Sept 1739, SC
The dream of freedom was tangible like a sinew pulled taut in pleasure. It had heft. The dream of freedom could be felt as a push, like the wind blowing rice husks off the grains when women jerked the fanner baskets in efficient and elegant rituals of home or it could be felt as a pull, like a rope hauling a barge upriver. The dream tugged nerves and sleep, and underlay casual conversations about trivial matters. It pulled a body toward the future and also curled in the twists of memory, both a beautiful haunting of things to come and ancestral whispers of things gone by. The wounding clime of bondage built arguments in support of freedom as naturally and with as much necessity as skin growing over an ugly gash. But to be clear, scars spoke the language of resilience, which was related to the dream of freedom, but not the dream itself. That spoke in shining eyes, secret language, and sly disguises. Or in violence.
Brewing coffee for the family, setting out parasols for walks, making candles, serving guests at parties, being afraid to love, to go off-plantation, to speak one’s thoughts — all evidence of a tainted universe. It was the white person’s pleasure that mattered. Their need. Their piles of sterling. Their margins of profit. Their luxuriant strolls along the river. Their indolent, well-tended naps. Their Madeira, Barbadian rum, Meyer lemons, and hyssop honeys. Their sparkling gatherings. Their baths after sunset, with captive hands to light the lanterns, scrub the scalp, and hold out the towels. Daily inequities both small and transient and weighty and monumental all built arguments toward freedom without a slave having to utter a single word. Proof after ugly proof of despotism, proof after ugly proof of the delusion of their owners’ claimed superiority, proof after ugly proof of theft on an ungodly scale — all the arguments readily made.
Despair both stifled and enlived the dream of freedom. Sometimes sorrow laid its damp hand on the shoulder of the enslaved and whispered mournfully, ‘The hound is fed better than you.’ Clarifying. Inescapable. Sometimes the weight of exhaustion and defeat made the bound ones turn eyes heavenward, where on many a night even the cold glitter of stars seemed against them. Suffering was a place, a task, a state of mind, and all of the enslaved dwelt in it even as they sometimes knew they were not of it.
The dream of freedom showed up as a complex counterpoint to their weary or rage-filled situation or as a simple expression of basic humanity. Complex and simple, both. How could anyone so thoroughly deprive a people of their essential selves and on such a large scale? What god allowed it to happen and then let the damage accrue through the generations? What could be harder to correct?
For instance, what would it take to get Moses on a ship to Baltimore or Philadelphia, under whose watchful eye and with what money passage purchased? Could the dream of freedom, so ever-present but generally lacking particulars, coalesce into a plan for Maggie and her mother, Saffron, providing both a map to a maroon community in the swamps and the courage to get there? The codes exchanged. The secret slips. Literacy grabbed and then hidden. Currency tucked under conspiring earth in burlap sacks. Mo turning deadfall into rice pestles, selling them on the sly. Quash earned his legitimate carpenter’s fees. There were some means, some measures of will (large and small), some hearts exploding with desire to live else-wise. There were a thousands of pitfalls to avoid.
Little did the planters know that in two weeks’ time, the dream of freedom would announce itself in the blazing specificity of blood and fire. Near the Stono River. Direction: south. Means: stolen muskets, strikers and flints, powder, strong legs. Leaders: Jemma and Cato. Required: all manner of bravery – the bravery of leadership, the bravery to trust and follow, the bravery of youth, the bravery of experience, the bravery of men with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose, the bravery of men acting as men can and should in holy alliances forged with their fundamental right to live.
It was a cruel irony that this dream of freedom, acted in a crescent of violence with such rugged hope, would end up dashing Mo’s chances at learning a trade, a trade that would’ve offered him a shaky but potentially viable path to manumission. As for the other slaves at Wappoo, one would eventually sail north aboard a ship where his pale skin would fool the sailors and their captain, and then, perhaps more critically, deceive the vicious slave catchers and traders who roamed the northern cities with menacing greed. The boy’s freedom would rely on the sacrifice of many, on their successful collusion, and on luck. Freedom at the cost of his mother’s heartbreak was worth it, always worth it, even to her — offering not just one young person his chance, but giving others testimony that glittered in the telling, a telling to be handed down for twelve generations, even as they knew there was no shame in staying put.
Another would eventually be freed through the so-called ‘charitable grace’ of his owner. He would change his name to ‘John Williams.’ Mr. Williams would proceed to buy his wife, free his daughters, and buy land with the help of a prominent slave owner named Dr. Alexander Gardner. Williams will buy slaves too, of course, because that was how once succeeded in a slave-economy. A simple-minded reader of history might condemn the former-slave-turned-slave-owner, but presumably his ‘property’ was treated better than that belonging to his white-skinned counterparts and presumably, too, he trained them in the skills for which he was renowned: carpentry.
Further along in time, Williams’ obvious wealth and success would itch and wound his white land-owning brethren, causing them to ask: ‘how dare he succeed with such flourish?’ thus precipitating the free black man’s swift exit north in the direction of the Santee River, ending the carpenter’s known story and for all we know, his life as well. We don’t know. The dark blot of silence that surrounds so many black lives of history leaves us unsatisfied, uninformed, and guessing. Ignorant.
This chapter came out because, to use John Gardner‘s metaphor, it interrupted the dream. He has said that novelists invite readers into a dream, and our job is to maintain that dream. Anything that interrupts, should be rewritten or jettisoned. Typical interruptions: inconsistent POV, showing off, placing style over the needs of the story, inconsistent character.
There are several places in my draft where I switch from first person to omniscient narrator, and who knows maybe they will also need to come out, but this one was a clear interruption. Sometimes making sense of history generally, and of slavery in particular, I needed to write like this — almost to explain to myself the raw and brutal dimensions of my subject matter.
There is a lot I could tell you about the Stono Slave Rebellion, but I don’t have the energy for it now. You can get a quick sense of it with a google search.
We have Big Wind today. Sirens going all morning — I’m certain for downed trees and not corona virus [even though Massachusetts is vying with Florida and Pennsylvania for third most cases (after New York and New Jersey)].
It’s a cool wind and so, so assertive. I spent a part of the morning sitting in the shelter of the garage and just witnessing the effects of it — clouds scudding by, maple tops dancing vigorously, gulls blown inland from the coast.
Upstairs, I was so happy to open windows and snuggle under a small humble quilt that Deb sent to me not long ago. Where she is in the south, even bigger winds blew through.