Black history is everyone's history
BATON ROUGE, LA. — At its worst, February's observance of Black History Month might be misread as the old lie of separate but equal, though parts of history do not, in the truest sense, eat at separate lunch counters.
While it can be convenient to parse history with different labels, white and black history converge on a single name in my family, and that name is Robert Ball.
Robert Ball was my great-great-great grandfather, a Kentucky farmer of modest prosperity. Robert Ball was also the name of his slave - a designation of dubious honor, one gathers, extended by a master to his favorite property.
The black Robert Ball, who later changed his name to Robert Anderson, was born in 1843. When he was 6 years old, his mother was sold away, and he never saw her again. His father lived on another property, and Anderson seldom saw him.
Although Anderson described my ancestor as a tolerant master, Robert Ball's third wife proved a harsh mistress, whipping Anderson almost to death when he protested his workload. As the Civil War waned, and the demise of slavery was imminent, Anderson was allowed to leave the Kentucky farm and join the Union Army. He later moved West and prospered as a rancher, marrying a young girl named Daisy who helped him record his life story in a self-published memoir, "From Slavery to Affluence."
After Robert Anderson's death in 1930, Daisy rose to prominence in Steamboat Springs, Colo., using her husband's experience as an example of bigotry and social healing. She preached racial tolerance until her death, as one of America's last surviving Civil War widows, in 1998.
I didn't learn of my connection to Robert Anderson until the 1980s, when my aunt discovered the link while researching the family tree. The revelation brought a perverse reaction. Although I was properly horrified to learn of my family's direct link to slavery, there was also a momentary flutter of conceit in this small evidence of family wealth. In its time and place, after all, slave-owning conveyed a sense of arrival, perhaps the antebellum equivalent of flaunting a BMW.
On further reflection, my reflexive romanticizing of human bondage prompted a pit of shame in my stomach. But it occurred to me that my mixed response to the slavery issue sat at the heart of a national dilemma. On the one hand, our modern body politic pays lip service to the legacy of slavery and its inevitable evils. On the other hand, we preserve plantation homes as museums and bed and breakfasts that often celebrate a "Gone with the Wind" ideal of antebellum aristocracy.
To their credit, some historic properties now include slave history in their public narratives. But on some plantation tours, I've heard petticoated tour guides refer to the manor's period "servants," a euphemism that seems intent on masking the true implications of humans owning other humans.
While we Americans often evoke the beauty of plantation culture as a pleasant link to an elegant heritage, we tend to dismiss the record of slavery, its necessary counterpart, as a dusty relic with no real relevance to present political concerns.
But the pain of slavery's past is perhaps not as distant as we'd like it to be, as I remind people with this fact: I'm 42 years old, and I've corresponded with the widow of a man my family once owned.
In 1989, nearly a decade before Daisy Anderson's death, I sent her a letter asking for a copy of her husband's memoir. It was the hardest letter I've ever written. In the expansive protocols of Southern etiquette, there's no advice on how to introduce oneself to the relative of a man your ancestor once enslaved.
Several weeks later, Daisy Anderson sent along a copy of "From Slavery to Affluence" in a recycled Sears-Roebuck envelope, along with a small note wishing me well.
Anderson's book sits on my living room shelf, a daily reminder that black history and white history are but parts of the same American story. It's a truth worth remembering each February, and every other month of the year.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.