Family history, distilled: My ancestor Nathan “Nearest” Green, Jack Daniel’s and my dad’s sobriety

Our fingers kissed cufflinks, watches and his Serenity Prayer coin. My brother and I sought knowledge through my father’s belongings, as we packed up his apartment after his death. Starched clothes, suits protected by plastic bags from the dry cleaner, button-down shirts ready to wear all stood in his closet on hanger after hanger.

Once when I was home from college, my dad picked me up for a lunch date. He stepped out of his Ford pick-up wearing a loud blue plaid button-down shirt.

“You kinda bright today,” I greeted his smile.

“I’m a star, I gotta shine,” he laughed. I laughed too — partly at him, partly with him.

In memoriam of his self-image, I wanted two of his shirts to tuck between the blouses and skirts in my own closet. To keep him close, to hear his smiling voice and corny jokes, to see him.

In his file cabinet, I found his personal papers, organized, and folders labeled with his precise cursive script. His letters were round, fat and yet distinct as they touched and agreed. A thin, aged brown envelope held my grandmother’s birth certificate from which I learned her first name was Ora, not the middle name she used in day-to-day living, Charlene. My grandfather Charles Green’s birth certificate was not in the file cabinet. But there was a copy of his Enlisted Record and Report of Separation with an Honorable Discharge designation from the Army. He was separated from military service in January of 1946, a few short months after the end of World War 2. My father had told me about letters my grandfather had written while he was in the service.

“He had a buddy who had a lady back home in Wartrace, Tennessee. His buddy couldn’t write, so your grandfather wrote letters for him. Well, when he [my grandfather] went back home, he wanted to see this young lady he had been writing to.”

Lynchburg, my Grandaddy Charles’ home, was a stone’s throw away from Wartrace. He went to the neighboring town and there he met Charlene, who would become my grandmother.

“So he stole his buddy’s girlfriend?” I asked, too young at the time to ask more meaningful questions.

“Well, if that’s how you want to put it,” my dad grinned.

Disheartened that I was unable to find evidence of this beginning to my grandparents’ romance, I laid claim instead to a letter from my grandfather to “Uncle Jesse” and “Aunt Mattie,” who raised him after his mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis at only 39.

These mythical figures sat in large round black frames and adorned the walls of my grandparents’ home even after my grandfather died. They were part of the dining room, perched above the buffet. Uncle Jesse and Aunt Mattie reigned over us at dinner time or when my brother and I ran through the dining room to go out the back door. 

Princely. Proud. An ancestral presence.

In November 1951, Granddaddy Charles wrote to his family about his children (my father was only two at the time, his brother, my Uncle Alton, an infant). I devoured the opportunity to see these men as babies through my grandfather’s eyes. One child followed every move my grandfather made: a father watching his son watching his father. Ever aware of familial duties, my grandfather remarked about Christmas being right around the corner and money being scarce. 

“It take every dime I can get my hands on in order to get by, and then I can’t hardly make it. … I haven’t been feeling to good all this fall, but I do feel some better than I have been, but if it wasn’t for my two baby it wouldn’t matter what happened to me.”

Was depression penned at the tips of his cursive script? What did he not say to Uncle Jesse and Aunt Mattie? Before he was my grandfather, what did this young man Charles say to himself in quiet moments, after his babies were put to sleep?

* * *

In 2016, via the New York Times, Clay Risen stamped pieces of Nathan “Nearest” Green’s legacy into America’s mind through his article, “Jack Daniels Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.” I interrogated Risen’s diction out of habit, but also in an act of reclamation of my ancestor. My great-great grandfather, George Washington Green, was the second son of Nathan “Nearest” Edmund Green.

Here is an excerpt:

Performing an Embrace: Jack Daniel’s recognition of Nathan Green

The author engages in wordplay by referring to an enslaved human as an ingredient. Language is tricky, nebulous, highly interpretative and emotional.

Jack Daniel’s: The first word in the title is about the multi-billion dollar whiskey company that bears Jack Daniel’s name, but is now owned by Brown-Forman. The privilege and power once held by Jack Daniel himself is still pervasive as represented in the syntax of the title; the subject, the company, is performing an action. 

Embraces: Generally, we think of an embrace as an intimate act. One definition offers the image of one holding “(someone) closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection.” How can a living company embrace a dead man? Is this about Nearest Green or Jack Daniel? Risen suggests the embrace is tentatively given in the savvy social media and marketing campaign used to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the company.

Hidden Ingredient: We mostly associate ingredients with substances to make a dish. In playing with words, the author diminishes the role of a key player in the production of the “dish,” Jack Daniel’s whiskey, to make a catchy title. Is there room to hold him (Nathan Green) in any higher esteem than an ingredient?

According to the Jack Daniel’s website, limestone spring water was the impressive ingredient that was essential to the production. The barrel in which the whiskey is placed is even considered an ingredient, albeit one that the distillery makes itself. Jack is named as having “found the perfect mix of corn, rye and barley” to make up this recipe, one that has not changed since Jack “found” the recipe.

Help From: The words “help from” conveniently allow the reader to believe Green “helped” Daniel. Micheal Twitty, cited by Risen, says “if Green taught Daniel, the history of alcohol production by blacks hailed from West Africa.” Because records on Green’s contributions are not easily traced due to his enslaved status, Risen treads carefully, he puts forward the idea that Green “helped” Daniel. 

A Slave: The title ends with the word slave, not an individual, not a name. The definition of a slave puts an individual first: “A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.” Unfortunately, for the sake of brevity, American traditions, ease of use, etc., the term slave is opted for over the word enslaved. The definition of enslaved puts the act first: “cause (someone) to lose their freedom of choice or action.”

Agents with power and money performed egregious acts of oppression on those they enslaved. Let us choose to recognize the act first, and by default the subject who enacted these crimes through the use of the word enslaved. Nearest Green is being acted upon, “embraced,” now much like he was being acted upon, “enslaved,” during his lifetime.

It was important to me to interrogate the language of a system that had long had control over Black bodies and stories. I sent the piece to the Times too late for them to consider it, but I held onto it as my own rejection of certain narratives. An embrace of agency.

My father and I would joke, “How did he get the nickname Nearest? Was he the closest Black man to Dan Call” when Dan needed something? Did Call rename him?

And Uncle? Why was my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather being called “Uncle” by the white enslaver?

Historical documents explain that President Washington called Chef Hercules “Uncle Harkless.” The uncle and aunt designations were often bestowed on enslaved Blacks. Historian George T. Winston called this nomenclature part of the “social intercourse” between Blacks and Whites during slavery.

Where does social intercourse fit in a system of slavery?

In 1901, looking back, it fit snugly in the White imagination as a real thing, instead of as a rhetorical device used to create an illusion of social intercourse in an inhumane environment.

* * *

I wrote a poem once.

The spectators decided
the metaphoric image
that sat in the third stanza
meant to describe the abstract idea
was the agent of my poem.

Granddaddy Charles was born to Reak Henry Green and Parthenia Smith Green, my great-grandparents, in 1922. According to the 15th census records in 1930, neither attended school, but they both could read and write. Parthenia died when Charles was 10; her infant son, Oscar, died less than two months later at just over a year old. My grandfather and his siblings were spread amongst the family to be cared for in the absence of their mother.

Why was my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather being called “Uncle” by the white enslaver?

According to his death certificate, my Great-Grandfather Reak’s cause of death was “arteriosclerotic heart disease due to generalized and coronary arteriosclerosis.” The other significant condition that contributed to his death was “peripheral arteriosclerosis with gangrene of the feet.” The Mayo Clinic describes this as a disease that “occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body (arteries) become thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues.”

It’s a progressive disease that can cause chest pain, leg pain or numbness; gangrene is one of the resultant health effects. The heart falters beneath the weight of excessive alcohol use.

They misread,
because they chose
what they wanted to see.
You will do the same.

Did alcohol numb or exacerbate his pain? There are oral, undocumented stories regarding the Greens’ intimate relationship with alcohol, including Reak’s. What was his story? What were his choices? Spiritual laws, as Dr. Caroline Leaf writes in her book, “Switch On Your Brain,” suggest “…choices will impact not only your own spirit, soul, and body but also the people with whom you have relationships. In fact, it goes even deeper; your choices might impact the generations that follow.”

Reak was the son of my Great-Great-Grandfather George Washington Green, whose father was Nathan “Nearest” Edmund Green. In the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Nathan’s age was 27, which would have made his birth year 1843; in this census, he was listed as born in Maryland. His personal estate value was listed as $450, (approximately $9,378 today) and more than some of the white people listed on census lines near him. In the 1880 Census, Nathan was 60 years old, which would have made his birth year 1820 and his birthplace was listed as Tennessee. Shadows were cast on the fullness of his being via the 23-year birth date disparity recorded in federal documents.

Nathan Green was married to Harriet Lou Flack Green, and they had at least nine children. He worked on a farm in Moore County, Tennessee, according to the 1880 Census. (The soil was great for growing wheat, corn and oats: corn is a primary grain used in Jack Daniel’s whiskey.) So much of his history was lost.

…you, too, will get lost,
Do not trust your internal navigation system to
dictate the correct turns.

You make this poem.
Whatever angle from which you
stand to allow white light
to strike your retina,
exposes you to yourself.
Your shutter speed
will make this poem.

* * *

In “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” Ben A. Green describes the introductory meeting of Jack Daniel to George Washington and Nathan “Nearest” Green: “Jack, this is Uncle Nearest Green,” said Dan Call as he spoke to a coal black Negro, who seemed to be in charge of the still operation. “Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of.”

Since the New York Times article, the Jack Daniel’s website has updated the famed whiskey’s origins. Today, Nathan “Nearest” Green is more prominently acknowledged in his role of teaching Jack Daniel how to make whiskey than he was in 2016. The company acknowledges more history about my ancestors’ relationship with Jack:

“Nearest would work with Jack as his first master distiller until Jack moved his operation to the Cave Spring Hollow sometime after 1881. There, Nearest’s sons George and Eli and his grandsons Ott, Jesse and Charlie continued the Green family tradition, working at Jack’s distillery in the Cave Spring Hollow.”

The Jesse mentioned here was the great-uncle who raised my grandfather, Charles.

Clay Risen helped to establish that enslaved Blacks did play a role in whiskey making in pre-Civil War America. Distilling traditions were brought from Africa. In an episode of the Gastropod podcast, he said:

“A number of enslaved people would illicitly distill. They would have their own stills back in their part of a plantation and that was, depending on the slave owner, depending on the time, accepted or tolerated often as just a way of allowing people to sort of let off steam. So it’s certainly the fact—it’s certainly true that there was a a culture and a tradition of alcohol making, whether it’s brewing or distilling, that an enslaved person would have brought to an endeavor like what became the Jack Daniel’s distillery.”

Risen’s language here again leans towards the enslaver. The enslaved did not have “their part of the plantation.” First, these people, like the land, were considered property. Second, alcohol is a depressant; it slows down mental activity. This language, that use of the drug was “accepted or tolerated” for enslaved peoples has a rhetorical purpose. It paints the enslaver as benevolent, where the benefits of enslaved consumption of a depressant upstage the idea that these people were provided an opportunity to blow off pent-up steam from being enslaved and oppressed. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglas explained, “When a slave is drunk, the slaveholder has no fear that he will plan an insurrection; no fear that he will escape to the north. It is the sober, thinking slave who is dangerous, and needs the vigilance of his master.” 

* * *

In the 1880 census, my Great-Great-Grandfather George Washington Green was listed as 17, which would have made his birth year 1863 (and he was listed as 7 in the 1870 census). However, in Ben A. Green’s book “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” George was described as 10 years old when he met young Jack Daniel in 1853. Daniel was hired to work on Dan Call’s land, while the Greens’ labor was exploited. Lack of records, documentation, power and humanity silenced accurate history.

George Washington Green was named for the first president of the United States. President George Washington enslaved Black people, including his personal chef, Hercules. He transported Hercules back and forth between Mt. Vernon and Philadelphia to ensure that his chef was never on Philadelphia soil for longer than six months at a time. According to the 1780 An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania, enslaved people who were brought to the state by a non-resident were considered free if they were in Pennsylvania for six months or longer. Exploiting the time limit loophole was an exertion of privilege and power. 

Zoom out to see the larger picture, to be uneasy about pride and consciousness in the racist country that my family helped build.

Despite his egregious actions, President George Washington was deeply woven into the nation’s fabric. In 2011, a different Washington wrote an article explaining that the Washington surname was the Blackest name (most common amongst this demographic) in America based on the 2010 census. He cited Adam Goodheart, a professor at Washington College, who explained the trend towards choosing names of American forefathers: “There was a lot more consciousness and pride in American history among African Americans and enslaved African Americans than a lot of people give them credit for. They had a very strong sense of politics and history.”

The 19th-century literature and “slave narratives” we studied in graduate school detailed the atrocities of slavery. I had a 21st-century awareness of a country that systematically robbed and trampled a group of people and I struggled to gaze upon my ancestors embracing American forefathers who participated in the oppression of our racial group. Zooming out, my gaze was from a place of privilege.

They misread,
because they chose
what they wanted to see.

You will do the same.

Zoom in, recognize the naming actions as a symbol of pride in their country. Fresh from enslavement, they had little. The intangibles of national pride, to belong and navigate their lives with agency, were easy to embrace.

Do not trust yourself
to read this correctly.

Zoom out to see the larger picture, to be uneasy about pride and consciousness in the racist country that my family helped build.

Zoom in. Zoom out. Adjust the shutter speed. Let light in.
Do not trust yourself to read this correctly.

I gave my idea a form,
a structure in which to be contained
stanzas, line breaks that were cues.

You are required to open yourself wide
to make this hold together.
You are the center.
But do not trust what you see;
you will not be able to see enough.

* * *

As my fingers caressed my father’s cufflinks and watches, his Serenity Prayer coin, I was saddened that time had escaped us. He was only 55 when he died from heart disease. One sympathy card from my father’s sponsor explained that he knew the family might be wondering, but he wanted to let us know, “Wade had been sober for one year.” His anniversary had just recently passed.

How do systems of slavery, racism and segregation — the sins of my country — bear responsibility for my ancestors’ actions, their thinking, their trauma? As David Love writes, “And while racial oppression has a psychological, multigenerational impact on Black people, it also leaves a biological and genetic imprint in its victims. In other words, research suggests the trauma is embedded in the DNA, changing one’s genetic makeup and becoming transferable to subsequent generations.”

How do I distill this information, these stories into something affirming?

I look at my father’s gold, purple and pink chips emblazoned with 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months from Al Anon. I hold a piece of my dad in the plastic that held his successes. This was evidence of how he tried to traverse valleys created before him. Just like my Uncle Alton, who sought to celebrate his 70th birthday as he was dying with cancer. However, he transitioned four days before the date. They tried to hold onto life to meet that next milestone. When I zoomed out, I saw the “trying,” the process. There was honor in carrying trauma and genetic inheritances and wading onward through the journey.

Read more

essays about fathers


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar