So I’ve been doing some family history research off and on for a few years. My aunt compiled a great deal of our family’s genealogy information in a book she self-published many years ago. She did most of her research without the benefit of the internet, so the information she got is pretty impressive. Much of it is available on Ancestry.com and other sites these days, but that gives me the possibility to follow-up on some questions I had about our different ancestors.
One such ancestor is Edward Buckner, who lived from about 1710-1767. We have a photocopy of his last will and testament. I tried to transcribe it yesterday, since the copy is very hard to read. There is mention of one enslaved person, “Beck”, whom other researchers call “Becky”. Originally, I couldn’t figure out what one word in the sentence meant. It looks like this: “also it is my desire Negro Beck and her increas[e] at the death or marr[i]ag[e] of my wif[e] be equally divided between Isham and Betty [and] Edmond.” I didn’t think the word was “increase”, because it didn’t make sense to me what “and her increase” could mean.
However, this morning I found a website with Edward’s will transcribed and some other supporting data: (http://www.buckbd.com/genea/EdwardBucknerwill1767.html). It transcribed the will as reading “Becky and her increase”. Again, what the heck does that mean? I searched “last will and testament slave increase” and found many other early American wills that use the same terminology, among them George Washington’s. After a little more reading, I can only conclude that “and her increase” means “and her children.”
W. T. F. Seriously, they referred to children as “increase”? As in an increase of wealth for the “owner” of the enslaved person. They certainly didn’t refer to their own children that way. What’s more, there is no mention of an enslaved male person in the will, so Becky’s children would just magically appear? This is a kind of invisibility that I think is related to what many contemporary survivors of abuse have endured. It was propped up by people thinking that their behavior was normal, and it was enforced by using terminology that reduced humans to economic benefits.
Slavery was a way of erasing people’s identity, their familial relationships, their status as human beings. It was justified by beliefs that some people were less than human, less important, less intelligent than others. It’s similar to the behavior of abusers, who think that their behavior is justified in some skewed sense of righteousness or at the very least, that their behavior doesn’t really inflict pain or suffering on others.
I’m going to go a step further (you can flame me if you like) and say that some people’s recent shock over the relationships between (“white”) police and African Americans in the U.S. is akin to a kind of erasure. People tell themselves that discrimination is blown out of proportion, that it can’t be “that bad,” that people should be able to overcome it by trying harder. It’s like those cartoons that have circulated around the internet lately that make fun of telling people with depression to “snap out of it” and “try harder to feel better.” Those who suffer in the shadows are often forgotten until a crisis brings their experience to people’s attention.
A few years ago, I heard someone talk about the term “enslaved people” at a conference, and I try to use it. It identifies people who were enslaved as humans, and doesn’t reduce them to an immutable social class or define their whole identity. It also refers to the actions of the enslavers, which shouldn’t be forgotten.
I’m not naive to the facts of slavery, but this use of an economic term to describe humans reminded me of the many kinds of invisibility that we all face, and the repercussions of invisibility throughout generations.