I don’t know what I was looking for when I started researching my ancestry, but what I found was Merica.
Merica, short for America, was part of my seventh-great-grandfather’s household. He likely joined the family after they moved from Caroline County, Va., where Richard Davis was born in 1688, to Granville County, N.C., where Richard died in 1761. Merica remained part of the Davis family into his adult years, when he was called Old America and his son Young America. He took care of Richard’s son Solomon Davis and his four children with such faithfulness that one of Solomon’s dying wishes in 1810 was that “Old America … doctor all my children and their families.”
I know all of this not because of my family’s genealogy but because of its wills and tax records. Merica was, categorically—though certainly not ontologically—property. In Richard Davis’s will, Merica was one of 11 slaves “lent” or “given” to his children. In Solomon Davis’s will, Old America and Young America were two of 39 slaves bequeathed to his children and grandchildren. Solomon’s brother Absalom Davis, my progenitor among Richard’s sons, gave seven slaves to his son, Absalom, Jr. The other items that appear in these wills include land, homes, feather beds, side saddles, cash, bonds, horses, cows, and hogs.
What was it like, I wonder, for Merica to doctor the Davis family, my family, during that time in our nation’s history? The two documents that dictated Merica’s future straddle another document dictating America’s future. Between 1761, when Richard assigned Merica to Solomon’s sister, and 1810, when Solomon assigned Merica to his daughter Mary Ann, the founders declared this nation free from tyranny, free from taxation without representation, free from having our destiny assigned by another, and endowed with unalienable rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. America would be owned by no one. But Merica would.
Did Merica know these stirrings of white freedom on that rural North Carolina farm? Assuming that he was a house slave, did he overhear talk of war with the British, the gathering of a local militia, and the news out of Philadelphia from the Second Continental Congress?
How did these impulses of independence sound against the backdrop of his master Richard’s will, which assigned Lucy, a fellow slave, to his daughter Keziah, with the instructions that Lucy’s children be divided among Keziah’s children after her death? Did freedom ring in his ears as Merica thought of Judy and Isbell, also fellow slaves whose future children Richard predeclared as property of his granddaughters Levinah and Jeriah? When the news of the Boston Tea Party reached Merica, did the rebellion against abused power cause him to think of Minor, the slave that Richard directed to be sold to the highest bidder among his children to fund the welfare of his grandchildren?
The inescapable answer is that I will never know anything about Merica outside his relationship to my family. He has no history, no family tree of his own because his branch was broken off to shore up mine.
Today we use the word ‘Merica with a Southern drawl to refer to unqualified patriotism, that conviction that this is the best country on the planet and you can either love her or move to Canada. It’s a hard working, sweat of the brow, salt of the earth, proud to be an American sentiment. It’s one I once held.
How should I feel now? How should white people process the injustices of our ancestors? What happens when ‘Merica meets Merica? Are we really the greatest nation on earth?
I’m not sure that it matters. Either way, this is our America, just as the Richard Davis family is my family. Any celebration of its greatness can run parallel to our ownership of its sins. It is a complexity that seems to elude our either/or preferences, but neither hagiography nor erasure serve a true rendering of our past.
As for my family, this discovery of slaveholding in my direct line is as propulsive as it is heartbreaking when I consider how the arc has come full circle. Richard’s sons migrated from Virginia to Georgia, where our Davises lived for more than 200 years. While I was born and raised there, I am now planted with my family (pictured above) in Northern Virginia, about 75 miles from Richard’s birthplace. He purchased black slaves. I adopted black children. In his will blacks represented the Davis wealth. In mine they will receive the Davis wealth.
I cannot change Richard Davis’s story, but, with God’s help, I can be part of the plot twist that shifts the narrative. This is my family and my country. Only by owning my past can I work toward a better future.