I ask Mercury, with his missing limbs and weathered face, what did you see? Perched atop a folly – shaped like a cupola and positioned to afford views of the Mystic – surely a bit of everything? An ornament for the Royalls, but a god with power nevertheless.
From your vantage in the garden, could you see the enslaved men chopping wood, shoeing horses, forking hay into mounds? Did you see the women whose ancestors were left behind, carrying trays of delicacies, which they prepared, from the kitchen to the folly under your feet? Did you see those same women carrying greasy fleeces into a barn to wash and card and eventually spin?
Did you strain to overhear the chattering, silk-drenched visitors as they strolled out of the folly through the garden, admiring its composition and variety? I suppose you might have snickered as the guests gushed their praises – as if the host had dug the beds and all the rest…
I wonder how well you gauged the feelings of the enslaved women as they bent to clip flowers for bouquets — from the garden that they planted, fertilized, weeded, and staked? Did you wish you could crane your neck or flutter forward on those winged sandals to see inside the manse, so as to watch them fill Chinese vases atop polished mahogany buffets? With what hidden thoughts.
I wonder what you might have recognized about inequity here beside the Mystic River, being, afterall, the only god capable of travel between Mount Olympus and the Underworld? What did you recognize as Heaven and what as Hell? Did it confuse you to have the two realms divided as they were, not by a steep ascent to a mountain peak above, and a costly river crossing and long descent down a winding path, below, but divided, instead, by merely a breath and the color of skin?
Whom did you root for, fickle god, and whom did you condemn? Or is that just a human thing – taking sides… constantly contriving to make sense of our world.
But surely you detested your fixed station – stuck there as you were in all kinds of weather in your tin cap. So unable to prank and spy!
And, what do you think of the scene in front of you now? Pegged to the wall at one end of the renovated room. Twelve bodies at dawn. We occupy the quarters once inhabited by the enslaved. Sleeping lumps covered in down-filled bags – REI logos scattered about, emblems of the modern world. At first, some are asleep and quiet. Some asleep and restless. Then, one in the bathroom. One with a pen in her hand. Another sitting in meditation. Then two, erect, with eyes closed. Fred. Ellen.
We’ve gathered, not in your honor (sorry, Mercury), but out of respect and concern and curiosity and love for those who slept here on pallets before us. Those who served and labored and loved and spun and cooked, pickled, canned and polished and harvested. Those listed on inventories. Those whose dreams took them back to the banks of the Niger. Those who prayed in tongues lost to their daylight business.
Those who carried embers in copper disks to warm the beds of their owners even knowing that their own sleep would find them atop barely stuffed pallets on a cold floor.
We are the children of slaves. We are the children of slave-holders. One of us might be descended from both. Some of us from neither – to the extent we know.
We come from the North and the South. We are ministers, writers, historians, and artists. We tend account ledgers, chair nonprofit boards. We have run restaurants, saved for retirement, and prepared notes to lecture on the Civil War. We lead plantation tours. We have dug into archives and probate records up and down the Atlantic Coast. We have made ourselves accountable.
We have made phone calls to landowners to say, “May I sleep in your tool shed?”
The asker of that question has brought the rest of us together. He has slept in dozens upon dozens of former slave dwellings – most more primitive and open to the elements than this one. Educator, Civil War re-enactor, visionary man of heart: Joe McGill.
The birds start up. I am awake and relieved it is six and not four. The glare of the EXIT sign and rumble of snorers made for abbreviated sleep. Not the hard floor. Not the disturbing thoughts of those who slept here before.
Soon, one of us sits up and leans into his palms. Does he pray or merely allow the spine to lengthen before trying to stand? Two phone screens already glare across the room. A cough. A nose being blown. One of us brought a box of Kleenex expecting to cry the night before and then, did not. But I think perhaps she cries now. Yes. She cries now. A second libation.
Her tears — a second libation on the wooden planks, not far from the first. Ase! Ase!
The air coming in and out of my body animates me, lets me breathe with her grief. Does that make you angry and jealous, Mercury? Or are you glad to be spared the entire mess of humankind? Would you, too, cry, if afforded lungs?
A white hand on a black shoulder. The grief of ages pouring through one, the power of touch through the other. The minister meditates. Ellen does too. I hope Fred will pray for us all. Joe gets up. He has done this before. Penny puts on her glasses. Maddie, stirs – hips hurting despite her youth. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Ife cries and Ruth rubs her back. Clennon sits, his head bowed, forehead resting in his palms. Robert looks up and about, inquisitive, intelligent – a morning person? Then Catherine sits up, too, and soon, Jerry leans his back into the southern wall. They will turn to each other and speak.
I write and write as daylight enters the dark room, hoping to find myself. Hoping to find some band of truth. I write and write and write, hoping to craft a place from which to extend my hand…. Not asking for forgiveness, but rather, connection.
Mercury — since you are here, since you famously travel across disparate realms — can you make mercy and justice strong enough to bind us? We twelve share this intention — to honor and respect the past and to peer with bravery into its darkest corners. This makes us a family, for a moment. But our legacies are not the same and never will be. One affording privilege. One not.
Can any amount of humility, especially if paired with a life turned inward, ever generate enough credibility and trust?
I did not come here for friends but may have found a few. I’ll give you credit for that Mercury!
I also did not come to atone, though perhaps I should have. Even with relatives starving on the West Coast of Ireland for the entire ignominious chapter of slavery – I am not exempt. Even with an ancestor who served in the Union Army — the muster, aged and framed, spelling out the name that came down to my father and my brother – I am not exempt.
And how could I be? Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
To make quilts honoring the Middle Passage and quilts grieving the lopsided losses of Katrina or the execution of Trayvon Martin is not enough (– though a start). To educate myself through slave narratives and excellent histories is not enough (– though doors crack open). To visit plantations, and Chalmers Street, and the Avery Research Center, and to dye cloth with indigo in a pole barn near where the Stono rebels marched, again, not enough (– but gaining texture — making the history, the legacy, more real).
Safe. White. Well-educated. Never hungry.
What could ever be enough? And, if I recognize that perhaps that’s the wrong question, then what is the right question?
I will stop by saying ‘thank you’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘who knows why or how’ and ‘thank you’ again. And: ‘I am sorry’. I am sorry. Lame words? Lame gestures? Yes, perhaps. Maybe even, as the minister noted, ridiculous — but how much worse to fail to make the attempt. Am I wrong?
Here I am. Here you are.
Mercury could care less, I suspect.
But I do. I care.
This post springs from a night spent in the Slave Quarters of the Royall House, in Medford, Mass. Read more about The Slave Dwelling Project here. And there is much to be read about Joseph McGill online, but here is one particularly nice article. The Project has a Facebook page and is on Twitter.
Thanks for sharing your experience about the slave dwelling project. I’m sharing with my family 🙂
You’re welcome. Do I know you?
Thanks, Dee. Beautiful.
An amazing journey through color and history. Thank you so much for sharing. Would love to know what the air felt like, in the sleeping quarters, in the middle of the night. Could you feel the ghosts or are they long gone? I think you might still be able to feel the history of color and the women that worked it easier since there is still such a sense of joy in the blue. Thank you for sharing this amazing trip! Love it.
Hard to say about ghosts… perhaps I am not permeable enough. Maybe what sensitivity I do have was open to the living participants and not the unknowable dead. Maybe the Tudor flourishes installed by the DAR at some point kind of spoiled the space or the fact that it is used for fundraising and educational meetings means there are too many modern overlays. I’ll tell you this, though, your question made me think about the phrase “to sleep the sleep of the dead”. I kind of slept that way. I was restless and wired long after midnight, expecting to toss and turn. There was too much light. Lots of noise. But I dropped off and slept soundly until dawn. I THOUGHT my phone would show an ungodly hour when I looked, but it was heading toward 6:30. The sleep of the dead? Also, most of what is written above poured out onto the page immediately upon waking. That’s something, I guess.
“Hermes is the god of the hinge … the mottled figure in the half light… who amazes and unmazes…” Lewis Hyde “Trickster makes this World: Mischief, Myth & Art”
I love that notion — of the god of the ‘hinge’! I think that is what I was trying to get at — his capacity to be the connecting element between two planes. I didn’t get to explore the mischief-making part enough, though… perhaps I will in my private pages.
I often have thought that there is no way to imagine the experience of slaves, in our country or elsewhere in the world (where there are still slaves). Dee, your image of Mercury watching it all connects me to the past time and the pain of slaves then and now.
I often think the same, Candy — about the impossibility of understanding the experience of slaves, particularly as a white person in America. However, the more I do try to imagine those lives, the more valuable the attempt seems to me.The particularity of the suffering. Being in a northern slave dwelling gave me an opportunity to imagine how the cold and the dark and the harsh weather of our landscape would have added discomfort to the difficult lives the enslaved led. I was glad to have that chance, because focusing on South Carolina means I hadn’t thought about that before.
If Mercury is the only god capable of passing easily between heaven and hell…..as Mo says, the hinge god….he makes a perfect focus for your lovely writing. Its very hard to break through to true empathy; we can’t really know anyone else and we are mysterious even to ourselves. The effort of imagining the trials of others does change us though. It opens our hearts.
nicely put, Dana… the reading/the imagining DOES change you, even if the imagining is imperfect in many ways and the reading complete… If I hold the pursuit of a certain historical knowledge in the context of how hard it is to even know myself (“we are mysterious even to ourselves” as you say), that, somehow, affords me even greater freedom. Not sure why.
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