Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Monday, February 26, 2007

What year is it again?

This just takes your breath away.

A geneological study done for has revealed that an ancestor of Rev. Al Sharpton was once a slave owned by a relative of now-deceased South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, once an ardent segregationist.

"It was probably the most shocking thing of my life," Sharpton said of learning the findings, which were requested and published Sunday by the New York Daily News. He called a news conference to respond publicly to the report. "I couldn't describe to you the emotions I have had . . . everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory."

I can only imagine the impact of such a revelation on Rev. Sharpton.

But what made my mouth yawp hopelessly open was the reaction of some of the present-day Thurmonds.

While some of Thurmond's relatives contacted by the Daily News expressed skepticism about the report, Doris Strom Costner, a cousin of the late senator, said Sharpton should be proud to know his family's connection to hers. "He's in a mighty good family," she said by telephone from Edgefield, S.C. Asked how she feels to learn of evidence that her family owned slaves, she said: "I can't help it. I'm 74 years old, and I certainly can't help it. I don't feel one way or the other."

Let's put aside for a moment that she can spare not even the slightest bit of regret for the practice of slavery and that her ancestors engaged in it. He ought to be proud that his ancestor was owned by a "mighty good family"? Or she insinuating that the Rev. Sharpton himself is actually a part of the Thurmond family merely by virtue of that fact? Slavery ended more than 140 years ago. I don't think one ought to assume that, in 2007, a black American is automatically part of a white family simply because his ancestor was a slave owned by the forebears of that family. That confers continuing validity on an abhorrent practice that ended long ago. And it's an unseemly appropriation of the familial identity of black Americans.

But okay. She's a 74-year-old southern woman. I picked up my jaw from where it had landed on the desk, swallowed hard and moved on. Then I read this:

Thurmond's niece, Ellen Senter, said she would speak with Sharpton if he were interested. "I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves," Senter, of Columbia, S.C., told the Daily News.She added: "And it is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was."

I believe she means white native South Carolinians. Or are those the only kind of native South Carolinians? But it's the last line that really, really bothers me. In spite of what his forefather was? What, a child molester? A murderer? Or a man who survived the unspeakably cruel institution of slavery and raised a son who became a small business owner and supported 17 children? One of which was the parent of an activist minister who ran for President of the United States?

That line -- what his forefather was -- really, really grates on me. My objections are two-fold. First, the phrase has an unsavory tone that bespeaks an indignity, and therefore fails to accord enslaved peoples the human dignity that is their due. A second and related objection is the use of the passive voice. What he was. Not the conditions under which he lived, the obstacles he surmounted, or the limitations he endured. But what he was. "Just" a slave.

This, people, is as fine an example as you are likely to find of the principle that words mean things. Both of these folks probably meant to express, in their own way, some benevolent sentiment to Rev. Sharpton. And I can certainly understand how things might not come out as well as one might wish while speaking to a reporter. But the words, even if said off the cuff, are revealing. These comments are shot through with faulty assumptions, condescension and a kind of clueless privilege.

Now, I have a relative by marriage whose family is from rural South Carolina. She grew up on the plantation her family has owned since the mid-eighteenth century. Nice gig if you can get it. When she got married, she simply went to the cellar under the "Big House" and pulled out a bunch of 120-year-old antiques, had them refinished, and furnished her home.

During one visit, she showed me a number of historical items they keep in a glass case, including a register of all the slaves that lived there during one particular year. "Isn't this awful?" she asked with a shudder.


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