Ta-Nehisi Coates: Slavery Is a Love Song

The human cost
History • Views: 28,135

Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to a stunningly immoral post on Thomas Jefferson at right wing blog The Volokh Conspiracy, with a moving letter written after emancipation by a former slave: Slavery Is a Love Song.

This is a letter that I often turn to. It was written to Laura Spicer by her husband, who was sold away, much as Jefferson sold people away. After emancipation she repeatedly tried to rekindle their love, despite the fact that the husband had now remarried and formed another family. In this letter the husband tells us what it means to be among the refuse of history:

I would much rather you would get married to some good man, for every time I gits a letter from you it tears me all to pieces. The reason why I have not written you before, in a long time, is because your letters disturbed me so very much.

You know I love my children. I treats them good as a Father can treat his children; and I do a good deal of it for you. I am sorry to hear that Lewellyn, my poor little son, have had such bad health. I would come and see you but I know you could not bear it. I want to see and I don’t want to see you. I love you just as well as I did the last day I saw you, and it will not do for you and I to meet.

I am married, and my wife have two children, and if you and I meets it would make a very dissatisfied family. Send me some of the children’s hair in a separate paper with their names on the paper. Will you please git married, as long as I am married. My dear, you know the Lord knows both of our hearts. You know it never was our wishes to be separated from each other, and it never was our fault.

Oh, I can see you so plain, at any-time, I had rather anything to had happened to me most than ever to have been parted from you and the children. As I am, I do not know which I love best, you or Anna. If I was to die, today or tomorrow, I do not think I would die satisfied till you tell me you will try and marry some good, smart man that will take care of you and the children; and do it because you love me; and not because I think more of the wife I have got then I do of you. The woman is not born that feels as near to me as you do.

You feel this day like myself. Tell them they must remember they have a good father and one that cares for them and one that thinks about them every day-My very heart did ache when reading your very kind and interesting letter.

Laura I do not think I have change any at all since I saw you last.-I think of you and my children every day of my life. Laura I do love you the same. My love to you never have failed. Laura, truly, I have got another wife, and I am very sorry, that I am. You feels and seems to me as much like my dear loving wife, as you ever did Laura. You know my treatment to a wife and you know how I am about my children. You know I am one man that do love my children….

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38 comments

1 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 2:06:57pm

Numbing.

2 Destro  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 2:23:33pm
If he was a man of his time with regards to slavery, then he was a man of his time with regards to liberty and self-definition ("all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness").

He was remarkable for his clarity of thinking and exposition on the rights of men, but they come from the same man who kept and sold chattel slaves with the same sense of humanity as he would in selling a piano or a cow.

Acknowledging that he was a cruel man is simply to tell the truth, even if we also acknowledge that he was a clever man.

I always assumed the "all men are created equal" line was war propaganda to be put aside once the war was over but the propaganda was too appealing and the genie of liberty could not be placed back in the bottle.

But that is not fully true because men like Washington did free their slaves through their lifetimes so maybe some revolutionary Americans who supported slavery winked when they read that "all men are equal" line while others in the Revolution took it seriously.

3 BARACK THE VOTE  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 3:03:58pm

Charles-- I love this and think it should be on the front page. Hope people read it.

4 wrenchwench  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 3:41:13pm

re: #1 researchok

Numbing.

Oh, just the opposite!

5 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:20:37pm

re: #4 wrenchwench

Oh, just the opposite!

Yes, that's true. You have a point.

But first I had to go through the numb stage.

6 moderatelyradicalliberal  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:29:33pm

Damn. Tears.

7 b_sharp  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:37:18pm

re: #6 moderatelyradicalliberal

Damn. Tears.

You would be closer to the story than most here, so it must be visceral.
That story can't help but affect all of us.

8 moderatelyradicalliberal  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:44:52pm

re: #7 b_sharp

You would be closer to the story than most here, so it must be visceral.
That story can't help but affect all of us.

To the extent that I think about slavery, I think about rape because I'm a woman and like all women I deeply and visceral fear sexual assault. I rarely think about families being sold a part, so I think this just hit me on a human level. Constantly trying to rebuild a life that can always be torn apart at any moment. What could be more cruel?

9 Stanghazi  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:53:38pm

Icy? Still here?

10 Gus  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 4:59:44pm

Jefferson owned 175 slaves. 175 people. The average life expectancy of a slave was approximately 30 year during this time. Thomas Jefferson owned 5,250 years of people's lives.

11 Political Atheist  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:05:43pm

re: #10 Gus

And the world does little to end it today. If the advocates are correct far more people are enslaved today than in the days of our nations formation. The above letter could apply in many languages today.

[Link: en.wikipedia.org...]

[Link: www.freetheslaves.net...]

[Link: www.freedomcenter.org...]

12 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:05:54pm

re: #10 Gus

Hell of a stage, our world.

But this is an important lesson.

Idealization rarely has a happy ending.

13 Charles Johnson  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:06:40pm

re: #10 Gus

Jefferson owned 175 slaves. 175 people. The average life expectancy of a slave was approximately 30 year during this time. Thomas Jefferson owned 5,250 years of people's lives.

It's a horrible stain on Jefferson's legacy. Inexcusable even by the debased standards of the time.

It will always be a mystery how a man who seemed to understand so much about human freedom could also unhesitatingly treat human beings like animals.

14 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:11:22pm

re: #13 Charles Johnson

It will always be a mystery how a man who seemed to understand so much about human freedom could also unhesitatingly treat human beings like animals.

An imperfect man.

Ezra Pound was an antisemite, for example.

Lots of others

15 Political Atheist  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:12:22pm

re: #13 Charles Johnson

Like the Indian wars, slavery is a stain on our entire nation. Not just a few of our founders. We have to admit the horrible things as well as the great things that made this country today. These two things are often ignored by the "patriots".

16 Gus  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:17:47pm

re: #13 Charles Johnson

It's a horrible stain on Jefferson's legacy. Inexcusable even by the debased standards of the time.

It will always be a mystery how a man who seemed to understand so much about human freedom could also unhesitatingly treat human beings like animals.

The only thing I can see is that he understood freedom for men and women came with qualifiers. When they said "all men are created equal" they were in fact referring to white European males. At the time all women weren't considered equals. Blacks were not seen as equals thus "not men" that would muster complete freedom. They were dehumanized and treated sometimes worse than farm animals.

17 Stanghazi  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:18:22pm

Read it please.

18 Gus  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:22:23pm

re: #15 Political Atheist

Like the Indian wars, slavery is a stain on our entire nation. Not just a few of our founders. We have to admit the horrible things as well as the great things that made this country today. These two things are often ignored by the "patriots".

...

“Is it true that the noble hearted man and Christian gentleman who as the agent of a democratic administration, removed the Cherokee Indians from their homes to the west of the Mississippi in such a manner as to gain the applause of the great and good of the land, is a fool?”

19 kirkspencer  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:22:27pm

With Jefferson it's even worse. He predicted that if the slaves were kept in bondage we'd have a civil war. He considered a great moral failing, even condemning himself for the practice.

For what it's worth I think this quote gives us the best clue as to why he continued. "[W]e have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

I'm of the camp that this wasn't another prediction of civil war but rather of simple economics. Slaves were property, frequently used as collateral for debt; and debt was a fact of life for most wealthy southern plantations owners. Freeing the slaves meant not only eliminating a great deal of personal wealth but taking on the obligation to pay off the debt caused by removal of the collateral.

Paraphrased reasoning: "If I free my slaves I shall become at best a pauper. Quite likely I shall be tossed into indentured servitude to make good my own debts."

It does not make this better, but I think it puts the issue in clearer perspective.

20 CriticalDragon1177  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:27:02pm

Charles Johnson,

I'm shocked that the Volokh Conspiracy would allow anything like this to be posted on their website.

21 engineer cat  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:27:56pm

remember that at the time of the founding fathers it was not even taken for granted that a nation could successfully throw off the governance of a monarch and run a nation by a committee of adult white men for any significant length of time

today we have no slaves per se, yet we every one of us know that we benefit from the labor of those in 3rd world countries that make our clothing and electronics in conditions that haven't been legal in this country since the 19th century

and who will free them?

22 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:29:51pm

Jefferson probably thought he was an 'enlightened' slave owner.

And like virtually all politicians, there may have been a 'Do as I say, not as I do component' to Jefferson's behavior.

Benjamin Franklin too, was quite the cad in his personal life, unlike the home spun persona he liked to portray.

23 researchok  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:30:25pm

re: #21 engineer cat

3 pointer.

24 Killgore Trout  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:33:46pm

re: #21 engineer cat

remember that at the time of the founding fathers it was not even taken for granted that a nation could successfully throw off the governance of a monarch and run a nation by a committee of adult white men for any significant length of time

today we have no slaves per se, yet we every one of us know that we benefit from the labor of those in 3rd world countries that make our clothing and electronics in conditions that haven't been legal in this country since the 19th century

and who will free them?

That's what I was thinking too. People are products of their era. I seem to recall Lincoln tossed around the idea of deporting slaves back to Africa. Abhorrent by modern standards. Today we buy all our electronic gadgets, cheap plastic Wallmart crap, clothing, computers, etc all made by exploited people far away. We don't even think about it. In 150 years people will be sitting around thinking about what dicks we were.

25 wrenchwench  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:41:19pm

re: #21 engineer cat

and who will free them?

It won't be the Republicans. It won't be the anti-union people. It won't be the venture capitalists.

It's usually the people themselves, if enough of them can keep from being murdered for their efforts. Let's try not to arm and abet the murderers, at least.

26 Flavia  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:42:15pm

re: #17 Stanghazi

[Embedded content]

Read it please.

Nichelle Nichols made a very moving post about this. How the world is going to sob over "what a nice guy he was" because he killed himself - neatly forgetting all about the woman he murdered. And it's pretty much a pattern.

But to get back to the original article, this reminds me of the day I happened across my father at the kitchen table, in tears. I noticed the newspaper and assumed that he had been reading the obituaries, and that someone he knew had died. No, he was reading about a man who had been separated from his wife, because they were both enslaved. And no, it was not this letter. This was even worse. We earned the Civil War, we deserved it, for stuff like this.

27 Bubblehead II  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:43:20pm

Well if we want to talk about slavery, let us move beyond past history. Let us move into the here and now.

Starting with the Sex Workers.

You know, the pimps and working girls they control?

Is this not of form of slavery? In my opinion it is.

Your opinions Lizards?

28 abolitionist  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:44:53pm

re: #27 Bubblehead II
Yes. Some percentage of modern sex workers cannot be considered slaves --earning a living as they do by choice. But worldwide, I imagine various forms of coersion are more common than choice.

29 Kronocide  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:47:36pm

How dare one speak ill of a Founding Father.

30 wrenchwench  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:49:10pm

re: #27 Bubblehead II

Well if we want to talk about slavery, let us move beyond past history. Let us move into the here and now.

Starting with the Sex Workers.

You know, the pimps and working girls they control?

Is this not of form of slavery? In my opinion it is.

Your opinions Lizards?

Brutal exploitation, yes, maybe a form of slavery, but it's not the same as the slavery we read about in the letter above.

31 Bubblehead II  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 5:57:53pm

re: #30 wrenchwench

Brutal exploitation, yes, maybe a form of slavery, but it's not the same as the slavery we read about in the letter above.

No!!!!!

Slavery is slavey.

32 jvic  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 6:01:06pm

re: #24 Killgore Trout

That's what I was thinking too. People are products of their era. I seem to recall Lincoln tossed around the idea of deporting slaves back to Africa. Abhorrent by modern standards... In 150 years people will be sitting around thinking about what dicks we were.

And that's an optimistic scenario.

33 wrenchwench  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 6:03:29pm

re: #31 Bubblehead II

No!!!!!

Slavery is slavey.

Exploitation is not the same as ownership of people. Pimps can be prosecuted. Legal slave owners of the past could not.

34 jvic  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 6:10:40pm

William Jefferson Clinton had a successful Presidency. Afaic he is clearly preferable to anyone subsequently nominated for the office.

Yet I would advise any attractive woman not to be untraceably alone with him.

In contrast, decent and honorable people have failed as President.

I don't like it, but there is a distinction between private virtue and public virtue.

35 aagcobb  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 9:08:00pm

Heartbreaking letter. And Jefferson can't get off the hook on a "by the standards of his time" excuse, because we know he damn well knew better.

36 danhenry1  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 9:42:28pm

And we hold Jefferson in higher esteem than John Adams. Amazing, an abolitionist, great statesman, did not believe in credit, and a True farmer. And along with his wife Abigail, believed in education for all. He wasn't perfect by any means, he had that problem with 'some rights issue, that for the life of me I can't quite put my finger on'. But all and all a much more like able sort that would still be a great benefit to our country today.. He should be the one sitting in Jeffersons spot.

37 Kdizzle  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 10:49:30pm

re: #13 Charles Johnson

Because like so many of that time and a disturbingly high number of people do now, he most likely did not think of enslaved Africans and Africans in general as humans.

At least certainly not to the level of humanity that he viewed good old Anglo Saxon descendants like himself.

38 Kdizzle  Mon, Dec 3, 2012 11:00:13pm

re: #20 CriticalDragon1177

Charles Johnson,

I'm shocked that the Volokh Conspiracy would allow anything like this to be posted on their website.

When you analyse the particular flavor of Libertarianism of the group of bloggers that write for the site, and also their views on the value and rights of labour in general(be it slave, indentured, poor working class, or even middle class) then its a perfectly logical position for them to take. Try to find a time when the issue of collective bargaining contracts have came up in one of the dicussions on that blog and try to find one member of said blog that sided with Labour? But of course contracts between two individual corporations are always sacrosanct and un-voidable. Its a very disturbing group of thinkers there. Just because they are a little more educated and bookish than the bloggers at Red State and Hot Air doesn't make them any less irrational or insane.

The term Libertarianism has been hijacked by a group of selfish, shallow sociopaths deluded into the idea of their own greatness and the greatness of the elites that bankroll their thinktanks.

The term used to almost strictly a term used by Anarchists and other Anarcho-Socialist groups to refer to themselves. You know the people that really did believe in freedom from any sort of coercive power imaginable. Be it the state, or capitalist and landed oligarchy.


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 Frank says:

The person who stands up and says, "This is stupid," either is asked to 'behave' or, worse, is greeted with a cheerful "Yes, we know! Isn't it terrific!"