom became more than a dream – about newspaper ads seeking each other, about the thousands of miles walked on sole-bare shoes to seek a love stolen decades before. I think of the power of this hard, beautiful thing we celebrate today, and I imagine the way it just might have been the thing to save so very many.
So today, I am thinking anew of the ways slavery tore people apart from each other and within themselves, but I am also carrying Caleb and Sam’s true love for a woman as hope and a reminder. If ever we need a reminder of the way that love can lead people to overcome, we need only to look at our African American brothers and sisters to find it.