Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Placing God on the Side of Cruelty: America's History of Denying the Right of Marriage in God's Name

So I’ve spent the week thinking about marriage. And what happens when people are married, but their legally sanctioned marriage is not recognized outside the place in which they married. I’ve spent this week thinking about what happens to families when people with a religious animus against marriages they do not understand or accept have free rein to repudiate marriages abhorrent to them. And to punish the families that result from such marriages.

These are, unfortunately, not merely abstract questions. They’re very real American questions. Our nation has a history of permitting people who claim to be inspired by the gospels to upend the marriages of those they do not accept or like, and to make the lives of the families of such couples miserable.

I’ve noted before on this blog that I’ve been spending time in the past year researching and writing about a family story that I’ve teased out of old letters and bible records in the past several years. This is a story of a white Southern planter who “married” (but could not legally marry) a free woman of color, had a family by her, lived most of his adult life with her, and then bequeathed his land to one of his biracial sons.

As I’ve also said here, that son was murdered in 1899 in a week in which black men were lynched across south Arkansas, where he lived after inheriting his father’s land. He was shot in the back while riding horseback through woods on his land. A black man, a former slave, was charged with this crime. I have not been able to discover what happened to that man. I believe he was innocent of the crime and was framed by the white men who, in my view, almost certainly lynched a man of mixed race whom his white father had dared to acknowledge as a son, and to whom he left valuable property.

As I say, I’ve spent the last week thinking about marriage, and about what happens when people—good Christian people, whose lives are framed by the gospels and who care intently about others and about their pain—use tricky, dishonest, shameful, and cruel legal mechanisms to sort real marriages from bogus ones, real families from illicit ones.

I’ve been thinking about this question and how it haunts American history because, in the past week, I’ve discovered new documents that illuminate the life of my murdered relative from the period in which he received property from his father, up to the point of his murder in 1899. His father died in 1883.

At that point, my cousin moved with his wife—a white woman descended from prominent New England abolitionist families who had moved to Ohio, where they founded churches and worked in the Underground Railroad—and their six children from Ohio to Arkansas, to live on the 1200 acres he had received from his father. In Arkansas, the couple had three more children.

And then the wife died tragically young. She was forty-one. I have no information about what caused her death. This death has to have been exceedingly difficult for her young husband to bear. It left him with nine children to raise, their ages ranging from 18 to less than a year old.

And the response of the state when my cousin's wife died? The response of his good churchgoing neighbors to this tragedy affecting a young father and his nine young children?

Here’s what I have discovered took place when the wife of my cousin died in 1890: though this couple had legally married in Ohio in 1870, their marriage was not recognized in Arkansas. It was not recognized in Arkansas because Arkansas did not recognize the marriage of a person of color to a white person.

Arkansas had laws that forbade the marriage of people of different races. Those laws were informed by—they had everything to do with—the peculiar religious views of a majority of Arkansans, who believed that God had created the various races of the world to live separate from each other, to remain apart from each other, not to mingle through sexual union or marriage.

Well, this was the official understanding of such issues in Arkansas at the time, as it was the official understanding of the entire American South—and, truth be told, of much of the nation—at the time. In reality, the races had mingled for years, when white people found no theological problem at all in transgressing the lines separating white folks from folks of color as they brought enslaved Africans to this country to work for them.

And as we know well from many documents during the slave period, not only did white people find it perfectly possible to overcome their theological objections to racial mixing when it came to importing and using African slave labor in the United States, but they also found it eminently possible to overlook those objections when it came to certain matters of fact that ensue when one mixes people of one race with another in systems of forced labor that subject people of one race to people of another race: as anyone could have predicted, the forced enslavement of Africans and their importation to the American colonies immediately resulted in racial mixing that continued throughout the slave period. Mixing in which white masters, for the most part, forced black women enslaved to them to submit to their sexual advances and to bear their children.

As I say, the official understanding of racial relations enshrined in the law of states like Arkansas in the 1890s conveniently overlooked the actual history of racial relations for several centuries in the United States, as it forbade the legal marriage of people of different races. This official understanding conveniently clutched at a handful of carefully chosen biblical passages that supported its cynical and cruel denial of the right of marriage to mixed-race couples, while conveniently ignoring the plethora of texts (about love, justice, and mercy) that exposed the white majority’s refusal to permit interracial marriage as hypocritical and, well, cynical and cruel.

And so here’s what happened when my cousin’s wife died in 1890 in Arkansas. Because my cousin was a man of color, and because his wife had been white, the state refused to acknowledge that the two had been husband and wife. Though the state of Ohio had recognized them as a legally married couple twenty years previously . . . .

This meant, of course, that the children of this legally married couple were illegitimized by Arkansas law. Since their parents were not recognized as legally married in Arkansas—since they could not be legally married in Arkansas (or anywhere in the American South, or in most states of the Union) at the time—their father had to appeal for guardianship when his wife died. He had to appeal for guardianship of his own children. Of his own legal children. Of his own heirs.

He had to go to court, pretending to be a disinterested party who, for whatever reason, had an interest in the well-being of these nine children, and swear with witnesses who gave bond along with him that he would see to the care and education of these orphaned minors. The court documents giving him guardianship of his own children never once mention that he was their father. They could not mention this, without making a mockery of the entire proceedings—of the bizarre requirement that a father petition for the guardianship of his own children.

As if he had been nothing at all to their mother—certainly not her husband. As if he were nothing at all to these children—certainly not their father.

As if he and his wife had not been married but “married.”

As they in fact were in Arkansas at this period—and as they were in the eyes of a majority of Americans at this point in time. “Married.” Certainly not married.

And then nine years later he was murdered.

And I wonder how much has changed in the century or so following these tragic events, which made the life of this family (and of similar families) exceptionally painful. Unnecessarily painful. Painful in the name of God.

I wonder what has changed with the churches, in particular. Whether they’ve learned, many of them, that inflicting such pain on human beings who want merely to love one another and provide for one another is atrocious.

And even more atrocious when we claim to be inflicting that pain in the name of God.

The picture is a picture of my cousin as a young man, around the time of his marriage in 1870.