Category Archives: slavery

Check and check

Have I converted PeeDee to Pee Dee and PonPon Road to Pon Pon with a space? Did I switch all references to the Berber people to “Tuaregs” instead of Twuareg or Tuarog?

Have I made sure every “genteel” references refined society and not “gentiles” (oops)? Did I consistently spell lightning without an “e” in the middle and do I maybe have one too many thunderstorms?

Did I flesh out the “tag along slave” Phoebe enough for the reader to be able to see her?

Does the traumatized, silent Maggie speak early enough in the story for her late chapters to land?

Have I eliminated the second explanation of “free by courtesy”?

(if you’re curious, it’s a state of emancipation brought on by custom, not by papers like manumission papers or a will — often occurred in situations when an enslaved person was repeatedly promised that they’d be freed by will and then their owner failed to write or update their will. If that slave then acted as if they were free for long enough, they’d be considered “free by courtesy”). I probably don’t need to add that ANY version of freedom for a Black person in the 1740’s was tenuous and subject to the violent whims of white people.

Did I eliminate enough text in the middle for the pacing to work better?

Is there too much Eliza?

If my mustee character (half Pee Dee, half African), Indian Pete, is based on Prince, a man described in Archibald Rutledge’s memoir, will it be enough to add a citation in notes at the end?

From Home By The River: Prince had a “kinship with nature as unfeigned as it was intimate.” He was “untouched by any human school of philosophy … but deeply read in the oracles of God.” Prince once plowed a field with a half wild bull that other field workers would walk a quarter mile out of their way to avoid, earning Prince no end of admiration.

Have I fixed all the erroneous capital H’s that I managed to insert while fixing the naming of a ship, the Hound? (Hounds show up with surprising frequency).

My dear cousin Ginny printed out the manuscript for me! With almost all the inputs, too. It will be very different to give it a read through on paper.

Thank you Ginny!

Today I woke with this thought: if we hold onto the House and flip the Senate (and trump wins), we would be able to impeach AND convict him. Given all the totalitarian strategies being employed by trump and Barr to steal the election, maybe this is the thing to focus on?

Hazel ship plus historic ship plus — sigh — Chadwick Bozeman. May he sail free.

Pin by Liz, my father’s Army picture, and from Twelve Years a Slave, Chiwetel Eijofor.

Maroons or the untamed

I “attended” a three hour seminar with Anne Lamott this weekend. I’ll probably be talking about it for a while. She went over many of the tools explicated in her famous book on writing, Bird by Bird, but first let me say how happy I was to hear that she includes research in writing time!

Here’s a little taste of the rabbit hole I went down this week for my novel.

“Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.”

Smithsonian article about The Great Dismal Swamp and its long history of maroon communities. Written September 2016 by Richard Grant featuring the archeology of the intrepid Dan Sayers.

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“By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative.”

It is well known that researching the history of enslaved people is difficult. For one thing, primary sources are few and far between. Then there’s white ignorance and racial animus in creating secondary sources.

Even in the instance of the Federal Writers’ Project, which collected first person accounts from Blacks who had lived under slavery, the narratives are inherently unreliable because they were recorded by white people.

Think: white person with a clipboard.

Think: Black person talking to a white person with a clipboard.

Even with the best of intentions, we can assume that white minds listening to Black thoughts and speech applied some kind of filter. And we can also assume that Black speakers shaped what they said in some way because of their white audience.

Enslaved people had little by way of possessions. A community in a remote swamp likely owned or collected even less than those dwelling “on the street” (a common naming for a collection of slave quarters).

Slave communities are nevertheless of great interest to archeologists, as evidenced by Dan Sayers in this article and by recent excavations at Monticello and Mount Vernon.

My research has also turned up references to maroon communities in the swamps north and west of Charles Town. It seems that these groups may have initially been comprised of Natives, who then welcomed fugitive slaves. The Smithsonian article posits the idea that whites fleeing indentured servitude also found their way to some of these remote areas.

Update on Second Edit of my novel: the sagging middle is getting slashed (good example of another thing Lamott talked about, the famous advice to “kill your darlings”) and the ending is being expanded.

I’m back to the pin board for the final year of chronology. (Lamott also uses this visual trick, by the way, though she described taping pieces of paper around her entire living room).

It’s important to have a map of your story SOMEWHERE. I’m not adept enough to keep it all in my head. For some stretches, this pin board had every chapter pinned to it, color-coded by POV. After a while the directory in Word on my laptop served as an outline, because I put each chapter in a separate word doc and used a consistent naming protocol that arranged them chronologically.

Right now I’m working on two large documents so until I resurrected the pin board it was a little like flying blind.

A second edit is so, so important, Lamott said, so much so that she won’t show her work to anyone until she’s done one. (oops!)

Before the second edit comes what she calls “the shitty first draft.” That’s a liberating shorthand for all kinds of things, but perhaps mostly as encouragement to forgo perfectionism or debilitating ideas about inspiration.

Another way to say it, she shared, is from Nike: Just Do It.

The heat has been brutal. Today a little less so. Do you know what it’s like walking a dog on paved sidewalks in 97 degree heat?

And lastly, I call yesterday a good day. How unfamiliar the sensation of relief twinned with hope! Biden and Harris both gave great speeches. You can view on YouTube (August 12).

PS WordPress screwed with typefont again. Ugh.

Portraits — 1739 (a deleted scene)

Portraits

January 1739, Eliza Lucas

After both portraits were complete and Quashee had finished carving a pair of beautiful frames, there was little else to distract from the boys’ pending departure other than deciding where to hang the pictures. Mother auditioned the southern wall in the parlor, then the wall along the stairs, and finally, opted for the interior wall of the dining room. Morning and midday light flooded this wall and, of course, the painter Mr. Theus had cautioned about the damaging effects of direct light. Mother liked the placement, however, and stood firm.

Mother’s philosophy of life often placed the value of daily, casual pleasure above an object’s long term survival, unlike Father who would choose conservation every time. He protested her preferences, calling them ‘extravagant’ and ‘trivializing.’ But Mother wasn’t careless. Rather, she believed that lovely possessions were meant to be enjoyed, even at the cost of a diminished life span. She would hang the portraits where she could enjoy them with every meal — sunlight or no!

Father sometimes acted from a misplaced sense of authority in these domestic squabbles. In this case, I think the fact that these portraits were an extravagance to begin with made it harder for him to agree to the acceleration of their demise. I’m not sure why he offered up resistance, though, even I could see he would not prevail.

Yesterday, while Father was out seeing to the construction of canals along the Upper Field, Mother had the portraits hung. She declared their bottom edges perfectly parallel with the chair rail and beamed with delight. The sun beamed in as well. Even though the light that washed in was the wan light of winter, the sun made me worry, but it also brought the portraits come to life. At tea, Mother offered a stream of comments cheerfully enough, as if there were no undercurrents. Father assumed his place at the head of the table, glancing at the wall. If a man can brace himself without moving so much as an eyelash, my father did so then. Mother wasn’t crowing exactly, but close.

“Now look at those magnolia blossoms on the lower edge of the frame,” she exclaimed between bites of boiled bread pudding. “Our own Quashee’s work! What an expert hand! Why the petals alone make me swoon, never mind the carved stamen! Have you noticed?” Yes, of course we had noticed – on numerous occasions, in fact, each time at her proud insistence.

“It would be proper for the boys to eventually inherit these paintings,” Father said in a neutral manner. Mother grunted and spooned up more pudding. “The hall offers frequent viewing, too,” Father said. “Every entrance and exit affording a glance.” Mother seemed not to hear him. She was enjoying her pudding, making soft, barely audible moans. I believe Mother was using her gustatory pleasure as a means to stonewall him.

Father tried another tack, suggesting the fabrication of small cloth shades. These could be lowered over the canvases on sunny days. A compromise! A creative solution! Mother guffawed. She topped off her tea and then rattled on as though Father had not just spoken.

“Just look how the sunlight shows off all that refined carving!” She adopted her didactic manner — the importance of motifs, shadow and relief, and so on – acting the teacher to her slightly moronic students. Suddenly and with some vehemence, she condemned the shade idea as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘tasteless,’ and ‘a sorely misguided attempt to alter the nature of time’ – which was ironic, given that the commission of the paintings was itself an attempt to arrest time.

I turned to look at the paintings. The likenesses to my brothers were good, amazing in fact, but in the sunlight, which threw the carved wood magnolia blossoms into sculptural relief, it seemed that the frames were the focal point, not the portraits. In fact, the frames overwhelmed the faces that they surrounded. Since Mother’s taste was so often unerring, I thought it might be that I had yet to see the wisdom of her pairing. On the other hand, what if she’d miscalculated and the aesthetic mistake stood as evidence of her deep disturbance at her sons’ imminent departure. They would be gone for years.

Later in the afternoon, I closed the drapes in the dining room, figuring to protect the paintings for at least a portion of the day. The rust-orange cloth glowed with afternoon light, dimming the room somewhat but not entirely. For the first time since the portraits had been hung, I looked at them in the solitude of my own thoughts. There was dear George, chin thrust out, well on his way to becoming a man. It was easy to imagine how he’d look in two, three, even four years. The cheeks would be thinned, perhaps, his hair darkened undoubtedly, but he would wear an expression essentially unchanged.

Tommy was altogether another matter. For the entire sitting, I’d wondered which of my younger brother’s many moods the artist would attempt to portray. Even though Tommy had squirmed, whined, and been peevish, Mr. Theus had seen past all that to my brother’s vulnerability and incredibly enough, captured it. The expression on the canvas suggested tenderness, regret, and fear – the true attitude of an eight year old on the verge of leaving his mother for many years.

For all Mother’s talk about the easy and daily viewing of these pictures, I suddenly wasn’t sure that being reminded of her younger son’s very apparent lack of readiness for a long voyage and extended separation would, in fact, be pleasing to her. Once the thrill and novelty of the portraits subsided, mightn’t that vulnerable gaze accentuate the jagged edges of her broken heart rather than the opposite? How could Tommy’s eyes, rendered so close to tears by the artist’s skillful brushwork, do anything but haunt her?

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Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The painter Copley was born the year before this scene takes place but the quality of both the painting and frame signal the kind of wealth accessible to Eliza’s family. In fact, it’s likely they knew the Isaac Royalls, both families having lived on the tiny island of Antigua for some of the same years. Both families may even have left partly for the same reason — the discovery of evidence supposedly showing that the enslaved were planning to blow up a building during a celebration of King George’s birthday and then take the harbor. That was in 1736.

The Isaac Royall house is situated not far from here in Medford, MA. It’s where I participated in a sleepover with The Slave Dwelling Project (see link on sidebar). Wrote about it here.

Sending children to England for schooling was not uncommon among the colonial upper class. Eliza Lucas herself sailed to England at the age of 11, returning when she was 14.

I believe the record shows that her brothers sailed from Antigua to England and not from South Carolina. One of many things that I changed.

Quash is a real figure of history, a literate bondman with high level carpentry skills. Later on in 1744, when Eliza got engaged to Charles Pinckney, her father and fiancé had a tug of war over him. Eliza’s husband prevailed. Quash was later baptized as John Williams and manumitted by Eliza’s husband and went on to acquire land and slaves and to purchase or free his immediate family members. At some point he disappears from the record, making me wonder if his success was unacceptable to his white neighbors.

See: Red, White, & Black Make Blue / Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life by Andrea Feeser.

 

Sunday during the pandemic

Nothing like a walk in the woods to restore the soul — even if there were a lot of other dogs and not all of them on leashes. Almost everyone we saw wore masks.

The vernal pools are drying up, as evidenced by mud.

It was warm enough to work up a sweat and amazingly, even after 40 minutes, my hips didn’t hurt. We walked for at least an hour.

The NYTimes puzzle disappointed today. One of those cross-referencing structures that makes me go cross-eyed and not enough easy fill to help matters.

But what doesn’t disappoint is the pandemic routine of coming downstairs every day to already brewed coffee. It’s so, so great. Every damned day!

I was all set up to enjoy an outside quilting session yesterday when my next door neighbor’s yard crew arrived and knowingly violated the gas leaf blower ban. I was driven inside and also driven temporarily insane. Apparently my neighbor, though I sweetly texted, was powerless?

There’s something about living in a country on the verge of having no rule of law that makes this minor, willful transgression extra maddening. And, BTW, this time of year? They are blowing a few blades of grass off the driveway.

I planted cucumbers. Will they have time to produce? I have no idea. Meanwhile, the chipmunks LOVE to dig wherever I’ve recently planted. I spend half my time outside using my foot to slide dirt back into holes.

While rooting around the basement, I found this quilt top and decided to layer it up since I already had the batting out.

It’s about the slave trade.

Hints: sail shapes, indigo, brown stripes like ship planks, blue for the Atlantic, maps, fish for the sea, and African-inspired black and taupe print.