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.
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 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.
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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