Virginia

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III. Shirley On The James

I came to Virginia determined to see a few things and finish a few things. I have spoken of what I needed to see--plantations, battlefields, memorials. But the finishing belonged to Edmund Morgan's landmark study of the origins of slavery in Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom. This is a hard book, and I'd actually put it down until a few commenters demanded that I finish. I managed this feat on my second day down South, a warm Friday afternoon, after viewing primary evidence.

Shirley Plantation on the James is majestic. All the ancient detail--the smokehouse, the outdoor kitchen, the flying staircase--is there. Until you stand in front the big house, staring out at the approaching main path of gravel and dirt, until you observe the trees on each side standing green guard, until you note that, though the path connects to a bigger path, it seems  to disappear into nothing, devoured by the woods, you really have no sense of the magic inherent in a Southern Road. Back home, a road gets from Jamaica to East New York. But in this deeper home of mine, from the aspect of the slave, a Road is a star-ship, a tesseract from half-man to man.


I came, again, with my gaggle of family. Pops, my brother Damani, and sister Kris were in meetings all morning. So I piled a pack of nephews into the minivan, qued up Thriller on the Ipod, and led a two-car caravan up I-64. Once there, I gave a modified "don't embarrass me in front of white folks" speech, ("Don't disgrace your ancestors.") My nephew Christian (left with the Nike cap) had rode with his mother (my sister Kelly) and father. He walked over, having missed the lecture, and made a joke. "Come on Christian," said one of the kids " This is serious!" 

Inside we got the grand-tour and at every stop the kids riddled our guide with questions. I had that love-hate thing again--deep admiration for the family who'd preserved the place for 11 generations, and the heir who still lived in the house. And then anger for the slaves, and anger for the Native Americans.


That afternoon, I fell asleep reading Morgan, then woke up and finished the book. What follows is dirty.  Our history buffs, I am sure, will jump in and make corrections. As always, I'm counting on it.

Anyway, Morgan talks about Virginia being settled by men who'd often import servants. The basic deal was, I, the planter, pay for your transport from England, and you agree to work my tobacco fields for, say, five years. It was a decent business, in large measure because the servants weren't expected to live for very long.

But Virginia was too successful. Tobacco became big business. The people mastered the land. The mortality rate plunged, and servants began, not only out-living their contracts, but snatching up land and becoming planters themselves. Tobacco flooded the market, the price dropped, and the old planters were pissed. They fought back by passing laws to extend the contracts. They tried to raise the price of land. They tried to relegate when, and how much, tobacco could be sold. All met with moderate success, but what they really needed was a life-bonded labor force permanently barred from competition. With that in hand, they could cut the cost of business, and assure any Virginian the right to compete.

You know what this is. Slave-trading skyrocketed, and the dream of American White Supremacy--the dream of American White Godhood--was born. This is what the Confederates mean when they talk about preserving a way of life. The point isn't slavery. The point is the right of all men, however narrowly defined, to have a shot at divinity.

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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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