Tuesday, February 12, 2019

First in War, First in Peace, Master of 312 Enslaved People

I've been thinking about The Peculiar Institution, as American slavery was called.  I'm reading a book, Lives Bound Together, which I bought when I visited George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, in 2017.  The book was created for an exhibit at the museum at Mount Vernon on the lives of the enslaved people who lived there.

For me, the power of place is intense.  To visit the actual place where something happened, or the home of someone famous, to go to their gravesite -- these journeys inspire very deep feelings in me.  Suddenly the past becomes real.  This person  lived!  They did these particular things, which shape the world I live in now!  I feel it in a way that goes far beyond what I feel when I read a book or hear a lecture.

In July 2017, Carolyn was directing and I was performing HICK: A Love Story at 1st Stage Theatre in Virginia.  I had no particular interest in going to Mount Vernon, but our wonderful hostess Judy suggested a visit.  And it is a Baum family tradition to go wherever there is to go when one travels.  When one visits Yellowstone, one goes on the morning ranger walk, even if it's snowing!  Surely, when one is in Virginia, one does not refuse an invitation to visit the home of The Father of Our Country, a man whose name graces countless elementary schools across the land -- not to mention the nation's capitol and a whole goddam state.

The Father of Our Country.  It's not a description. It's Washington's title so I must use caps.  I can still feel my seven-year-old awe and gratitude at the greatness of this man.  This man who lived a very opulent lifestyle, thanks to the efforts of 312 enslaved workers.

Perhaps that childish awe combined with my horror at the reality of Mount Vernon to put me in an altered state.  I truly felt that I couldn't breathe the whole time I was there.  Because Mount Vernon is all about slavery.  How could it NOT be, when 312 of the people  who lived there were the property of two of the people?     I am very grateful to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, who created the exhibit and the book, for facing the terrible reality of life there.

Please note the significant change in language:  Not "slave" but "enslaved worker" or "enslaved person."  This change of wording is crucial.  When I call someone a "slave," I am saying that the entire identity of this person can be subsumed in that one word.  It implies that there is something inherent in the person that is "slave."  But "enslaved worker"  forces me to remember that SOMEBODY put this person into slavery, that this person is a human being who works like almost all other  human beings who are not very young, very old or very ill.

At Mount Vernon, I was somehow out of my body, holding my breath, wide-eyed devouring everything, trying to take it in, take it in, that The Father of MY Country lived off enslaved workers.  I remember so much, so vividly -- the cemetery for enslaved people, the tiny cabins, the jarringly bright colors of the walls in the mansion.  But I only took one photo.

The INTIMACY of slavery took my breath away.   The Father of Our Country lived in a black community.   His valet was his trusted companion.  His wife's most constant companion was her maid.  When they were in their gracious home, everywhere they looked there were black people.  Poor ones.    So Washington created his own ghetto!  Talk about peculiar!

And these black people, who did not control their own bodies, did everything they could to build full lives with their families and community in their free time.  And they did everything they could to undermine their enslavement.   They stole food when they were hungry, they sabotaged their work.  A very high rate of broken tools down on the old plantation.  And ultimately some of them  ran away.  When they did escape, The Father of Our Country put ads in the papers offering rewards for their return.  And when one escapee was captured, The Father of Our Country punished him by selling him to a slave trader who took him to the Caribbean, where conditions were known to be far more brutal.

T-FOOC  (abbreviation for "The Father of our Country") KNEW what he was doing was evil.   We know from his  journals that it TORTURED him to own all those human beings.  In fact, of the eight Presidents who held humans as property, T-FOOC is the only one to free them in his will.  But still, while he was alive, he sure did enjoy that gorgeous custom-made carriage shipped all the way from England.  And how to pay the bill, if not from the profits flowing from enslaved workers?

Is someone who knows that slavery is evil but can't give it up even MORE repugnant than someone who believes that slavery is part of the Divine Order?

Moral complexity is very challenging.  That's one of the great attractions of Trump -- No moral complexity there!  He's just totally evil.  It's kinda relaxing. 

How do we embrace the moral complexity of George Washington?  He did win the Revolutionary War.  He famously refused to be crowned king, when it was offered.  I'm grateful to him for these things.  Our past and our present are filled with moral complexity and I really don't know how to handle it.  I do see that our country is still poisoned by the legacy of slavery.  For me, it is imperative to keep reading and thinking, to try to understand what was done and what can/might be done now.

Even if it makes it difficult for me to breathe.