Friday, March 18, 2011

Words seen: prose vs. image

In my March 14 post "Heritage and heirloom" I quoted this passage from a justification of slavery written on the eve of the Civil War by the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow.
The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

On March 17 this image appeared in Edward Rothstein's "Not Forgotten," a New York Times article about Civil War museums.


http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html . Click to enlarge.

Which words work better at communicating a notion of slavery as concept -- DeBow's purist prose, chaste black on a chaste white page, or this soiled trace on an empty bag?

2 comments:

Carol Dorf said...

That is a wonderful image, and poetic way of telling a fragment of the family tragedy of slavery.

I think the fact that it was embroidered is also significant both because of the slowness of the process of writing by embroidery, the implication of at least some time to embroider, and because of the link from generations of women.

Jonathan Morse said...

The implication, also, of the ability to write, which Rose almost certainly didn't have. Written, the text is a poignant wordy record of a gesture whose actuality could be recorded only in wordless memory.