Hey Babe

The sky’s on fire.

I’m dying, ain’t I, yrmama? you might ask.

To which I’d reply yes, you are and remembering that will help you keep things in perspective this winter.

The elderly dog has grown fearful of her own food bowl. Possibly likewise, yrmama pours over the same census documents hour after hour because she has found herself with the luxury of time to indulge a compulsion. And through this compulsion yrmama has gradually committed herself to the ordinary life of a man, Tom Jenkins, who she missed meeting face to face by only sixty two years. Strangers passing in the night really.

Tom was born enslaved and went by the name Richard before freeing himself. He and his daughter, Emaline, were “not close.” He has no living descendants. Thomas lived the second half of his life as Tom-who-used-to-be-Richard in the little, really little, town of Springdale, Iowa. He probably bumped right into John Brown (famously violent abolitionist) walking past the blacksmith shop. John would have been training his steely eyes at the heavens rather than watching where he was going.

Unlike John Brown, Tom bought property in town and joined the local Quaker meeting. Ten years later he transferred his membership to the most conservative Quaker meeting in the neighborhood. He wore the old-time Quaker clothes and hat. In fact, he and yrmama sat their butts on the very same meetinghouse benches just a hundred years apart. He used to buy his molasses and boot laces in the general store where your mama lived for a bit.

yrmama is devoted to rooting out the identities of the people who enslaved Thomas Jenkins when he was still Richard Lewis. This information is hard to find partly because most modern white people are ashamed of slavery and consider the discussion of racism impolite. Also because the whole antebellum economic system depended on Richard not having an identity beyond his monetary value. One has to use excruciating and tedious processes of elimination, deduction and intuition to trace the history of previously enslaved folks to before the end of the Civil War, especially if there is no DNA trail. There’s only crumbly old paper, and that’s only attached to the crumbly white people.

There are good reasons for you, meaning yrmama, to do this project but they are kind of subtle and confusing:

1) Compulsion, which you have to keep an eye on because it correlates with mental illness pretty neatly.

2) You were always curious about Thomas/Richard’s gravestone, half a mile up the gravel road, that says he was a former slave.

3) White people owe Black people some of their family history back.

4) You have compiled a ridiculous amount of information about Thomas Jenkins, his family and his neighbors so you are going to have to write a book about him and there’s no backing out now because that would be embarrassing.

5) There is no better time for a crazy project that involves reading 375 books about the Civil War because you aren’t going anywhere now anyway and definitely won’t later this winter.

Buckle up, kids, and buckle down.

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