Jason Byassee: Peculiar institution

The fingerprinted bricks at Stagville Plantation tell the story of slavery, an “institution” difficult to remember well.

I’ve loved arguing for the importance of Christian institutions. We’re in dire need of a new vocabulary for institutions, one that speaks of them as repositories of grace rather than the stock assumption that they’re all Soviet-style faceless soul-crushing forces. Even repositories of grace can cause harm -- you can bludgeon someone with a communion chalice. But that’s not their proper use. Without such a vocabulary for speaking of the graces born to us by institutions, other parts of our Christian vocabulary atrophy. It’s hard to imagine my life without the congregations and camps that shared Christ with me, without the schools that taught me and where I’ve taught, without the hospitals that have patched me up and those I love -- these are all deep goods we’ve forgotten how to praise.

But that doesn’t mean we can simply praise institutions, full stop. There are Soviet-style soul-crushing forces out there (the Soviets themselves come to mind). More importantly, here in the U.S. South, the word “institution” pretty quickly calls to mind the “peculiar institution” that dominated our economy for a quarter of a millennium. It’s the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, which is a hard event to remember well. It may be particularly hard to remember here in North Carolina. More North Carolinians died in the war than residents of any other state. But they didn’t die here -- the major battles were elsewhere, in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, so we don’t have acts of battlefield heroism to recount. Some accounts tell of families trudging up to those sites and searching for their sons in mass graves to bring home to bury.

We didn’t have battles here, but we did have the cause of those battles: slavery. This came home to me anew recently, while learning about Stagville Plantation, a restored antebellum home in Durham. The metrics of slavery somehow fail to stick in the brain. Perhaps Stalin was demonically correct when he said one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic: four million slaves in the U.S. South in 1860, untold millions dead in the middle passage, millions more oppressed by Jim Crow after Reconstruction -- compared to 40,000 (white) war-dead, the numbers stagger. But here’s the detail at Stagville that caught me -- the bricks in the slave quarters, bricks made and then built together into housing, have fingerprints in them. In one place, a slave saw where the break was slightly uneven and pressed it into place with his hands. His specific, inimitable, God-given fingerprint remains. On another brick one can see five toes, small ones, a child’s toes. Perhaps a child (for some reason I think of her as a girl) put her foot on the side of a brick while it was still drying, leaving prints there forever. A tour guide at Stagville explains that African-Americans who visit often put their fingers on those prints and remember.

This is a very different sort of memory than that of those who trudge around battlefields, as I have. It’s a memory of sorrow and deliverance. And it’s one that has to make the word “institution” sit slightly ill in one’s mouth.

The thing is, the end of the peculiar institution only came about because of other institutions. Like the demoniac whom Jesus warned about, if he casts out a demon but no good spirit enters the house, seven more vile ones will come in (Mt 12:45). It took the underground railroad, the African-American church, and ultimately, the U.S. Army, and the Civil Rights Movement to end the peculiar institution and its progeny. And now we have institutions like Stagville to help us remember well.

Institutions are finally about people, like the enslaved little girl, chained but not unable to play or act precociously in ways that mark, quite physically, the work at Stagville in perpetuity. The peculiar institution was a crushing one for her, as for the Israelites who also had to make their own bricks. Thankfully the child was not left to individual resources to lift her or himself up, but other grace-filled institutions, conglomerating the effort of millions and hopes of millions more, did that for her. God bless her memory.