Jun 12, 2012

Digitization Project: Keziah Brevard, Plantation Mistress in a World of Toil and Strife

I just finished a project for the Digital Collections Library at USC, digitizing a journal of a South Carolina woman and plantation owner named Keziah Brevard who documented her life right at the beginning of the civil war.  Many people who grow up in the south become fascinated with this time period, especially if you are a boy.  It seems pretty cool to idealistic young eyes with its world of infinite battles, brave soldiers, dashing officers and some of the best facial hair ever to grace humanity.  I was also enraptured by it during a certain stage of my life, but at some point one realizes what the south was ultimately fighting for and the horrifying levels of carnage inflicted upon young, ignorant boys, fresh off the farm looking for an escape from toil, for the one percent's way of life.

Frequently a number of people want to say that the war was fought over states rights, but I think that they know deep down that this is BS. Some feel the need to gloss over things so that they will feel good inside when they perform their ancestor worship (There's no reason why you can't find your great-great grandfather interesting, just don't try to try to change history in the process).  Keziah Brevard's journal really and truly paints a picture of what the war was about.  She time and again speaks of the war about to break out over slavery in her deeply religious, melancholic way.  She speaks from a truly unique vantage point, one that shatters the monolithic image of idle slaver owners sitting in their mansion courting and fawning.  This woman worked her butt off right beside her slaves.  She was a childless widow that lived by herself on a plantation with maybe 200 enslaved Africans.  You wonder from her writings whether she owns them or they own her.  One family seems to have made themselves in charge of the other slaves and frequent violence occurs that she can't control.  Also from her writings you get the feeling that she knows that this is a pathological way of doing things, and she repeatedly laments about having slaves.  She resents them and they resent her.  That doesn't mean that she wants to free them nor does she want some northern army of abolitionists to come and emancipate them.  This woman is hard as nails and probably manic depressive,  which she fights by working her fingers to the bone, lamenting to God constantly, and writing in her journal about her daily toils or lists about eggs, hams, and turkeys.  Only rarely is there any crack in this dark veneer. One time she admits to allowing a young slave girl name Sylvia to sleep in her bed on cold nights because the girl is so afraid of the cold.  But is she being kind or is she just desperate to be close to another person in a world where she is surrounded by people but yet is so completely alone?  The manuscript is a rich trove of life during this period, one that shows the lives of of African Americans that  is usually absent from the record.  It also reveals the world of slavery as not some monolithic gang labor system but varied throughout South Carolina each with it own unique pathologies.

Keziah ends her journal with the start of the shelling of Fort Sumter and thus the beginning of a war that she thought was foolhardy, but it leaves me wishing that there was more.


  1. Sounds very interesting, can I read this journal online?

  2. Found it, and already reading it.

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