Virginia

By Ta-Nehisi Coates


Shirley.jpg


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.

What followed, by Morgan's explaining, broke my heart. To assure a life-bonded workforce, sex between whites and blacks had to be effectively outlawed. When black people and white people met in the colonies, they commenced to do what people do--namely, fuck like jack-rabbits. There was prejudice, but not a deeply-held sense that one's skin-color necessarily marked you as the God-ordained lesser. Virginia's lawmakers put a stop to this--passing anti-sex laws, and harshly punishing those violators (especially white women.) There's actually a scene in the book where they try to pass one of these laws, and white people in Norfolk petition them to stop. The petition ultimately fails.

It's hard to read these accounts--especially of couples parted by the state, of white petitioners saying "Please, don't do this."--and not be struck by their unnatural aspect of state-mandated racism. It's even harder to not be struck by the burden this put on generations of white America. One loses a portion of their humanity, even as they strip it from someone else.

And yet you can't spend time in Virginia and not note how different things are today. Whites and blacks in the South have always been culturally close, and it's really in evidence these days. I felt less distance between me and white Virginians, then between me and the white people I see in here in New York every day. And there are black people everywhere--at least in the Richmond area--eating at the same restaurants, working the same service jobs, partying at the same cheesy resorts.

I don't say this to note the obvious, but to ask a deeper question. Did the dream of White Supremacy really die? And was it ever really "White" to begin with? Or is it expanding to include more people, to exploit other people, to better exploit other resources?

My first night in Williamsburg, we went to Wal-Mart. We don't have Wal-Mart in New York, and though I've read about, and even written about, Wal-Mart, it is humbling to see a "store" where you can buy groceries and tires, rifles and lotion. It was more than a store. You could get a massage and a facial. There was a park bench, and kids running everywhere. And good God, it was all so cheap.

There's something about our country in there, something bone-deep, harking back to the Originals. Something about mini-mansions and hamburgers on demand, something about standardized eateries with playgrounds, music when you want it, cars built on military technology. And then this--video gamers shit-talking each other across the broad American expanse, with no concern of what race. One wonders whether the Civil Rights pioneers defeated white supremacy, or if technology did it for them. One wonders whether white supremacy is in the process of cutting its losses and then getting bigger. We have mastered the land for all, and one senses that the Dream is now so powerful, so potent, so technological innovative that it can be extended to the very people it was built upon--hence Baldwin's integration into the burning house.

There's always a price, no? I am not an economist or a scientist. Still, I have garnered, in my 33 years, some basic understanding of the laws of nature. Someone, somewhere is paying for these 99 cent cheeseburgers. If not the people, then the land we've enslaved. I'm tempted to recoil in horror at the thought.  And then I wonder how it could go any other way. And then I know the stupid uselessness of all my anger. And then I come to understand religion and its hold on humanity. None of us are clean. No matter which part of Shirley you're from.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/08/virginia/23491/