Golden Thread The Plantation Mistress: The Misrepresentation and Myth of the "Southern Belle"

RobertP

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Nov 11, 2009
Location
Dallas
I think Davis probably got a lot more than he bargained for when he married spunky Varina (and she certainly did as well). In my opinion he always lacked self-awareness, something very different from heightened awareness. He seemingly lacked the ability to understand other people and how they perceived him. This is evidenced by his attitude and reactions to Varina. I'm not sure sure she ever forgave Old Jeff for taking her to visit his first wife's grave on their honeymoon. Talk about a romance killer. That would definitely do it for most ladies. I know it would for me. Yikes!
There was a thread sometime back with a discussion on Knoxie and I remember being smitten with this portrait.

IMG_2099.JPG

She looked exactly like MrsP did when I first met her across the aisle in 12th grade math class! Yes, I married waaay above my batting average.
 
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gary

Captain
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Dedej - have you ever come across a memoir, diary or letter from a southern woman who resented the fact that her husband was having his way with his female slaves? It's always puzzled me and certainly they must have been aware of it and perhaps even tolerated it resentfully.
 
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damYankee

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 12, 2011
My children, in their late 30's, cannot understand the culture I grew up in -- central Texas in the '50s and '60s. We had a black high school, a "Mexican" high school, a Catholic high school and three white high schools. Through college, I never had a class with a black or Hispanic, do not remember any Catholics and knew only 2 Jews. The white, Protestant world I grew up in (prayer and pledge every morning at the start of school, no crime, no unemployment, etc) cannot be understood by my daughters or their husbands.

I think we have the same problem understanding life 150 years ago. No matter how much we study it, we cannot understand the environment that was a part of each person's life. Its worth the effort to try to understand, but don't think you ever really do.

I grew up in the same time frame in Southern California and had an entirely different experience. I wonder how much of our perceptions of our childhood is misinterpreted or just an illusion. Unemployment was around in the 50's and 60's as was crime, but the family unit was more closely knit, news coverage was limited. National news in the 50's was 15 minutes. Many cities didn't even have local TV stations. We moved from San Diego to Indio, a town that had no local TV broadcast, news came from L.A. over 100 miles away.
But my perception was as a white kid.
 

damYankee

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 12, 2011
Dedej - have you ever come across a memoir, diary or letter from a southern woman who resented the fact that her husband was having his way with his female slaves? It's always puzzled me and certainly they must have been aware of it and perhaps even tolerated it resentfully.

Society was so different than today we can not fully appreciate the privilege bestowed on white men of that era in general and white men living in the Antebellum life style as a plantation owner.
Not to paint with too wide of a brush, with the exception of a few strong willed individual women the odds of a female having any voice in civic events or in the home was rare.
No voting rights in any state, property rights limited in some states, in some states and territories only by petitioning the court could a woman own property. We have no clue what life for women was like then.
Which makes stories about those who went against the norm even more impressive.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Dedej - have you ever come across a memoir, diary or letter from a southern woman who resented the fact that her husband was having his way with his female slaves? It's always puzzled me and certainly they must have been aware of it and perhaps even tolerated it resentfully.

I am pretty sure I did. Going to go through my notes and post later. Below are some accounts just confirming most knew of their husbands actions - and chose to deal in different ways towards the enslaved.

As traveler William Blane commented in 1824, “Indeed in the Southern States, the ladies would be very angry, and turn anyone out of society, who kept a white woman for his mistress; but would not scruple even to marry him, if he had a colored one, and a whole family of children by her.”29 One family eager for a marriage between a young man in his twenties and a much younger girl arranged for him to maintain a black mistress until his fiancée reached marriageable age. Rumors flew.

In 1828, Sarah Haysworth Gayle wrote in her diary of a neighbor: “His children and his son’s children are their slaves, and probably, nay I think I heard, that his child and his grand-child have one mother.”30 Fanny Kemble observed tartly, “t seems, indeed, as if marriage (and not concubinage) was the horrible enormity which cannot be tolerated, and against which, moreover, it has been deemed expedient to enact laws. Now it appears very evident that there is no law in the white man’s nature which prevents him from making a colored woman the mother of his children, but there is a law on his statute books forbidding him to make her his wife.”31

This social phenomenon became such a problem that fathers often sent their sons north to school. As one southern merchant told landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, “I tried to get my brother to send them [his sons] North with me to school. I told him he might as well have them educated in a brothel at once, as in the way they were growing up.”32

Many a slave owner’s wife was humiliated by the daily presence of her husband’s black mistress(es); her children and theirs played together and often looked much alike. In 1824, a woman sought a divorce shortly after her wedding; her husband had just told her “that he had two mulatto children who were more comely and handsome than any she would ever have and that he would bring the [slave] mother and her children home. . . . In a few more days this negro woman and two mulatto children were brought upon the plantation.

They were received by her husband with much interest and shew of affection. He now again acknowledged the children openly, and admitted the eldest to every act of familiar intercourse of which its age was capable. He would take it upon his knee, and instructed it to abuse your unhappy applicant and place her under the most positive and threatening injunction not to correct it—declaring his strong attachment for the mother and stating that the two children were his and that he meant to do more for them, upon principle, than for his lawful children.”44 Slavery in America By Dorothy Schneider, Carl J. Schneider


================

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a large journal that a plantation mistress in Georgia [Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas] had generated between 1848 and 1889. So it's a big document. And in that document I found: She was aware that her husband was involved with a woman of color, probably over the generations, and that the husband and the slave woman had had a child, about the same age as her son. The mistress never wants to admit that she knows about this relationship and that it troubles her. But the issue of competition between women appears over and over and over in the journal.

And at one point, after the Civil War, she's looking out on a field and she's seeing her son (whom she feels, of course, should be in college) plowing. And he's plowing with the slave woman's child. And the slave woman's boy, he's not in college either. But the mistress feels that there's a competition between these two boys, and the fact that they are both in the field plowing shows how her son has fallen and this other woman's son is poised to rise. So she has a complicated psychological dynamic that comes out of this kind of complicated family.

This same woman tried to erase a story out of her journal. It's a moment when she really is most tortured. And in this moment, she realizes that not only she is involved in adulterous triangle, but also her mother had been. That is, her father had a slave woman, and had had children by another woman. So in 1864, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (known as Gertrude Thomas) is reading the will that her father has left. He'd just died in 1864. And she realizes that she stands to inherit her half-brothers and sisters. This woman is a devout Methodist, realizes all the terrible Biblical problems here, and the moral issues. And she's completely destroyed by the idea that she could own her brothers and sisters. But this kind of monstrous situation was one that came out of the dynamics of slavery time and time again.


Source:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i3084.html


==============

One Alabama mistress returned to live with her parents because her husband abandoned her bed to "embrace a Negro woman belonging to him. Similarly, a South Carolina mistress brought a suit against her husband and claimed that he daily insulted her and encouraged his slave mistress to do the same.

Light-skinned children were sometimes sold by irate slave mistresses who suspected or knew were fathers. When a child was not involved some women took direct revenge out on the slave. Many of the ex-slaves who had unfavorable memories of the mistress were light-skinned black women who unwittingly incurred the mistresses emnity.
Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Revised Edition)

-==================

James Henry Hammond, a famous Southerner, was involved in a close and extensive sexual relationship with one of his slaves, as well as her daughter. His wife, Catherine, became deeply bitter about Hammond's infidelity and "attempted to end [the liaison] by demanding the sale or effective banishment of his slave mistresses.

Despite the fact that Hammond never did sell the slaves, this instance reveals important aspects of mistress-slave relations in the antebellum south. Neither Catherine nor the slaves who were the victims of Hammond's sexual coercion were able to force the master to take any action, whether it be the cessation of his sexual advances or the sale of the slaves. Thus, all women involved were forced to submit to Hammond's ultimate demands. Yet, instead of empathizing with the plight of the slaves, Catherine instead chose the only option that would allow her to maintain the facade of a genteel southern woman, which was to punish the slave women by attempting to have them sold away from the plantation where they had family or close friends.

Source: https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/elements/article/viewFile/9016/8134



-===============

An interview with Hannah Plummer revealed a particularly brutal aspect of slave-mistress relations. Hannah described how her mother had been subject to her mistress' violence, stating, "Missus Caroline whupped her most every day, and about anything. Mother said she could not please her in anything, no matter what she done or how hard she tried. Missus would go up town and come back and whup her." xxx n In fact, Hannah's mother was so badly treated, that on one occasion, Miss Caroline went up town, an' come back mad. She made Mother strip down to her waist, and then took a carriage whup an' beat her until the blood was runnin' down her back. Mother said she was afraid she would kill her, so she ran for the woods and hid there, and stayed there for three weeks.

Whether she was so cruel to Hannah Plummer's mother because of a sexual relationship with her husband is something we cannot glean from the interview itself. There were, however, no other mentions throughout the interview of "Missus Caroline's" brutality towards other slaves. Moreover, most mistresses saw their female slaves as subhuman and did not take into account the psychological damage that may have been caused by rape. xxxl v Because of this dehumanization of their slave women, it was much easier for mistresses to let their anger and frustrations out on the vulnerable slaves.


Source: https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/elements/article/viewFile/9016/8134
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
I am pretty sure I did. Going to go through my notes and post later. Below are some accounts just confirming most knew of their husbands actions - and chose to deal in different ways towards the enslaved.

As traveler William Blane commented in 1824, “Indeed in the Southern States, the ladies would be very angry, and turn anyone out of society, who kept a white woman for his mistress; but would not scruple even to marry him, if he had a colored one, and a whole family of children by her.”29 One family eager for a marriage between a young man in his twenties and a much younger girl arranged for him to maintain a black mistress until his fiancée reached marriageable age. Rumors flew.

In 1828, Sarah Haysworth Gayle wrote in her diary of a neighbor: “His children and his son’s children are their slaves, and probably, nay I think I heard, that his child and his grand-child have one mother.”30 Fanny Kemble observed tartly, “t seems, indeed, as if marriage (and not concubinage) was the horrible enormity which cannot be tolerated, and against which, moreover, it has been deemed expedient to enact laws. Now it appears very evident that there is no law in the white man’s nature which prevents him from making a colored woman the mother of his children, but there is a law on his statute books forbidding him to make her his wife.”31

This social phenomenon became such a problem that fathers often sent their sons north to school. As one southern merchant told landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, “I tried to get my brother to send them [his sons] North with me to school. I told him he might as well have them educated in a brothel at once, as in the way they were growing up.”32

Many a slave owner’s wife was humiliated by the daily presence of her husband’s black mistress(es); her children and theirs played together and often looked much alike. In 1824, a woman sought a divorce shortly after her wedding; her husband had just told her “that he had two mulatto children who were more comely and handsome than any she would ever have and that he would bring the [slave] mother and her children home. . . . In a few more days this negro woman and two mulatto children were brought upon the plantation.

They were received by her husband with much interest and shew of affection. He now again acknowledged the children openly, and admitted the eldest to every act of familiar intercourse of which its age was capable. He would take it upon his knee, and instructed it to abuse your unhappy applicant and place her under the most positive and threatening injunction not to correct it—declaring his strong attachment for the mother and stating that the two children were his and that he meant to do more for them, upon principle, than for his lawful children.”44 Slavery in America By Dorothy Schneider, Carl J. Schneider


================

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a large journal that a plantation mistress in Georgia [Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas] had generated between 1848 and 1889. So it's a big document. And in that document I found: She was aware that her husband was involved with a woman of color, probably over the generations, and that the husband and the slave woman had had a child, about the same age as her son. The mistress never wants to admit that she knows about this relationship and that it troubles her. But the issue of competition between women appears over and over and over in the journal.

And at one point, after the Civil War, she's looking out on a field and she's seeing her son (whom she feels, of course, should be in college) plowing. And he's plowing with the slave woman's child. And the slave woman's boy, he's not in college either. But the mistress feels that there's a competition between these two boys, and the fact that they are both in the field plowing shows how her son has fallen and this other woman's son is poised to rise. So she has a complicated psychological dynamic that comes out of this kind of complicated family.

This same woman tried to erase a story out of her journal. It's a moment when she really is most tortured. And in this moment, she realizes that not only she is involved in adulterous triangle, but also her mother had been. That is, her father had a slave woman, and had had children by another woman. So in 1864, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (known as Gertrude Thomas) is reading the will that her father has left. He'd just died in 1864. And she realizes that she stands to inherit her half-brothers and sisters. This woman is a devout Methodist, realizes all the terrible Biblical problems here, and the moral issues. And she's completely destroyed by the idea that she could own her brothers and sisters. But this kind of monstrous situation was one that came out of the dynamics of slavery time and time again.


Source:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4i3084.html


==============

One Alabama mistress returned to live with her parents because her husband abandoned her bed to "embrace a Negro woman belonging to him. Similarly, a South Carolina mistress brought a suit against her husband and claimed that he daily insulted her and encouraged his slave mistress to do the same.

Light-skinned children were sometimes sold by irate slave mistresses who suspected or knew were fathers. When a child was not involved some women took direct revenge out on the slave. Many of the ex-slaves who had unfavorable memories of the mistress were light-skinned black women who unwittingly incurred the mistresses emnity.
Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Revised Edition)

-==================

James Henry Hammond, a famous Southerner, was involved in a close and extensive sexual relationship with one of his slaves, as well as her daughter. His wife, Catherine, became deeply bitter about Hammond's infidelity and "attempted to end [the liaison] by demanding the sale or effective banishment of his slave mistresses.

Despite the fact that Hammond never did sell the slaves, this instance reveals important aspects of mistress-slave relations in the antebellum south. Neither Catherine nor the slaves who were the victims of Hammond's sexual coercion were able to force the master to take any action, whether it be the cessation of his sexual advances or the sale of the slaves. Thus, all women involved were forced to submit to Hammond's ultimate demands. Yet, instead of empathizing with the plight of the slaves, Catherine instead chose the only option that would allow her to maintain the facade of a genteel southern woman, which was to punish the slave women by attempting to have them sold away from the plantation where they had family or close friends.

Source: https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/elements/article/viewFile/9016/8134


-===============

An interview with Hannah Plummer revealed a particularly brutal aspect of slave-mistress relations. Hannah described how her mother had been subject to her mistress' violence, stating, "Missus Caroline whupped her most every day, and about anything. Mother said she could not please her in anything, no matter what she done or how hard she tried. Missus would go up town and come back and whup her." xxx n In fact, Hannah's mother was so badly treated, that on one occasion, Miss Caroline went up town, an' come back mad. She made Mother strip down to her waist, and then took a carriage whup an' beat her until the blood was runnin' down her back. Mother said she was afraid she would kill her, so she ran for the woods and hid there, and stayed there for three weeks.

Whether she was so cruel to Hannah Plummer's mother because of a sexual relationship with her husband is something we cannot glean from the interview itself. There were, however, no other mentions throughout the interview of "Missus Caroline's" brutality towards other slaves. Moreover, most mistresses saw their female slaves as subhuman and did not take into account the psychological damage that may have been caused by rape. xxxl v Because of this dehumanization of their slave women, it was much easier for mistresses to let their anger and frustrations out on the vulnerable slaves.

Source: https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/elements/article/viewFile/9016/8134
To be honest, I can't imagine the tortuous nature of these relationships between women...and I count them all as women, regardless of the colour of their skin. How they must have suffered, both alike, in different ways. That's all I can say right now...except to say this whole thread had been very sober reading. I appreciate all the participants, their honesty and forthrightness...it has been more than educational, it has also been heart rending...and @Dedej, thank you for opening up the discussion around some incredibly difficult topics. Dark places are never easy to visit...but they are sometimes necessary.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
It may seem strange now that white and black women didn't feel much common cause in antebellum times. But I think at the time an enslaved black woman was thought of by whites in that order: slave first, black second, woman third.

Alot of the feminism of the 20th century just didn't exist in most of the 19th, especially the antebellum South. Voting and other equal rights weren't even widely popular among women at the time (and aren't even universal today). What seems today like an obvious alliance didn't seem so at the time.

Your comment was so great - thanks :smile:

I totally agree on how white women viewed the enslaved woman. Which, is how I would think one would have to view them to maintain a disconnect and detachment to be able to live, work with and aid in their enslavement.

In terms of the absence of feminism and the extreme patriarchy during that time -- it has been the most helpful in helping to really get and empathize with many of the women --- and even some of the men. It has also helped me understand the history and relationship dynamics of white and black women.

I was watching a documentary or lecture discussing the abolishment and suffrage movement and learned many women during that time who did support the emancipation of the enslaved and women's rights - they did not want Black women to be able to have the same rights. And neither did Black men --- now aiding and benefiting from patriarchy. That too has been very hard to come to grips with - as it is a major issue still in our community.

All and all - this is all very eye opening and helps better explain the the full picture.

These women were passionate figures who greatly advanced women’s rights in the public, but history tends to forget the racism that fueled white feminism and the omission of black women from this pivotal movement. By the mid-1850s and the start of the Civil War, many feminists were still promoting emancipation, but the movement still severely excluded black people of all genders; this latent racism eventually became explicit in feminist arguments supporting female suffrage.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, it was expected that black men would gain the right to vote. Shortly after, in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was ratified, allowing men to vote no matter their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Understandably, women were upset that they did not gain the right to vote as well, but one would think that after emerging from the abolition movement, supporters of feminism would not base this anger off of race. “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” (qtd. in Ginzberg interview).

These blatantly racist words were unfortunately Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s. Essentially, she said that women would suffer more persecution under black men with political power than under the white men who had systematically oppressed white and black women for centuries. In an interview with NPR, Lori Ginzberg, the author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life, highlights the main problem with white feminism after the Civil War: “She demanded — in the true liberal tradition — access to the mainstream of American society in terms of professions, education, law, politics, property and so on. But when she said ‘women,’ I think … that she primarily had in mind women much like herself: white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied, well-educated. And my disagreement with Stanton is that she… came to see women like herself as more deserving of rights than other people.” Even today, we find white, middle class feminists who are not reaching past their demographic and supporting the rest of their sisters. The issues of black women fall to the back burner of social justice movements time and time again.


========

Even so there were black male leaders who opposed Douglass’s support of rights for women. In the essay Reconstructing Black Masculinity I state that most black men recognized the powerful and necessary role black women had played as freedom fighters in the effort to abolish slavery, yet they still wanted black women to be subordinated. Explaining further:

They wanted black women to conform to the gender norms set by white society. They wanted to be recognized as men, as patriarchs, by other men, including white men. Yet they could not assume this position if black women were not willing to conform to prevailing sexist gender norms. Many black women who had endured white-supremacist patriarchal domination during slavery did not want to be dominated by black men after manumission. Like black men, they had contradictory positions on gender. On one hand they did not want to be dominated, but on the other hand they wanted black men to be protectors and providers. After slavery ended, enormous tension and conflict emerged between black women and men as folks struggled to be self-determining. As they worked to create standards for community and family life, gender roles continued to be problematic.

These contradictions became the norm in black life.

However, as Lemons also points out about Douglass’ writing, there seems to be a distinct lack of black female support (which was seen all across white feminism anyway): “despite Douglass’s lifelong devotion to female liberation and ongoing battle for black independence, black female subjectivity is edited out of the text of black male feminist representation” (Lemons 24). Since most white women and black men did not explicitly support black women, black women had to push even harder to gain their long awaited equality.

=======

“While women’s suffrage in the US has its roots in the anti-slavery movement prior to the 1860s, they increasingly found that having any support for black people was a drag in their campaign,” says Adams. “White suffragettes found it would be better if they distanced themselves from black women.”

Source(s):
http://northernlightnhcc.org/?p=149
http://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137681070/for-stanton-all-women-were-not-created-equal
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/wo...the-suffragettes-the-uncomfortable-truth.html
http://blog.fair-use.org/2007/12/31...elationship-to-masculinity-from-we-real-cool/
 
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Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
To be honest, I can't imagine the tortuous nature of these relationships between women...and I count them all as women, regardless of the colour of their skin. How they must have suffered, both alike, in different ways. That's all I can say right now...except to say this whole thread had been very sober reading. I appreciate all the participants, their honesty and forthrightness...it has been more than educational, it has also been heart rending...and @Dedej, thank you for opening up the discussion around some incredibly difficult topics. Dark places are never easy to visit...but they are sometimes necessary.

Exactly. Women (Black and White) had to put up with and go through things we couldn't even imagine going through today.

Learning about a more accurate or realistic "southern belle" has been very beneficial to me.

Yes. :smile:

They are necessary -- even when it's really uncomfortable to visit. Which, I have learned is dark and uncomfortable for both sides.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” ― Mary Oliver
 

Nathanb1

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Forum Host
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Dec 31, 2009
Location
Smack dab in the heart of Texas
When we consider the often disparate ages of husbands and wives..and acknowledge the number of arranged marriages in these years, we also have to consider there were undoubtedly a number of wives who preferred not being the center of the husband's attention. And at least a few of these women may have been thankful to have another woman, even close by, who diverted him, yet kept him close to home where he could continue to deal with plantation business. Not particularly a nice thing to think about, yet...
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
When we consider the often disparate ages of husbands and wives..and acknowledge the number of arranged marriages in these years, we also have to consider there were undoubtedly a number of wives who preferred not being the center of the husband's attention. And at least a few of these women may have been thankful to have another woman, even close by, who diverted him, yet kept him close to home where he could continue to deal with plantation business. Not particularly a nice thing to think about, yet...
Definitely another angle on the same situation...overlooked the possibility of arranged marriages, not thinking they were as common back then. Marriages of convenience I can definitely buy into. I can imagine women accepting a 'leg up' in society via marriage, being powerless to achieve this any other way. Perhaps accepting their husbands philandering was part of the deal. Anyone who has romantic notions about this era may just put them away after reading this thread...probably a timely exercise...but for every negative impression, I imagine there is a positive one to uplift. Those are the ones I'll cling to.
 

Nathanb1

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Dec 31, 2009
Location
Smack dab in the heart of Texas
Definitely another angle on the same situation...overlooked the possibility of arranged marriages, not thinking they were as common back then. Marriages of convenience I can definitely buy into. I can imagine women accepting a 'leg up' in society via marriage, being powerless to achieve this any other way. Perhaps accepting their husbands philandering was part of the deal. Anyone who has romantic notions about this era may just put them away after reading this thread...probably a timely exercise...but for every negative impression, I imagine there is a positive one to uplift. Those are the ones I'll cling to.

Just think land... if the family next to yours has a surplus of bottom land... what's the problem with a marriage? Some of those developed into good marriages, some didn't.
 

John S. Carter

Sergeant Major
Joined
Mar 15, 2017
Interesting thoughts.
The Southern Bella was replaced by the Steel Magnolia following the war.They became the support and encouragement of the male population,They became noted for their mental toughness in face of overcoming the situations which resulted form the war and reconstruction.They passed this down to their daughters and taught their sons to seek out these women to marry.The question that one would like to ask ,are the mothers of South instilling these traits into their daughters The SM is strong yet one of the most gentle and beautiful flowers that grows on a tree whose roots grown deep.
 
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