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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121

The Persistent Legacy of Slavery

Farewell paints a vivid picture of racism in early-twentieth-century Wharton, Texas. The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful presence, and the narrator describes seeing them pass his house during his childhood. Seeing the Klan, and even going to a Klan meeting, would have been normal at that time.

I took all of this for granted, if I wondered about it at all, as I accepted all the evils of segregation… Lynching of blacks had mostly ended by 1914, but once in a while one lynching or another would be recalled… I don’t remember anyone saying how terrible they were…

Mistreatment of African Americans was so commonplace that many whites, although kind and affable to other whites, did not even recognize the injustices they perpetrated on people of color. When oil companies were paying farmers for mineral rights on their lands, one white doctor in town swindled many African-American families by buying their rights at a fraction of their value and leasing them to the oil companies. This shocked Foote, as the doctor was considered a genial and well-liked man.

Foote’s family, especially on his mother’s side, held unusually progressive views on race. His father, Big Horton, had many African-American customers at his men’s store. But Foote had two personal encounters that showed him the depth of the damage done by Wharton’s white community’s racist ways. Foote met an elderly man who was born a slave on his maternal great-grandfather’s plantation. Up until that moment, he was aware of slavery as an abstract reality in other people’s stories, but this encounter broadened this view.

But as I looked into that man’s tired, sorrowful face, I was shocked to realize that this abstraction, spoken of so lightly, was a living, suffering human being.

Fifty years later, looking at a book of letters written by slaves, he found several written by a woman owned by this same ancestor.

In a conversation with my master he says he is willing to take a woman in exchange for me, of my age, and capacity or he will under the circumstances take nine hundred dollars in cash for me.

Foote speculates on how people—many of them well-educated and adherent to Christian values—could not see the wrongness of a system that allows the trade of people as property.

Personal Failure

Farewell tells of Foot’s maternal uncles—Brother, Speed, and Billy—who led “wasted, tragic lives.” Despite their coming from a well-to-do family with every advantage at their disposal, including family support, private education, and a mother who paid their bills and set up their businesses, they failed. Alcoholism and irresponsibility went hand-in-hand for these “boys,” as they were perhaps fittingly known until their death. Brother’s marriage fell apart when his drinking debts caused him to mortgage and nearly lose the farm his mother gave him to manage. He spent the rest of his life shuffling between low-paying jobs away from his wife and son; he died on a farm on which he worked as a laborer. Speed drank and got in trouble with the law, but still his mother set him up in business. After three years, he walked away from his business and never worked again. Billy studied law and his mother established him in a practice, with an office and the law books he would need, but when clients did not magically appear within the first two days of his practice, he abandoned the endeavor.

Hard work seems a foreign concept to these men, and Foote holds them up as representative of their socioeconomic group at that time in the South. These sons of once-prominent families lacked work ethic, which lack seems to be the result of the manner in which they were raised and the expectations set for them.

The wealthier families sent their sons to college, and if the young men came back to Wharton to live, they would go out to the country twice a week, like their fathers before them, to see how the tenants were doing on their farms. This passive arrangement led these young men to feel like rich landowners. They never developed marketable skills, and they led empty, dissolute lives. They were often indolent and arrogant, and many of them became drunkards or compulsive gamblers.

By contrast, Big Horton taught his son the lessons of frugality and hard work by pointing out the differences in how various farmers handled new wealth when the oil companies leased their mineral rights. Some sought advice, invested wisely, and prospered. Others burned through their money and wound up nearly destitute.

However, the narrator acknowledges that not all disappointment is the result of a failure of character. Sometimes even hardworking, well-intentioned people experience loss. For example, Mr. Gifford was a diligent banker shot by a foreclosed-on bank client.

Familial Support

Almost any chronicle of family history recognizes the importance of family, and Farewell is no different. Foote portrays his own family as a close-knit unit who support and love one another. The estrangement between Harriet Foote and her parents after she eloped was healed when she had her first child, because her parents wanted to support her. Her father even built a home for the new family to give them security and a comfortable life. Big Horton supported his son’s dream by sending him to acting school, even giving up a chance at what turned out to be a lucrative investment in the burgeoning Texas oil industry to pay his tuition.

Foote’s family’s support of his career ambitions did not end with money. In his interim year between high school and his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse, he lived with his aunt, who welcomed him into her home despite her family’s limited means. His grandmother even rented a house to be near them as he transitioned to his adult life.

His grandmother’s tireless support of her family is recounted throughout the book. Beyond the assistance she gave her boys, whether helpful or destructive, she was a rock of aid and encouragement for all of her kin. As Foote describes her:

She was loyal beyond belief to her brothers and sisters and to my grandfather’s family, and it was to her they all came in times of trouble or tragedy… while she was alive I had the secure feeling that if I ever needed anything I could call or write her to tell her of my need, and she would see to it that it was taken care of.

Throughout his memoir, Foote illustrates the constitutive power of the family, showing how, in his case, his family deeply determined his character and course in life.

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