It’s difficult to know how to begin. Or where. Or when. Or why.
It’s also difficult to know when to stop.
I can go back in time, through the official records of birth and death, to August 7th, 1865 in Newbern, Tennessee. I can begin when and where Jesse Flowers Nichols, my great-great-grandfather did. It’s a good place to begin, in fact, possibly the best, because I can’t go back any further with certainty because the official records are mysterious, incomplete, or both. I can go back only this far, because on March 19, 1951, at Los Angeles County General Hospital, attending physician Lawrence M. Juday signed a death certificate stating that Jesse Flowers died of acute circulatory failure at age eighty-five, and on this death certificate also lists the date and place of his birth. Normally, a death certificate would provide family names to place in history, clues to other documents that would confirm the threads of heritage, but under name and birthplace of the father, as well name and birthplace of the mother, Jesse Flowers’ death certificate only says, “Unk. Nichols Tenn.”
Newbern, Tennessee, located in Dyer County, the state’s Western-most county, carved out of Chickasaw territory in 1823, after a hundred years of bad-faith treaties, forced removal, and genocide, is, then, the first place I can accurately claim as part of my father’s side of the family. August 7, 1865, is the first moment in time.
It’s nice—it feels good—to begin with official clarity on August 7th, 1865, four months after General Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to General Grant. I would like to definitively say the name I bear and that I’ve given my three children begins in Newbern, Tennessee, cleanly, 155 years ago, but it wouldn’t be true—in the same way it isn’t true that the Civil War ended on that day in Appomattox, in no small part because the Confederate dream of white supremacy and racial capitalism didn’t end on that day; in fact a monument to this dream was erected forty years later in 1905 and still stands at the Dyer County Courthouse.
I can go back five years before August 7, 1865, to the 1860 census and find three Nichols men of age in Dyer County before the war and before Jesse Flowers, two of whom could presumably be my great, great, great, great grandfather.
In 1860, J.W. Nichols was a 33-year-old farmer living in the 14th civil district of Dyer County. The census lists his personal value as $270. He lived with a 35-year-old female, M.A. Nichols, and three children under the age of ten, listed as P., A.F., and M.A.E. That J.W. and M.A. could have another child five years later is plausible, though M.A. would have been forty at the time, so it does seem unlikely. Also unlikely is A. Nichols, a Dyer County farmer who was fifty-four years old in 1860. He would then have been a Methuselahian sixty-one years old when Jesse Flowers was born, so in that year before the Civil War, he, like M.A. and J.W., would have most likely had more of his life behind him than in front of him. I could say I tried my best to pursue the bloodline only to fail, but the census does, in that same 1860 household, list a sixteen-year-old laborer named B.M. Nichols.
B.M. would have been twenty-one on August 7, 1865, when Jesse Flowers was born. He would have had more of his life, as a father and farmer and whatever else that has remained undocumented, ahead of him. The 1860 census also includes thirty-five members of the Flowers family in Dyer County, with, as the apparent patriarch, seventy-year-old N. Flowers. N. was a farmer with a real estate value listed at $280 and a personal value of $400. In his household, the census also lists a 28-year-old female, E. Saunders, whose occupation is noted as “Idiot.”
Of these thirty-five Flowers relations, the census lists thirteen women and girls in Dyer County, including M.F. Flowers, age sixteen, who could plausibly have been my great, great, great, great grandmother, as well as other Flowers women who would have been of child-bearing age in 1865—N.E., N.C., M.J., S., M.A., P., and N. There was also farmer J.C.’s daughters, V., age five, M.J., age seven, and M.F., age nine, who lived three doors down from sixteen-year-old B.M. Nichols. My best guess is that this M.F. is my great-great-great-grandmother.
By 1860, the Flowers, living in Tennessee, had a combined real estate value of $1300 and were a larger and more prosperous family than the Nichols, who had no real estate and little personal value listed in the census. Unlike J.L. Davidson and Thomas Woods, none of the Nichols men listed their occupations as “overseeing,” rather they were “farmers” and “laborers,” and so would have been presumably happy with a match between one of their boys and a rich Flowers girl.
In September of 1861, at the start of the Civil War, the federal government mapped the slave distribution of the Southern states based on the “slave census” of 1860, and made it available to the public. Proceeds from the sale of the map went to benefit the “sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army.” The distribution shows there were 251 total slaves in Dyer County, Tennessee in 1860, and further research into the census itself shows that while “Nichols” is not one of the listed slave owner names in Dyer County, the Flowers family is listed as owning two slaves, both with the listed first name “B.A.” one age thirteen and one fourteen.
Most likely then, sometime between 1860 and 1865 in Dyer County Tennessee, B.M. Nichols and M.F. Flowers fell in some kind of love. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
While there’s no record of Nichols men in Dyer County, young or old, fighting on either side of the Civil War, Coleman Flowers, a relation of some kind, fought in the Confederate 22nd infantry and died at Shiloh, a fact that either shows Coleman to be an iconoclast or a representative of the rest of the clan’s sentiment.
Tennessee voted on secession in February of 1861 and voted strongly against remaining in the Union in theory but nevertheless descending into bloodshed across the state, especially along the Mississippi River.
William Nichols and M.O. Neely’s two-year-old son, Paul, died on July 12, 1917, of bronchial pneumonia. His death certificate lists him as “white” though further digging shows that he was buried on July 13 in what the official record calls the “colored cemetery.” As far I can tell Wiliam isn’t a direct relation, though his name on the death certificate is a reminder of the unclaimed heartbreak, tragedy, rape, and death white people dragged behind them in their wake.
While to me, a white man, it seems impossible not to center whiteness in this sketch of my white male family history, the brief life of Paul flashes like lightning to expose the uncanny parallel history ignored by white minds, unreal to white eyes, like the microfilm image of Jesse Flowers’ death certificate where instead of the black marks set against the whiteness of the official form, I read the white words in black context and see them more clearly for the contrast.
This is not to suggest duplicating the harm with the roles somehow reversed, but to estrange the senses for an instant to show another reality was—and maybe still is—possible.
Where does blood begin? When does money? Is it only when it enters circulation and moves through a system of exchange that it becomes real? Or does it exist before then as an idea of what is possible? When does it end? When it stops moving? Or does blood only become real when it’s out of circulation and shocked bright outside the system? On your hands? This tea tastes like I have a coin in my mouth as my white hand writes in black ink this question: Can writing open up possibility or only foreclose other possibilities? By speaking, what am I silencing? Can I be in the room without becoming the room? To de-center whiteness I have to stray from my story and encroach on what isn’t mine to tell.
What does white mean here? If I could trace the transactions back, where would they begin? What imagined beginnings would I uncover? Back across the North Atlantic to a pale Anglo tribe on a rocky shore? What first transaction entered them into circulation?
When did their movements become transactions?
When did that pale Anglo idea enter circulation?
When does the movement of blood become a transaction? When does circulation become a system of exchange?
It’s hard to know how to begin but it might already have been determined by economics, and so I should just let the market decide.
It’s hard to know how to end once the blood begins to flow and the system gets up and running. I sometimes can’t stop my thoughts from rushing. On August 7, 1865, a nickel was worth three cents.
Travis Nichols is a writer and editor living in Georgia. He is the author of four books, including The More You Ignore Me (Coffee House Press) and Iowa (Letter Machine Editions), and has worked for the Poetry Foundation, Greenpeace USA, and the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour. He is still on Twitter (for now)