Thursday, April 15, 2010

In the faces of emancipated slaves

This is an 1863 photograph of Charles Taylor, an 8-year-old former slave freed by Union troops during the US Civil War:

This is Rebecca Huger (11) and Rosina Downs (6), also freed slaves:

I saw these children in this picture in a post in Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant Confederate History Month series. (There's a zoomable version of the photo here.)

My first reaction when I saw the picture was shock. "But those children were white!" Of course, I had known about the absurd "one drop of blood" rule, but I guess I'd always associated that with Jim Crow rather than slavery. It had never occurred to me that there had been slaves who looked like those kids.

My second reaction? Shame. I'm a little ashamed that I found the enslavement of Charles, Rebbecca, and Rosina to somehow be more shocking than the enslavement of Isaac White (8).*

I wish I could say that surprise was the only reason I felt that way. I wish I could say that deep down inside, without thinking about it, I'd felt that the enslavement of black children was just as shocking as the enslavement of white children, but I'm afraid that would be dishonest. The truth is, when I saw those white faces, I immediately identified with and empathized with Charles, Rebecca, and Rosina to a greater degree than I did with Isaac or even with the other little girl, Augusta Boujey (9), who looks a little more "racially ambiguous" to me. I saw myself in the white faces in the picture in a way I didn't in the black faces.

Is that a sign of unconscious racism? I'm not sure. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I think it must be. What does that mean? I guess it means that I have, during my 48 years on this Earth, absorbed the message that "white" is my tribe, and "black" is "the other." At least some of the time.

That's not the only message I've absorbed, of course. When I actually think about it, when I move beyond feeling to thinking, I'm every bit as sorry for Isaac as I am for Charles. And when I read TNC's post, with its description of Mary Johnson's whip scars (she's the woman in the picture) and of Wilson Chinn (the man at upper left), his forehead branded with the initials of the scum who "owned" him, my sadness and rage surpassed anything I felt just from knowing that there were white slaves.

So I suppose there's still hope for me. At least on some level I do know, emotionally as well as intellectually, that we're all part of the same "tribe." Still, I'm disappointed in myself.

*I emphasized the children while scarcely discussing the adults because, going just by the picture, it somehow seems (not just to me, I think) more shocking to think of children as slaves. It's not a rational reaction, since the three adults were all born into slavery as well and thus experienced many more years of suffering, but I think it's a common one.


  1. If you really want to test your own built-in programming about race, check out Harvard's Project Implict ( This test is good at measuring unconscious bias.

  2. I actually took that a while ago and came out with a slight preference for black.

  3. I came out completely equal for black/white choice. However, I found out that I am deeply prejudiced against straight people. :- ) (I scored high gay preference.)

  4. Haha. I haven't taken the others. I'll have to go through them some time.


What do you think?