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The Slaves of My Ancestors

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.”

Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795)
Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795

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.

Slave_sale_poster

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!

SlaveDanceand_Music
Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation, John Rose, ca. 1785-95

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!”

Ω

The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
© Copyright 2018 Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved
This essay was published April 29, 2018, on Vox Populi at voxpopulisphere.com

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press), and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

“From Warriors to Saints, Saints to Lovers, Lovers to Tigers, Tigers to Flowers”

VINCENT VAN GOGH LEARNED VOLUMES from his fellow artists by the study of countless numbers of their drawings and paintings, some old, some new. Not only did he visit many museums and exhibitions. He also lined the walls of his room with copies of others’ works, including the great masters who preceded him.

Vincent once wrote to his brother Theo: “I must ask you something: Are there any cheap Daumier prints to be had, and, if so, which ones? I always found him very clever, but it is only recently that I have begun to have the impression that he is more important than I thought. If you know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I remember we spoke about it last year on the road to Prinsenhage, and you said then that you like Daumier better than Gavarni, and I took Gavarni’s part, and told you about the book I had read about Gavarni which you have now. But I must say that since then, though I have not come to like Gavarni less, I begin to suspect that I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know” (CL 239).

Are there any parallels to us?

All learning takes place at the intersection of what we already know and what we do not yet know. An artist can interpret only what the artist presently sees. The same is true for the therapist conducting therapy, the surgeon performing surgery, or the politician crafting legislation. To that end, personal and professional consultation offers fresh eyes with which to see and novel ears with which to hear.

Vincent’s Perspective Frame, The Hague, August 5 or 6, 1882

A patient and a therapist, just the two of them, working collaboratively may generate what is called an “analytic third”*—an additional and potentially transformative reality emerging from the juxtaposition of their two separate realities. Or again, the patient has one perspective, the therapist a second, and the consultant or supervisor a third, which coming together potentially produces yet a fourth perspective with elements of all three, and more.

Imagine what growth might not have taken place for Vincent as an artist if, among other endeavors, he had not studied Japanese art and French Impressionist paintings. What if he had never made his way to Paris and subsequently the south of France where the sun shone brighter than it did back home in the Netherlands?

One of the most dramatic transformations of Vincent’s artistic style and subject matter came about with his turn to the use of vivid colors as a consequence of his modified geographic perspective. Likewise, when he studied the art of those with whom he was unfamiliar, he further opened himself to the possibility for substantive change. It is just so with persons who become absorbed in Vincent’s art. They stand to encounter an “artistic third” bearing an altered perception—not only of Vincent’s reality but more so of their own.

Honoré_Daumier_c1850_-_crop copy
Honoré Daumier, c. 1850

Consider again what Vincent said about the French painter Honoré Daumier while Vincent was still living and painting in the Netherlands in 1882.

“If you [Theo] know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know.”

Whether we are therapists or surgeons or politicians, or anything else by virtue of our craft or trade—whether we are the ones seeking “counsel” or the ones rendering it—what if we were to receive each new encounter as the creative and promising juxtaposition of what we already know with what we do not yet know? What might happen?

Vincent mentioned Daumier in sixty-two of his letters. Three years after having asked Theo to tell him more about Daumier, Vincent wrote his friend Emile Bernard to say of yet another artist, in the words of the French writer, Théophile Silvestre: “’Thus died—almost smiling—Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding—who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart—who went from warriors to saints—from saints to lovers—from lovers to tigers—and from tigers to flowers.’” Then Vincent added: “Daumier is also a great genius” (CL B13).

What if Vincent had failed to ask Theo to tell him more about Daumier? On the other hand, what if we, like Vincent, were to ask those around us to help us gain a new perspective upon our present reality so that we might move beyond it to something more significant?

the-starry-night-over-the-rhone copy
Starry Night over the Rhone Vincent van Gogh 1888

What if we were to attain that “artistic” or “analytic third” offering us the potential to paint life differently?

What if the person with whom we are currently engaged in conversation says to us: “Have you considered this? Have you considered that?

What if, thereby, we are no longer limited to “the world according to Gavarni” or the world according to “Gutenough,” as good as those worlds may be?

What if we were to see the world and paint it as did, say, Jesus of Nazareth? or the Buddha? or Mahatma Gandhi? or Mohammed? or Julian of Norwich? or Mother Teresa? or Martin Luther King, Jr.? or Rosa Parks? or Vincent van Gogh?

One can confidently conclude in the case of Van Gogh that his psychotic “breakdown,” which took place within the presence of Paul Gauguin just before Christmas 1888, bore elements of an “artistic third.” Such an experience, painful and debilitating though it was, eventually precipitated a “breakthrough” of such stellar proportion that in the final year of his life, with searing new eyes, he was able to depict on canvas his vision of the new Heaven and new Earth he had contemplated as a young man during frequent and studious encounters with the Jesus of the Gospels.

Whom, then, did Vincent have reason to thank for the epiphany? Theo? Gavarni? Daumier? Delacroix? Gauguin? All of the above and many others besides? Yet, what if he had never so much as once encountered Jesus—or worse—in doing so failed to take the Nazarene seriously?

What if, from the perspective of the persons seated next to us, with whom we have momentarily cast our lot, we unexpectedly discover brand new takes on reality? Might we then no longer be exactly the same persons today we were yesterday?

Can you imagine an artist painting canvas after canvas without ever changing visual perspective? What kind of art would such constraint produce? Yet, when we look around, and all too often when we look within, we realize just how stuck we are in the same old hardened perspectives and patterns, time and again. It’s true of therapists, patients, surgeons, and politicians.

On the contrary—can you imagine shifting “from warrior to saint, from saint to lover, from lover to tiger, from tiger to flower,” with each transmutation bearing the novel perspective of “a sun in the head, and a thunderstorm in the heart”?

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, Auvers, 1888

And to what end? That our darkened and crazed souls might be awakened to a radically new way of perceiving, being, and acting in the world.

Yes, even to the extent that at the hour of our death, with the curtain pulled back from the face of death itself and with our mortal remains reposing in astonishment like those of Delacroix, we might jolly well appear “almost smiling”!

Therefore—when imprisoned within those calcified perspectives that impede warriors from becoming saints, saints lovers, lovers tigers, and tigers flowers—for Heaven’s sake why would we not welcome unfamiliar vistas that we do not yet know?

∗ The “analytic third” is a concept employed by psychoanalyst Thomas H. Ogden, M.D.
© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).