President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., declared Juneteenth a federal holiday in celebration of the official end of legalized slavery in the United States of America on June 18, 2021. More than a decade before that momentous event, the late author Robert T.S. Mickles, Sr. (1953-2021) published the novel Blood Kin, A Savannah Story. Mickles’ novel takes readers inside the painful ambiguities of slavery as his ancestors, some of whom were slaves, and some of whom were slave traders, experienced them. The following foreword from Blood Kin is the first of two statements scheduled to acknowledge Mickles’ enduing literary legacy, and, in observance of Juneteenth 2022.
Foreword to Blood Kin, A Savannah Story
As this book goes into publication (2007), the city of Savannah is involved in the process of reinterpreting the significance, artifacts, and impact of slavery that was practiced here during the 1700s and 1800s. This reinterpretation is not so much
about dredging up the pains and shames of an inglorious past as it is about setting straight the historical record of people who lived daily through “the peculiar institution of slavery.” As much as facts tell us about specific events and practices in history, they rarely give us the full story of the human hearts beating in the shadows of those events.
Blood Kin is a story of those human hearts as told by Robert T.S. Mickles, Sr.,
great-grandson of former slaves on his father’s side of his family and a descendant of Portuguese slave traders on his mother’s side. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1953, Mickles moved with his family to Washington D.C. just three years later. Growing up in Washington, he knew nothing about his deeper southern roots. That changed when he turned thirteen years old and his mother sent him back to Savannah to live with his father in the city’s historic community of Sandfly.
In Savannah, his grandmother, Mrs. Beulah Tremble, told him stories of what
life had been like for slaves in the region. Having been born in 1888, first-hand
accounts of slavery were typical subjects of conversation while she grew up herself. She kept and shared the knowledge passed on to her until her death at the age of 100 in 1988. Mickles recalls that many of her stories were about harsh
times, but a lot were about days of memorable joy. In addition to his grandmother, many others shared their stories with Mickles throughout his teen years, entrusting to him a rare treasury of valuable folk history.
With the legacy of his grandmother’s stories and his community’s history,
Mickles stepped behind Savannah’s fabled “moss curtain” to reveal an original literary vision of human beings discovering their deepest humanity in the midst of war, racial oppression, individual fear, and individual hope.
Although Savannah for a period was a major location for the import and sale of slaves, Mickles shows how it was also a place where the line between those who were “free” and those who were enslaved was sometimes a bit more relaxed than in many rural areas of the South. This is not to say that the author excuses an institution ultimately responsible for the death of untold millions, or that he views slavery through proverbial rose-colored glasses. It is, however, to say that he is willing to examine the cracks and crevices of history in order to tell a story others might not be willing—or even able, for that matter—to tell. It is the story of how Blacks and Whites stumbled across the dividing lines of race and slavery only to discover that each was as flawed, needy, and human as the other.
Above all, Mickles provides us with an insightful novel of how our sense of
humanity preserves itself when assaulted with the degradation of denial, shame,
and physical brutality. His Blood Kin is a story that retrieves dignity from the
trash pile of disgrace and restores it to a place of honor and value. It is one with
which many can identify and which, quite possibly, all should embrace.