Sometimes we should read before opining:
Neither do I think it would at all promote the slave’s interest to liberate him in his present degraded state.
-letter from Mary Jones to Charles Colcock Jones
24 November 1829
Much as I should miss the mother, I am
Persuaded that we might come
To some understanding about a change
Of investment. I do not wish
To influence you in the least degree
Beyond your own convictions, nor
To have you subjected to inconveniences
(The loss of the services of a servant is great),
But for our own good we have to answer
For all that has happened. Please. All.
This Juneteenth consider the terrible cruelty of slave owner Mary Jones’ words: she sees a man degraded and so deems him unfit for liberty. Could it be that slavery, her ownership, may have been the cause of this “degraded state?” Could it be that profit, comfort, and fear of inconvenience mattered more than justice?
He is too degraded for liberty, but not to work around her home. He is unfit for freedom, but fit for her profits.
But this was long ago. Why discuss it? Perhaps, because we have yet to answer for all that has happened in American history. Better still because a sister, Tracy K. Smith, asks us to do so in her poem, this poem, Unwritten.
Having been asked, should we answer about the entirety of our history when it comes to race?
Recall that at slavery’s end, great energy was spent to create a system some called nearly as bad as slavery: Jim Crow, separate and unequal education, lynchings, denial of voting rights, and economic liberty. The entire power of whole state governments was turned to keeping the African-American “in his place.” Often this was justified by the “benevolent”words of latter day Mary Jones. This system lasted through my childhood.
What else could a Christian do? Why would we hesitate? The Christian ethic knows nothing of preferring the convenience of the ruler to justice for the oppressed.
Before responding, or opining, or thinking we “know” where this is going, reread the poem. Before writing another line, I did so.
We must consider, answer, and reflect because the powerful and prophetic voice of an American poet laureate Tracy K. Smith forces us to do so. The poem Smith writes answering the judgment of Mary Jones that her slave not be freed is deliberate, calm, but hammer harder than any revolutionary rhetoric.
Mary Jones came to judgment and she found her slave wanting. Tracy K. Smith finds Mary Jones wanting, but suggests Mary Jones was, is, and will be unless we go deeper. Something must be done, something should be done, but we must not confuse this with particular proposed solutions. This allows the national self-examination to end as we disagree endlessly about means to justice. Meanwhile, we are not seeing all that has happened.
Perhaps we must do that first.