I spread out your charts, your ledgers, your bug-eaten accounts, the ones cataloged and filed in acid-free folders. The room where I sit, Mr. Stites, is not far from the room where you yourself must have sat, sweat-stained, surrounded by your law books, sleeves rolled up, face sopping wet, bent over your volumes. Adding, subtracting, calculating, measuring, devising. Not far from where your slaves stood in pens waiting to be sold.
You order corn by the bushel and load it onto steamboats piloted, I imagine, by men with grizzled beards and salty mouths and ship it downstream to your overseers: the men who run your plantations, whip in hand; men like my great-great-great-grandfather, young and hungry and striving. I’ve seen the letters: Mr. Francis M. Scarlett, Sir, you write to my ancestor, the one whose DNA lies coiled in my cells, I understand the negroes are in want of corn. I shall endeavor to supply you. You tell my twenty-seven-year-old forebear what to do with the corn when it arrives. You teach him how to process and pack the cotton. You demand that he report by mail every fortnight the state of the crops and the health of the negroes. You ship him salt and molasses and camphor oil and rugs and 52 pair Negro shoes for the negroes under your charge. You dispatch bolts of Negro cloth for the wenches petticoats and the fellows’ jackets and overalls. In December of 1812 you send him one beef for the Negroes’ Xmas.
I am your obedient Servant, you sign yourself, Richd M. Stites.
I don’t know exactly when my great-great-great-grandfather, this Francis Scarlett, went to work for you or why. Because he was rash and naive, perhaps? A runaway from London, penniless, in trouble (or so my grandmother insisted), determined to find his way in Georgia’s bright corner of the New World? Because he had a wife and soon babies to feed? Because he could learn from you, Mr. Stites, eight years his senior, the intricate calculations of American bondage?
The slave pens, the sales lot. The bartering and buying. A woman, Myra: $400. Her blanket: $1.50. For the sum of $401.50 she slips from your fastidious hands into another man’s (always men) so that you can pay for the parchment and tobacco and top hat chronicled elsewhere in your books.
You nearly eluded me. Were it not for my late grandmother’s diligence — her own fierce record-keeping and ancestral pride, her determination that I know who I am, the boxes of correspondence she bequeathed to me — you and I might never have met. Clever, how you looped the second t in Stites so that it resembled an l that kept me at bay for years as I searched for Stiles. But one changed keystroke, and there you were, my ancestor’s prodigious correspondent-boss-mentor, hiding inside the archives in the pretty building on Whitaker Street with the grand outdoor staircase and the book-lined interior, the soft yellow lamps and the courteous librarians. The shelves weighted with transactions.
You spend three months chasing after a slave carpenter named Sam, whom you’ve sold downriver, but who at the last minute slips your grasp and goes missing. Don’t worry, you assure your buyer. The first moment I can take him he shall be secured in jail till a conveyance offers. For this one man is worth the cost of a new roof on your house on the square, your wife’s dress, the pendant on your daughter’s ivory throat. Sure enough, you nab him. I hope he may arrive in safety and I believe he will please you. The sum I gave was $550 which is very cheap.
The young woman Margaret belongs to a man named Sanders, who can scarcely spell, who wants to sell her to pay his debts. He needs to know, Mr. Stites, weather you have made up your mind about the girl or not, because I am very anxious to discharge those Judgements yourself and others have against me.
Seventeen and African-born, she’s of no interest to you. But for the sake of the tiresome man with his grimy note and his great debt, you hand over $300, and the negro wench called Margaret, already witness to the long passage across the roiling water (how did she survive?), is yours.
And what is mine? To which of my great-great-great-grandfather’s bargains with you do I owe my share? How many bushels of corn, bales of cotton, bodies in shackles shipped up and down the coast?
Boxes of documents come into the carpeted library on metal carts. Files numbered, contents summarized. I sign them out one by one and, in the gentle glow of the reading room, page through vouchers, invoices, directives, hoping to exhume the whys of the family business, the steps that eased my ancestor’s passage from overseer to owner, so that he could buy and sell and trade just like you.
WANTED TO PURCHASE —
A GANG of ONE HUNDRED NEGROES, for which the Cash will be paid.
/ F.M. SCARLETT /
June 15, 1837
Like you, Mr. Stites, I’m interested in records. I take notes. I don’t want to err. Keep the books or write them, but don’t betray us, my grandmother warned when she gave me the family papers. Her archives are so different from yours: scrapbooks filled with bouncing babies, bonneted mothers, handsome men in black ties and sober smiles; lessons in poverty, hard luck, sudden loss. It still makes me angry at those Yankees stripping the Southern families, my grandmother said. There are things we don’t talk about, she said. Things kept locked away, under wraps.
RUNAWAY — FROM Gowin Swamp on Monday night, two negro fellows — DICK, a stout black fellow, about six feet high 45 years of age. NED, stout yellow complected about five feet ten inches high 27 years of age. As they both have relatives on the Brunswick Canal it is very likely they may be in that vicinity. Ten dollars will be given for the apprehension of each, on application to the subscribers.
/ F.M. SCARLETT /
June 5, 1837
The quantities of paper, ink, oil, bills, coins, cloth, feed, tobacco, brandy, rum, correspondents. I have no time to reply to all my correspondents, you wail, Mr. Stites. My great-great-great-grandfather, for instance: your man. He wielded power with a whip, you with your pen, conducting business from a desk not unlike the one where I sit with my pen, rendering judgment. Because I can. Because my family’s plantation collapsed, the house burned, and my inheritance is nothing more than china plates and old letters.
By the time he was my age, my great-great-great-grandfather Francis M. Scarlett owned 7,000 acres, 125 cattle, 6 horses, 20 oxen, 75 hogs, and 368 unnamed human beings whose lives occupy five pages of the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule.
Columns, chains, lashes, rope: the lengths to which we will go to keep the pedigree intact.
Let me count up the rows, tally the sums, match the figures in the files with the letters in my closet. Let me unplug the laptop and pack up my notes. Pay for my photocopies. Sign the ledger and thank the librarians and send the records back into the dark. Retrace the route to my hotel, the one with the queen-size bed and the minifridge, the breakfast buffet and the free parking. Draw the curtains, bolt the door, slide under the covers. Close my eyes. Imagine that if I had been born in my ancestor’s day, I’d have done otherwise. Imagine this changes anything.