For day 14 of black history month, which is also Valentine’s Day, you might enjoy diving down the rabbit hole of historical information about the first African-American power couple in the English-speaking world, Anthony and Mary Johnson (colony of Virginia).
Most accounts emphasize Anthony, which is probably a reflection on the history of history as a field, but they were both pretty critical figures involved with a variety of early cases which started to build the legal framework that distinguished black slavery from indentured servitude – that created the US institution of slavery. (This is useful information for the “but Irish were slaves too” debates. Specifically, this is the start of where the line was drawn.) By which I mean – they weren’t slaves. The door was closing on that, but they weren’t. They were immigrant tobacco farmers. Hardworking, admired, profitable ones. It was a moment when history could have gone another direction. It didn’t, but at least they themselves escaped the trap.
(As a warning if you go googling around, there’s a bit of urban legend agitprop that claims Anthony Johnson was the first slaveowner in the US. Not true. It’s high in the search rankings for the same reasons holocaust denial is. You’ll kind of be able to tell by looking at the names of the web addresses.)
The Johnsons were wildly successful in a way that not many American blacks would be again for a very long time. Owned a lot of land, were respected in the community, and were able to get tax relief which categorized them as in some ways on equal footing to whites. They were canny. They worked hard. And they loved each other.
Speaking as a white woman who is sensitive to misogynist attacks on white women, I am also sensitive to the long history of white male racists using “how dare you disrespect this white woman” as an excuse to crack down on my real allies.
Lia says: Have you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me? It’s essentially a long essay in the form of a letter to Coates’ son about how, as a black boy soon to be a black man, he in very real ways doesn’t own his body. It’s been on my TBR pile for a while, and I finally got around to it a few weeks ago. In it, he recounts an incident where he and his son are out at a public place and his four(ish) year old son isn’t moving with particular purpose, so the white woman behind him pushes him and tells him to hurry up. So the author starts to give the woman piece of his mind for putting hands on his son when a white man steps in and threatens to have him arrested, and it’s a thing, and he has to back off before he’s Emmett Till.
Romie: That hurts me to hear, even though I am not surprised. I haven’t had a chance to pick up Coates’s book yet, but it’s on my list. That man can write.
It’s hard, generally, to be a parent in public, trying to make on-the-fly calls about whether other adults should back off more or intervene more in raising your kid, and the history of white ownership of black bodies makes it even more complicated. I think about it a lot from the other side of Coates, because I interact pretty regularly with friends’ and relatives’ black and mixed-race children, and it seems wrong both to not treat them like I would a white kid, who I might grab and say “scoot your boots” or something similar, and also wrong to treat them like a white kid, when their parents are explicitly trying to teach them pretty different approaches to be safe in the world.
I do know for sure that there is no way an angry white male bystander threatening to call the cops is helpful on any level, even if that woman had the best intentions and her feelings were hurt. I have myself once had (white) cops run up in a park and arrest someone (white) because I was mad at them and therefore they must be abusing me. (I have major cry face when I cry, and you know how I look, which is classic Western Art History portrait gallery noblewoman.) They got really angry at me when I said that hadn’t happened – and it didn’t even matter, because laws are written to assume a woman is lying if she says a man didn’t hurt her. It permanently changed the degree to which I show emotions in public, particularly if there are children (anybody’s children) nearby to amplify that “protect white womanhood” response. It’s too easy for a childbearing-age white woman to become a prop with which to punish others, rather than a full person who might herself be aggressive or have opinions.