I just get my pistol and shoot him right down
- The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey
Cambridge, 197 pp, £19.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 316 64348 8
In pre-Civil War fugitive slave narratives – memoirs written by men and, occasionally, women who had escaped to freedom and hoped to convert readers to the cause of abolition – the most heart-rending passages described slave auctions and the separation of families that usually ensued. When the abolitionist journalist and underground railroad activist Sydney Howard Gay interviewed fugitives who passed through his office in New York City in the 1850s he found that the threat of sale was a major reason for the decision to run away.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation after the Genome by Alondra Nelson (Beacon, 216 pp., £17.99, September 2016, 978 0 8070 2718 9).
Vol. 40 No. 7 · 5 April 2018
Eric Foner, in his review of Anne Bailey’s The Weeping Time, notes that the experience of slavery is ‘conspicuously absent’ from public representations of history (LRB, 22 March). It depends where you look. It’s far from absent in historical fiction, and especially in works of imaginative reconstruction aimed at the young. There are many titles, but Julius Lester’s Day of Tears (2005) was actually about the same slave auction that Bailey describes, when Pierce Butler sold his ‘assets’ to pay his debts. The rain came down as the sale began, and fell throughout. Lester tells the story as far as possible through the voices of the slaves, for whom the rain is ‘God’s tears’. Part-novel, part-play, Day of Tears lent itself to group reading aloud, and was used in schools to teach the history of slavery in an empathetic way. It would be interesting to know if it is still being read in schools, or if the move to protect pupils from painful topics – which has led to the sidelining of such wonderful novels as Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – has caught up with Lester too.
Eric Foner’s reference to the absence of slavery from the public representation of history in the US reminded me of a visit I made in the 1990s to the library of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There was an excellent exhibition on the history of Louisiana agriculture. Excellent, that is, save for the complete omission of any reference to the fact that those tending, harvesting and processing the crops were slaves, or that they were the occupants of the workers’ accommodation shown on the plantation plans. I have ever since regretted that I didn’t have the courage to seek out the curator and ask for an explanation.
Vol. 40 No. 9 · 10 May 2018
Eric Foner writes that Anne Bailey ‘seems to believe’ that traumatic experiences of slavery can be transmitted ‘genetically’ (LRB, 22 March). In fact Bailey appropriately uses the term ‘epigenetic’ – not ‘genetic’ – in her discussion of the cross-generational transmission of trauma. The term ‘genetic’ refers to the sequence of base pairs that constitute a gene. Social trauma is not known to change this sequence. ‘Epigenetic’ refers to the biochemical processes – for example, methylation – that regulate the expression of a gene: that is, whether a gene is active, say in the production of RNA, or inactive. The first evidence that social experience can alter the epigenome and thereby the expression of the genome was described just 14 years ago in a landmark study of the influence of parenting on the epigenome of offspring. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance has been demonstrated and its precise mechanisms are being described. Bailey’s assertion is based not on belief but on a growing body of scientific evidence.
Eric Foner writes that ‘to this day there is no monument anywhere in the United States to the millions of victims of American slavery or to the ways their labour helped to produce the world we live in.’ Yet at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there is an impressive monument to just that: the Unsung Founders Memorial, by the Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. A disk of polished granite supported by three hundred figurines represents those whose labour contributed to the handsome buildings nearby. Its inscription reads: ‘The class of 2002 honours the university’s unsung founders, the people of colour, bond and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.’
Dunedin, New Zealand
Vol. 40 No. 11 · 7 June 2018
As a black alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I read Jocelyn Harris’s praise of its Unsung Founders Memorial with dismay (Letters, 10 May). By and large, the monument is considered a slap in the face to the university’s black community. It is smaller than many home dinner tables. Worse, it often serves as a lunch table for white undergraduates who are blissfully unaware of its significance. Any intended symbolism is inverted – or, perhaps, ironically laid bare – as the granite slave figures carved into the table’s base remain invisible to a public that sees fit to use the monument as a nappy-changing station. Most troubling of all, though, is the fact that it lies almost literally in the shadow of another statue, named Silent Sam, which is a memorial to the university’s Confederate war dead. Speaking at its dedication in 1913, the industrialist Julian Carr bragged of having ‘horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because she had maligned and insulted a Southern lady’.