The source of life

Someone on one of my social media outlets shared an UpWorthy article. I'm glad they did, otherwise I wouldn't have the opportunity to learn something I didn't know or understand. The original article I am talking about is here:

If you do not have time to read it, the primary concern of the article is the relationship between the U.S.'s long history of oppression of black Americans, breastfeeding and family. The centerpiece is this poem:

I wish I dried up
I wish every drop of my milk slipped passed those pink lips and nourished the ground
Where the bones lay
Of my babies
Starved while I feed their murderer
I wish I dried up
So the missus babies would dry up too
And be brittle
So I could crumble them to dust
Return them to the ground
Where all children of my bosom lay equal

~ Hess Love

This hit me like a sledgehammer to the face. I had never considered how cruel and inhuman it was to force a woman to give her milk to anothers baby. Compounding that with the way slavery seperated families as a means of furthering control, and you have one of the most disgusting singular practices I have ever learned of.

I have been fortunate enough to have important pieces of our family history saved by my Grandfather. During the final years of his life, a man born in 1910 sat down and recorded into a Sony tape recorder his memories of a childhood trip he took in 1920 to our ancestral home in Tennessee. While digitizing and restoring these tapes I was able to listen with intense focus. Even today, 15 years later, I can still hear the nuances of his words.

My lineage owned a large plantation in Elizabethton, Tennessee many generations ago. During the Civil War nearly all of my bloodline was lost fighting to keep their status quo, wealth at the cost of blood and cruelty. A lone surviving child, a boy, went on to father my Great Grandfather, Robert. During the process of birth, or shortly afterwards, his mother, my Great Great Grandmother, passed away.

This is the point where my family story and this poem intersect. A former slave of the plantation stepped in to milkmaid this baby. I do not know what caused her to do so. Civil requiredments? Financial pressures? Having spent her life brainwashed by the cruelest social system the world had known? A sense of moral rightness? Her motivations are lost to time. I do know one thing though:

If it was not for this woman's willingness to give milk to the baby of the very family that would have ripped her own children from her hands not more than 20 years prior, then I would not be here today. I owe the foundation of my existence to this woman. After reading this poem, I wonder what thoughts moved through her mind as she nursed my forfather into a healthy little boy. Did she have children of her own? Was it before she was "free", and thusly taken from her? Did she too struggle with anger about the situation she was in?

Deeper still it goes. During an early Republican caucauss, my Great-Great Grandfather was murdered with a paperweight by an irate Democrat. As the story goes, my Great Grandfather was only 3 or 4 and made an orphan. Having no other family that would claim him, this same woman chose to care for him, feed him, shelter him and teach him the best she could. Twice over, and many times more, I owe her a life-debt for this.

She could have been, maybe should have been, contemptuous for any of my appearance, let alone bloodline. She should have just let this little boy die on his own, or suffer the indignant, short and cruel life of a 19th century southern orphan near coal mining country. But she took this kid in and ensured his survival.

The part of this story most tragic to me personally is that I don't have a name to call her. My Great Grandfather only ever refered to her as Mammy. Maybe she had no name? The one fact that was recorded is that she was a former slave of the plantation. I've learned that the depth of cruelty the slave system employed is constantly twenty fold deeper than whatever you might believe it to have been.

By the age of 10 or 11 young Robert ran off from the home of this saint. If 150 years haven't healed the racial divide that is rotting our country from within, then the 45 years from Civil Wars end to Roberts 11th year surely had not. The abuse, verbal and physical, that he suffered from the white families and children in town became beyond his ability to cope with. He left the only mother he had known and set off into the world at an age when I was still afraid of the monster in my closet.

I think of this story anytime I hear about angry white people pissed off about statues of southern generals. "You can't rewrite history" they scream. "That's my heritage" they shout. All sides of my families bloodline pass through that region of the world. That is also my history. I am forced to ask myself "Why do they want to celebrate a defector, a traitor to the United States?"

Because they want to return to a time when they had clear superiority over another group of people. They want to have that power, that station in life. No matter how piss-poor or uneducated they would have been "better than" entire classes of humans just by nature of birth and genetics.

I've read enough about the world, both fiction and non-fiction, to know that the story of Robert and Mammy is not unique. I would see it that these statues of repression, of enslavement, never have been erected. I would prefer a statue of this nameless savior of my bloodline be erected. She was everything that my same-skinned "Proud Boys" and "National Vanguard" types despise. She was kind in the face of heartbreaking pain. She was selfless when nobody would deny her a right to selfishness. She chose life over revenge. And that vengence, the end of a bloodline that caused her so much indescribable pain, would have been so sweet to have. She rose above all of that though.

She is a true hero. And I wish I had a name to call her.

UPDATE September 11th, 2019: After talking with my father and checking some records, there is a minor correction to the above story. My Great Grandfather Robert was born fatherless. His own father died just PRIOR to his birth (at the GOP caucus noted), and his mother died at childbirth. The major fact though is correct: The rest of his extended family didn't want to be bothered with this child and so my families personal super hero took this baby in.

I did confirm that she was a former slave of the family and had either stayed on the plantation or came back sometime after the end of the war. So cruel and harsh was the world for these recently "freed" citizens that many chose the (literal) devil they knew over the (literal) devils they didn't.

There is a later part of the story about this trip my grandfather took. There is the part where my Great Grandfather took his son to meet Mammy. It is said that the tears cried at that meeting where the only tears that this boy had ever seen his father shed. But that is something I will write another time, when I understand the details better.