'He's All I Do Want'

In her book on antebellum, and immediate post-bellum. relationships between white women and black men, the historian Martha Hodes cites the following story:

I was never a slave. Although I was born somewhere about 1855, I was not born in slavery, but my father was. I'm afraid this story will be more about my father and mother than it will be about myself. "My mother was a white woman. Her name was Tempie James. She lived on her father's big plantation on the Roanoke River at Rich Square, North Carolina. Her father owned acres of land and many slaves. His stables were the best anywhere around; they were filled with horses, and the head coachman was named Squire James. Squire was a good looking, well behaved Negro who had a white father. He was tall and light colored. 

Tempie James fell in love with this Negro coachman. Nobody knows how long they had been in love before Tempie's father found it out, but when he did he locked Tempie in her room. For days he and Miss Charlottie, his wife, raved, begged and pleaded, but Tempie just said she loved Squire. 

"Why will you act so?'"Miss Charlotte was crying. "Haven't we done everything for you and given you everything you wanted?"

Tempie shook her head and said: 'You haven't given me Squire. He's all I do want.''

Then it was that in the dark of the night Mr. James sent Squire away; he sent him to another state and sold him. But Tempie found it out. She took what money she could find and ran away. She went to the owner of Squire and bought him, then she set him free and changed his name to Walden Squire Walden. But then it was against the law for a white woman to marry a Negro unless they had a strain of Negro blood, so Tempie cut Squire's finger and drained out some blood. She mixed this with some whiskey and drank it, then she got on the stand and swore she had Negro blood in her, so they were married. She never went back home and her people disowned her. 

Tempie James Walden, my mother, was a beautiful woman. She was tall and fair with long light hair. She had fifteen children, seven boys and eight girls, and all of them lived to be old enough to see their great-grandchildren. I am the youngest and only one living now. Most of us came back to North Carolina. Two of my sisters married and came back to Rich Square to live. They lived not far from the James plantation on Roanoke River. Once when we were children my sister and I were visiting in Rich Square. 

One day we went out to pick huckleberries. A woman came riding down the road on a horse. She was a tall woman in a long grey riding habit. She had grey hair and grey eyes. She stopped and looked at us. 

"My," she said, "Whose pretty little girls are you?" 

"We're Squire Walden's children,"I said. 

She looked at me so long and hard that I thought she was going to hit me with her whip, but she didn't, she hit the horse. He jumped and ran so fast I thought she was going to fall off, but she went around the curve and I never saw her again. I never knew until later that she was Mis' Charlottie James, my grandmother. I don't know anything about slavery times, for I was born free of free parents and raised on my father's own plantation. I've been living in Durham over sixty-five years.

In her book, Hodes (who was also the source for yesterday's post) digs a bit further and casts some considerable doubt on the veracity of this story. But what caught my eye wasn't the story itself, but the white person literally defying the one-drop rule. I've seen that detail in stories on at least two other occasions. The one that immediately comes to mind is in Paula Giddings' biography of Ida B. Wells. A white husband is ordered to cease cohabitatating with his wife, and in naked defiance pricks her finger, drinks her blood and pronounces himself "black."

For me the best way to look at these stories is not as literal truths, which they likely are not, but as a satirical folk critique of racism. These stories are more like fables mocking the notion of race, generally, and specifically mocking the absurd notion that the literal mingling of white and black will somehow herald the end of civilization. 

I find these stories provocative because when we think about interracial relationships--antebellum, immediately post-bellum, and Jim Crow--we generally think in terms of coercion and violence. So we think of black women being raped, or we think of black men being falsely accused of raping white women, or we think of the subsequent lynchings. These symbols are stand-ins for how we think of pre-Civil Rights America. So when we think about slavery, we think about whips and chains first.

When we do think about willing interracial relationships, we, again, tend to think about them against a backdrop of utter tragedy. I guess that's unavoidable. But there has to be something beyond historical torture porn and as interested as am in historical forces, I'm also interested in individuals. P.B.S. Pinchback was the first black governor of any state. His father was white, and had once owned his mother. He emancipated her, and together they moved to from Georgia to Mississippi. Pinchback and his siblings grew up privileged and were educated at in boarding schools. But when his father died, Pinchback's mother fled Mississippi, fearful that she would be re-enslaved. Surely, I would not have history white-washed, but when I hear a story like that I wonder "What was Pinchback's father thinking? What about his mother?" Please don't try to answer that question in comments--part of it's beauty is that it's unknowable. 

I understand that we can't escape discussions of power, and the dynamics of power, in terms of race and gender. But their has to be an accompanying conversation of people. So while it's true that white privilege was profligate in the 19th century, it's equally true that for Carrie Hall, whiteness was a burden, a set of shackles which could not prevent the death of her parents, and did not save her from having to work for food and shelter at age eleven. She was clear that she was white, but being an orphan--and being somewhat of an outcast--was perhaps more important in understanding her as individual.

Just some amateur history with a bit of lit crit, tossed in. Just some thoughts at an hour too early for such things.

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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