Last night at dinner, my nine year-old daughter asked, “Why did we have slavery?”
She has a knack for asking pointed questions, usually while we’re eating and my husband isn’t around to help me out with the answers.
Dozens of moral and philosophical answers ticked through my mind as I chewed my pizza, but I settled on a simple explanation.
“Because of greed,” I replied.
Too simple for Desiree. She wanted more. I tried to give it to her, explaining that people made good money capturing and selling slaves and how the cotton and tobacco fields that covered the south were cheaper to tend to with slaves than paid workers. She’d seen cotton fields on a family trip to Arkansas two summers ago. The sun was so fierce Desiree and her sister could barely stand the two minutes it took to pose for a picture on my grandfather’s tractor at the edge of his soybean field. I wondered if she remembered that, if she was imagining what it would be like to work in those fields all day until I realized her eyes were glazing over. The gauge on her information meter had reached full. But I wasn’t ready to relinquish her from the discussion yet. After all, as she likes to say of her little sister, she started it. So, I hung out a carrot.
“You know, Desiree, your great great great grandmother, Temple Burton was a slave.”
Desiree’s eyes lit up just like mine did the first time I heard about Temple and her master, my great great grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart.
“Tell me about Temple,” Desiree said, pushing aside her pizza crust, sitting up in her chair on her knees like I’ve told her not to do a million times. Last night I let it slide.
I told her about how Temple was a slave in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where her Grandpa Joe, my father, grew up. I told her how Temple lived to be 105 and that after the Union Army won the Civil War and ended slavery, she decided to stay with her masters as their cook.
That surprised Desiree.
“Temple was nice,” Desi said. “If that were me, I would have slapped that slave master.”
I tried to explain to Desi that Temple probably didn’t have any other options. By the time the Civil War ended, Temple was 45 and had several kids. She probably didn’t know how to read or write. Where else would she go? How would she support herself and kids? Even though they enslaved her, the Stuarts were the devils she knew. Temple may have had more personal reasons as well. What I didn’t tell Desiree was that Col. Stuart was the father of Temple’s children, my great grandmother, Josephine Burton included.
“Mom, if we were back in those days and I met you, I would buy you so I could free you.” Desiree said.
“If I met you, I’d free you and make you a queen,” her sister added.
I told them that was very kind and left it at that. I didn’t have the heart or enough caffeine in me to tell them that even though they have butterscotch skin and copper and blonde curls, as biracial people back then they would have been considered black. They would have been slaves too. I’ll save that for the next discussion. Hopefully it will come over breakfast and not dinner when I will have ample supplies (like caffeinated tea and my husband) to fuel my side of the conversation.