Note from Moderator: Jonathan Odell has given me permission to reprint the following essay. For more of Jon’s creative writings, visit him at http://jon-odell.com/
Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress and Mother to a Movement”
by Jonathan Odell
I can’t help but think of the Old Testament Abraham when I hear stories about Newt Knight. Both men sired children by a wife and a slave. In Newt’s case it was Serena and Rachel. With Abraham, Sara and Hagar. According to religious texts, one of these women went on to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people. Exactly which one depends on what you happen to be reading, your Bible or your Koran. Jews and Christians claim the wife Sarah and Muslims claim the handmaiden Hagar. Several Crusades were launched trying to settle thatmatter.
In Jones County, there’s always been a fierce crusade of competing stories about Rachel, the white account versus the black account. Like most stories, the white interpretation gets written down and called history, while the black story gets handed down by word-of-mouth and called folklore.
Growing up as a white boy, I swore by Ethel Knight’s written-down version. According to her, Rachel was a light-skinned temptress with blue-green eyes and flowing chestnut hair. But evil as the day is long. Ethel alternately calls her a vixen, a witch, a conjure woman, a murderer and a strumpet.
Serena, Newt’s white wife, is but an innocent captive, forced a gunpoint to live in this den of iniquity, and like Newt, powerless as Rachel’s sorcery wrecked and degraded their family.
As a child of Jim Crow, this narrative satisfied my budding sensibilities about race. In my white-bubble world, there could never be any possibility of true love or affection between a white man and a black woman. Nor would any white man sire children by a black woman and then choose to live amongst his mixed-race offspring. Unless of course, the black woman had either seduced him unmercifully or mysteriously conjured him, or both. It just wasn’t possible that he actually loved her, or her children.
Imagine my surprise when I heard, as they say, “the rest of the story.” It was as shocking as sitting down in church and listening to the preacher get up and declare from the pulpit that Abraham’s birthright went to Hagar’s kid Ishmael, instead of Sarah’s son, Isaac, and it was we Christians who were the infidels! Boy would that turn some peoples world upside down!
I felt something akin to this when I listened to a gathering of Rachel’s descendents tell me their side of things. First of all Rachel wasn’t some immoral viper. To Pat and Flo and Peggy, Rachel was a role model—a strong black woman with no legitimate authority in a racist society, doing what needed to be done for her children, regardless of the cost to herself. Somebody you would like your daughter to grow up like.
“Was she the green-eyed slave with long flowing hair like Ethel said?” I asked.
“She was what we called a Guinea Negro,” answered Yvonne, another of Rachael’s great-grandchildren. “That means she was dark, not light-skinned like Ethel writes. She had course hair and she was short. Similar to Australian aborigines. She was mixed, but not white-looking.”
It was beginning to sound like a white conspiracy against Rachel, but then Yvonne let me in on a little secret. Whites weren’t the only ones who liked the story of Rachel appearing white. “That’s the way some of my cousins who pass for white want her to be depicted. They deny that they had any black in them so they don’t want Rachel to be black, either.”
“That was partially Newt’s fault,” Yvonne continued. “My mother said that Newt was trying to cleanse the black out of Rachel’s children. Because of the one-drop rule, he wanted to get rid of that drop of black blood. That’s why he married his white children to each other black children.” Yvonne grins at her relatives around the table. “As for me, I proudly claim my one drop!”
There is a burst of laughter. All these women agree on that point.
“And how about the part about being Rachel being a vixen and a witch?” I asked.
“It was always assumed that the slave was to blame for the husband’s indiscretions,” Yvonne explained. “She had to have some special power over him. It couldn’t be that he cared for her.”
Yvonne was right. That’s what I was always told. Slave owners were mostly noble men and succumbed only when mightily tempted. Why else would Newt isolate himself from his community and willingly be labeled as a deviate if he weren’t bewitched?
“In my family we believe that Newt really loved Rachel,” Pat said.
“It was not a casual relationship,” Yvonne added. “And he loved all of his children. My understanding is that they were all raised up on the same land. They all lived together, played together, ate together. My grandmother was Newt’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know she had a drop of black blood until she was all raised up.”
“I guess you can’t believe everything you read,” I said. “How do the black Knights feel about Ethel’s book?”
“My grandfather was Warren Smith,” Yvonne said, “He was Rachel’s grandson and he said that Ethel’s book was a pack of lies. Said she was smart enough to create an entertaining account of Newt and Rachel’s relationship. But unfortunately,” Yvonne concluded, “white people tend to believe every word.”
Yvonne was right. I sure did. But now I’m not sure what to think. Rachel’s people have got me thoroughly confused. That’s what happens when folks start messing with the stories you were raised on.
So it comes down to that old, nagging question once more—which story is true? The truth is…I don’t know. I think they all might be. The way a story shapes a person is the truest thing there is.
The Italians say it better: All stories are true. Some even happened.
Gregory “Butch” Knight
There is probably no sadder task in the world than trying to get to know your father after he has died. Yet Butch Knight told me that was something he was determined to do.
I first met Butch at a gathering of the Knights who proudly trace their roots back to the ex-slave Rachel and the infamous Newt. Some of their descendants are called “black Knights”. Some are called “white black Knights”, because of their Caucasian features. Their history is complex. They are caught right in the crosshairs of our absurd national obsession with color.
For instance, Butch’s father, Hayston Knight, was the great-grandson of Newt and Rachel Knight. Butch showed me a photo of his father. There was nothing in the picture that would cause me to think this man black. His features were of a light-skinned, fine-boned white man. Butch said many of the Knights with his father’s appearance were encouraged to leave the area so they could pass for white, and raise their children as white. Of course they could never return home, lest their children discover their ancestry. The break had to be complete. Those who stayed were pressured into choosing marriage partners with their shade of pigmentation or lighter. Never darker.
“Not my father,” Butch recalled. “He said that foolishness was going to stop with him. He said he wanted to marry the blackest woman he could find. He was going to break the cycle.”
Butch said his father never denied who he was. On his first day in the army, Hayston’s sergeant ordered all the whites in one line and all the blacks in another. When Hayston placed himself with the other black soldiers, the sergeant shouted, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, only the n______’s over there!”
Hayston said defiantly, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place because I’m a n______!”
In the 1950’s Hayston got a job with a local grocery wholesaler and because of his intelligence and his white appearance was given significant responsibility in managing the operation. He was also put in charge of breaking in the new white trainees, who were inevitably promoted over Hayston. The family believed that the stress and the humiliation sent him to an early grave.
“My daddy wasn’t proud. He could have passed,” Butch says. “I wanted to write about my father. How he had to live in the black world and work in the white world.”
Butch admits being ashamed of his father while he was alive, seeing one white man after the other promoted over him. And his father never talked back.
“I admire him now,” Butch admits, with tears in his eyes. “He did it for us, his children. So he could support his family.”
“I’m starting to understand the struggle he had to go through,” Butch continued, “Not white enough to be accepted by whites. And too white to be accepted by blacks.”
I encouraged Butch to write about his father, as I’m doing with my dad after losing him last year to cancer. Sometimes it’s a lonely undertaking, with many ghosts, especially those missed moments when feelings went forever unspoken. But writing it down seems to help soothe the grief.
I didn’t need to encourage him. Butch had already begun the research. He even went so far as to sit down with Ethel Knight, the author of Echo of the Black Horn, to see what he could learn from her about his father.
“What did you think about her book?” I asked.
“Lies,” he said, referring to the way she denied the black descendants of Newt Knight in her book. “But when I went to see her, she treated me like long lost kin. It was very strange.”
I offered to work with Butch on his father’s biography. I could tell he was feeling some sense of urgency. Then he explained. Butch’s father died when he was 58. “An aneurism. Runs in family,” Butch said. “Comes from both sides.” Butch went on to say that this year, he had turned 58. “I’m shaking in my boots.” His sisters who were present that day assured Butch that wouldn’t be the case for him. Butch didn’t appear comforted. I got the sense that he thought he might have waited until it was too late to discover the truth about his father.
Butch and I agreed to meet the next time I was in Mississippi and continue our discussion about his dad. I put together a list of questions for Butch and was excited about dedicating a chapter in my upcoming book about his search for his father. When I called from Minnesota to arrange a meeting, his sister answered the phone.
“Butch died last month,” she said. “He collapsed while he was out mowing his yard.”
I wasn’t sure why that hit me so hard. In a way, it was like losing my father all over again. Perhaps I had hoped that by helping Butch discover his dad, in the process, I could also become closer to mine.
But that’s not to be. Perhaps, in the end, that is something a person can do only for himself. And maybe, looking for our fathers is like looking for our reflection in a mirror that has gone dim. We can never get close enough to make it out.
I’ll miss my friend, and I hope that where he is now, the reflection he gazes upon is bright and true, and he has found the answers was searching for.
For more columns on the Knights, white and black, see:
By Jon Odell