Category Archives: South Carolina

Novel excerpt — Freedom

Freedom

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.

Don’t ask why WP has offered such a variety of font changes. Beats the shit out of me. How interesting to LET IT BE and not fuss!

Purpose, habit

Today I made gazpacho, rice/corn salad, and a blueberry cake. Sometimes, that’s enough. I don’t mean enough to satisfy hunger but enough to create a container wherein purpose and comfort can dwell.

After the post about trump-fatigue, I had to ask: why do I do this? It’s not to afford others hope. It’s not to teach. I guess I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure I do it for myself –perhaps with the hope that a few others find value?

Novel update: Conversion of font from Corbel to New Times Roman continues apace (industry standards). Some editing. Since I’m still not used to the modern convention of inserting only a single space between sentences, I’m closing ’em up where I catch an extra space.

Today, a few chronology issues needed sorting. And, the thing is too long.

Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC

But, I have momentum. Also, an unexpected (and pretty marvelous) thing is happening: I am in the story. Really in it. I don’t think I have been before.

So, even though the more I read about agents, the weaker I get in the knees, I don’t think fear will stop me.

When I found out I was pregnant with C, I was working in a women’s prison advocating for mothers. To calm my nerves about giving birth, I occasionally reminded myself that every single one of my clients had given birth. All of them. Surely, I could, too?

That’s not meant to be uncharitable, although the literary corollary is. The corollary says: There are a lot of bad books in the world and THEY somehow got published. Maybe I can be, too.

Drayton Hall, on the Ashley River outside of Charleston

Old map of Charleston

Magnolia Plantation, on the Ashley River outside of Charleston, SC

Have a wonderful Sunday!

Imagine peace 

Imagine peace. Such a refrain! A sewn pin from Liz in Texas renders the reminder tactile and lovely.

With the pin, came a stitched date: June 17, 2015. This, as you know, was the day of the tragic shooting at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church and Liz was one of the contributors to the “Hearts for Charleston” quilt (see side bar). The pin and date-cloth seem very at home in a sweet grass basket made in Charleston, don’t you think? There they are on a pile of shells gathered south of the city along with a wasp’s nest (also found somewhere in SC).

Look at Liz’s capable hand! Seeing her tiny, regular stitches reminded me of the pleasure of collaborating on our quilt for grieving Charlestonians last year. Making hope tactile while affirming friendships all over the globe is a powerful thing. Thank you, Liz, thank you and thank you – both for the gift itself and for setting a moving example.

My mad play with pix of villains, on the other hand, is likely pointless. But, look at that face — even if the stakes were low, would YOU trust him? With an image like that, you don’t need to evaluate his lame, contradictory explanations of recent blundering and partisan actions to conclude that the House Intel Committee’s work is done. Toast.  I went to the Mother Emanuel Church while in Charleston recently. It was drenched in sun and very still, in spite of a fair amount of traffic out front. I felt a sense of sadness being there and also care — I did not want to intrude. Sometimes even taking pictures can feel transgressive. Fortunately, no one came or went while I took the photos below.






I found all the shells on Folly Beach as the sun came up. K and I thought we’d have the place to ourselves, but lots of people were there — a military jogger and his handsome German shepherd posing for pictures; a rashy-faced photo enthusiast talking up his Facebook page; other tourists; a guy with a metal detector who reminded us of those funny nerds on “The Detectorists”. The pier’s criss-crossing supports looked like a row of herringbone stitch connecting the ocean to the sky.



Naturally Finn joined me as I took a selfie on the sunny staircase yesterday — he always knows where the action is! He kept looking up as if peace was just there, slightly beyond my reach or capacity to see.

Prose and soup

“Read at the level at which you want to write.” Jennifer Egan (brainpickings.org)

I couldn’t read Roth until I was older and now he is one of my favorite writers. I hope he never dies! I may have read this Zuckerman novel before (or maybe it just seems familiar because it takes place in the Berkshires where I was born and lived a good many years?) No matter, it’s worth a re-read.

Here’s a sentence: “My guess was that it would take even the fiercest Hun the better part of a winter to cross the glacial waterfalls and wind-blasted woods of those mountain wilds before he was able to reach the open edge of Lonoff’s hayfields, rush the rear storm door of the house, crash through the study, and, with spiked bludgeon wheeling high in the air above the little Olivetti, cry out in a roaring voice to the writer tapping out his twenty-seventh draft, ‘You must change your life!'”

Swoon.


Beef with barley soup for lunch after another frigid walk with the dog. And since K won’t be here for dinner, I’m not even cooking: a bowl of fruit, yogurt and sunflower seeds topped with honey from Charleston.


*thank you Mo for link on FB to the article.


Soup and salad


This shrimp, bean, and chicken sausage soup was delicious! Not only does it come together in a hurry, but most of the ingredients are stock pantry and fridge items, meaning it could become a regular in my weeknight lineup. If you’re like me, you keep onions, black beans, and boxed chicken stock in the pantry, as well as frozen shrimp and corn in the freezer. I very often have a four pack of chicken sausage in the cold cut drawer as well because they keep forever and are a good alternative to beef and pork. Cilantro was the only thing I might not have on hand, but thankfully, I did.



There are both black beans and white beans in this soup, but the starring role goes to the white beans — baby white limas. I went in search of these beans while still in SC after an outstanding lunch at Bertha’s Kitchen* in North Charleston. I gushed about the meal on Facebook and a former Charleston resident commented, “Go to Doscher’s Market.” (That would be Donna Hardy of Sea Island Indigo. She ran the workshop I attended in 2014).


Doscher’s Market is an IGA in West Ashley that’s been run by a German family for generations. Part of the secret to their success has been to cater to their customers, who are largely African American. One article I read noted, “there are smoked pig parts representing everything but the squeal”.**

While I looked for the dried beans, K wandered along the seemingly endless meat counter in curious amazement.

Here’s the recipe.

Shrimp, Sausage and Bean Soup
Serves 4

Night before: pour boiling water over one cup of baby white lima beans and leave to soak. While assembling the soup the next day, drain the beans and bring to a slow boil in about three cups of water. I did not add salt.

1/2 onion, chopped
2 chicken sausage, cut in quarter moons
1/2 T red pepper flakes
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
28 ounce can diced tomatoes, with liquid
14 ounce can black beans, without liquid
one box organic chicken stock (if no homemade in the house)
1/4 c chopped cilantro for cooking, more for serving

Handful frozen shrimp
1 c frozen corn
And, if on hand, two cups cooked rice

S&P

Saute onions in olive oil, add salt, and once wilted, throw in sausage and red pepper flakes. Stir to coat. Add six or seven cloves of diced or smashed garlic, allow their aroma to rise (about 90 seconds), then pour in chicken stock, diced tomatoes (with juice) and black beans (without liquid). If white beans are done, add them as well. Because the delicious, soupy side dish that I had at Bertha’s Kitchen looked to contain bean cooking liquid, I included some here. I happened to have cooked white rice from the night before, so I added two big clumps. Smash to separate and then throw in cilantro, frozen corn, and frozen shrimp. Cook to heat through, roughly five minutes.

Serve. Add more fresh cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add a few jazzes of hot sauce. I poured my husband’s soup over toasted and buttered, homemade cornbread. With two kinds of beans plus rice and corn in the soup, that’s a little bit of carbo overkill, but not enough to render the dish unhealthy. Mine, I ate as is and it was very good and just as good the next day!

Now on to a spectacular lobster salad. If the soup belongs in the realm of week night cuisine, this one is for special occasions. A friend who parked her car in our driveway for two consecutive weekends brought us a container of cooked lobster as a thank you (she’s from Maine). That container was crammed full with SIX lobster tails. Oh man!

Lobster Salad 

1/3 c chopped red onion
1/2 T fennel
Put these two ingredients in a bowl and cover with boiled water. Soak while assembling the rest of salad.

1/2 green pepper, diced (would have used celery, but was out)
1 T capers, rinsed
2 generous T sweet relish
Couple big blobs of mayo
6 lobster tails, cut in chunks

The mayonnaise, which was probably about 1/2 cup, was slightly excessive. Also, we use full fat mayo in this house but I’m certain substituting a reduced fat version would have worked (but never no fat — gross!)

I didn’t think it would need salt because of the capers, but just a little dash helped. Since part of the glory of this gift was how easy it made dinner prep, I forewent spritzing the salad with lemon just before serving… it would have brightened the flavors nicely, I’m sure.

The fennel seeds were my sister’s idea. She’s a more adventurous cook than I and also had, coincidentally, just seen a cooking program on which the chef asserted that ‘no French cook would dream of serving seafood without fennel’. I was skeptical but went ahead anyway and I have to say that small cluster of seeds added a subtle and nice perfume. Definitely recommend.

Oh yum. YUM!  And there’s enough for Saturday lunch!

PS  When the news gets too unbearable to discuss, too awful in too many directions to wrap your mind around, count on food posts. They are reliably engaging to write and wonderful, constructive distractions.

* Bertha’s Kitchen has just been named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation. The prestigious award is reserved for “beloved regional restaurants, distinguished by their timeless appeal”. Read more in this Post and Courier article.  

**Tim Allen of Rebellion Farm wrote that IGA article. Funnily enough, I’ve eaten pig that he’s roasted. “How can that be?” you ask. Well, he was the farmer who hosted Donna Hardy’s indigo workshop. Well-known Charleston Chef BJ Dennis catered the rest of the meal, by the way. (I didn’t know how illustrious he was until later, when I started to follow him on Instagram). Here’s my description of that meal from 2014. If you do a little research on southern food, you will find interesting and on-going discussion about cultural appropriation, foods of the African diaspora, and lasting contributions of the enslaved to Southern culture.