A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Slaves Waiting for Sale by Eyre Crowe – Richmond, Virginia, 1853.
DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names — these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.
Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future — “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” — these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.
Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable . . . article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”
In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.
In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.
Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.
Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.
Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.
Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow — surprise! — in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!
Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy — this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.
“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”
Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He served pastorates in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia, and he is the author of Bone Dead and Rising.
© 2018 Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved