Thank Him For Taking The Pistol From You

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Powerful words, no?

I'm pretty convinced that the Anderson letter is real. We know that Anderson existed. We know that the letter was, in fact, printed at the time. If someone is going  to charge fraud they need to have something besides, "No slave could have written this."

That said, I'm interested in a discussion of the exact message of the letter. Better put, I'm interested in a discussion of interpretations. Most people read the letter as a sarcastic dis of Anderson's former master. There is that, but I wonder whether folks think his words of affection were more sarcasm, or sincere? I think it's reasonable to say that the part about the wages was sincere, especially given how he follows it up with hints of divine judgment and also his worrying about the safety of his daughters.

But I've found, in my reading, that the relationships between slaves and masters is often uncomfortably complicated. In numerous cases I've read about whites presuming the loyalty of their slaves, in much the way a parent would presume the loyalty of a child. In most cases, the loyalty is unfounded. But even in those cases, there is sometimes affection for the master, and in truly rare cases a kind of, almost, paternalism exhibited by the slave toward the master.

Throughout my reading, I've been thumbing through Remembering Slavery, a collection of oral histories taken by the WPA of freed slaves. The complexity of their lives and, for our purposes, their relationships with their owners is stunning. There are tales of master's giving slaves guns to go hunting. (I read that and thought, that's a hell of a chance this guy is taking) There are tales of masters and slaves celebrating Christmas together. (I think I read about that one in A Nation Under Our Feet. Forgive me, this stuff is starting to blur together. In a good way.)

The most interesting story I've seen involved a slaveowner who heads off to the Confederate front. The owner hands one of his slave a rifle, and says "Protect my wife, my daughters and my land" or some such. And the dude does it. He doesn't cut and run, he watches over his master's place. There's a way of reading this with the old house/field slave dichotomy. I love Malcolm. And I love that riff. By I don't think it says much about actual people.

Perhaps Old Jourdan is running game again. I don't know. But I would not put it beyond the realm of disbelief that he had some affection, if not for the old Colonel, then for the Colonel's family.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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