Category Archives: slavery

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!

Home, prison, companions

Continuing with Collage Month.* Sort of.

Prompt #22: Breathe deeply and visualize a place that you love. Send it a Valentine.

It may be trite to say that home is a place I love, but it truly is. What follows is a little bit more of a meditation than a valentine — one that includes ‘home’ as well as intellectual/heart preoccupations that have taken place within its walls. Maybe a valentine is to follow.

The nest: a classic symbol of home. My nest is empty now, but it hasn’t t always been.

I put the photo of the prison work force picking cotton behind the nest as a way of saying that from the comfort of my home (and my white privilege), I’ve been able to delve into the darkest period of our nation’s history — a history that some would say hasn’t really ended because ‘slavery didn’t disappear, it evolved’ — unpaid or barely paid prison work forces who are disproportionately black standing as one piece of evidence.

When I noticed what looks like tufts of cotton in the bird’s nest, I thought, “how appropriate,” offering symbolic testament to how the comforts and ease of my life are facilitated by the color of my skin, purchased with black sweat and suffering.

It is my belief that once you truly internalize this, you cannot help but support reparations. (See the Atlantic Article on sidebar).

Home (below), from this morning.

BTW, that first shot is not a double exposure but created by shooting the glass case of a cabinet.

Then I went to find a companion for the tree as directed by Acey in Prompt 21, only to discover I’d already inserted one.

Before discovering Stag Boy already glued in, I’d had the impulse to add a fabulous couple, clipped from Vogue or Elle ages ago. It is the only SoulCollage card I’ve ever made with a single clipped image. I love them so much.

But then my printer went wonky and even after replacing the color cartridge, produced some bizarre and intriguing results.

It’s weird how the stripes continued the reference to prisons.

Prison vs home.


And then, because it came up, here’s an old SoulCollage card about America. You’ll recognize the lead from True Blood.

Not sure you can see, but there is a tear falling down her cheek.

Okay, one more. A less literal more Feeling State card about America.

*

Acey’s Collage Month.

See also my Flickr album, SoulCollage, and the tags for SoulCollage and collage here on the blog.

 

Where is your strength your totem

What totem, what symbol, what spirit of grace might show up at the table today?

Another provocative and well-timed prompt by Acey at the midpoint of Collage Month.*

I was flummoxed — which seemed like a version of an old script that says, ‘I have no support, no bolstering grace.’ The potential (provable) fallacy of such a view kicked up a healthy skepticism. I went off and cleaned the upstairs.

Autocorrect changed the parenthetical word above from “probable” to “provable.” The substituted sense is stronger and I will be collecting proofs of bolstering grace going forward.

Later, shifting papers around, it came to me that my totem had already shown up. Repeatedly.

It’s that silhouette. He is part ghost, part Jedi Master, part Arab (as signifier of the larger world). He looks backwards but moves forward. He shows up anywhere and everywhere. He is witness but also, IN and OF every landscape.

The figure holds mystery. How do I even know their gender?

I consciously put strips of paper in a couple of these compositions that reference language and textiles, two areas of pursuit in my life that might be considered redemptive.

The messier assemblage below points to issues of American history and racism, since those things often arise when making collages as well.

The boat etching could have come straight out of The 1619 Project: a scene of bodies being moved to a colony as chattel. Or perhaps these paddlers are already on some planter’s inventory and move merchandise from ship to shore. The gold paper scraps represent the vast sums of wealth generated on the backs of black bodies. The big bones overhanging — weighty, limiting, obscuring of the sky — represent structural racism. Lasting, like bones. Hidden, like bones. The tri-part composition seems to graphically reference the “wealth gap.”

Finally, I also came upon the photo below — an arrangement of pieced/loose sections laid out while studying the Middle Passage. The pieces never got assembled, making the picture the only incarnation of that particular thought.

*

For info on this collage project see Acey’s blog

For more SoulCollage cards of mine, go to Flickr on sidebar and open the SoulCollage album. Or, track the ‘SoulCollage’ and ‘collage’ tags here on the blog.

The ‘slavery’ tag will take you to several years of thoughts about both history and my relationship to it.

Also: The New York Times published The 1619 Project, but I didn’t link to them because of their firewall. If you subscribe, go there first. The NYTimes podcast The Daily, put out several Saturday episodes expanding on the topic which were moving and informative.

Originator of the project: Nikole Hannah-Jones @nhannahjones (on Instagram). There’s also a hashtag: #1619project.

Rejected scenes from a novel

 

img_7066Sometimes constructing a story is like collage, where you add layer after layer, hoping that the whole picture somehow works.

img_1798Sometimes constructing a story is akin to piecing fabric — moving around existing components until a pleasing design emerges, then adhering them.

Right now, editing resembles lipo-suction. Sucking out the fat in service of a tighter sequencing of events is harder than I thought it would be.

In part, this is because I have ADD. Having my kind of focus means I can endlessly and with rapt attention go line by line and make significant improving edits. But to take in the whole? To understand how big chunks work or don’t work? This is challenging. It took me two weeks of hand-wringing to convince myself I could even do it!

Here’s the upshot: my manuscript is way too long. Industry standard for unpublished authors is 90,000 words (in the neighborhood of 200 pages). Mine clocks in at 310,000 and worse, sags throughout the entire middle. I wish it were as simple as excising the middle, but that won’t get me to my goal of a readable, compelling 200 page novel.

Things to consider:

  • they say to write the book you want to read. I like page turners (i.e. plot driven novels). Mine is character driven. Plot decidedly secondary (or absent?)
  • I have let the actual events of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s life inform her narrative and it’s been suggested that to do so is to handicap myself (a small example: her two closest friends were named Mary. I let that stand, even though as a reader it would drive me nuts).
  • each scene demands that I ask, does this drive the story forward? Does this?

But! What if our standard idea of narrative progressing in an arc is not only limited, but based on an a masculine sensibility (and specifically, male sexuality) in ways that are limiting?

From Paris Review article discovered last night — Here’s critic Robert Scholes: “The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act … the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation.”think ‘arousal phase’ ”climax’.

Says author of Paris Review article, Jane Alison: “Well. This is not how I experience sex. Critic Susan Winnett says, “Meanings generated through dynamic relations of beginnings, middles, and ends in traditional narrative and traditional narratology never seem to accrue directly to the account of the woman.” And anyway, why should sex—this kind of sex!—be the archetype of fiction? Why should an art form as innovative as fiction have a single archetype at all?”

Food for thought. Having said that, without any explanation of setting or character, here are two deleted scenes. Make of them what you will. Both fall in the category of ‘too much back story for secondary characters.’

 

JAMES WHITTAKER

And so, it was on a windy morning in early December 1737, that a Barbadian Christian with something to hide parted with a half-Yoruban, half-Dutch temptress and pocketed the proceeds. As the buyer led his newly-acquired slave and her child down the tamarind-lined path, neither he nor the seller knew that Sally was with child — the cane grower’s child. But Sally knew, as women sometimes do.

Before the Barbadian cane grower even crossed the threshold back into his gracious abode, he was halfway to forgetting the whole unpleasant business. What relief! What shrewd calculation! Without even having made the decision to do so, his mind began to blur the outlines of his ugly (though thoroughly socially acceptable) transgression and its brief, tortured aftermath. Smudge. Smudge. How swift the gracious erasures performed by amnesia — how convenient the mechanism of blame!

He returned to the so-called seat of his empire and exhaled in relief. He patted the arms of his chair as if to say he was back, a man of society wholly in charge of his destiny, and perhaps also a man made generous by recent events.  Even though the well-timed disposal of Sally might’ve allowed him to forgo the lavish fete, he would not renege. Wasn’t he a man of his word? He was planning a menu when his wife entered the room.

“Is that vile thing gone at last?” But her husband had moved on.

“I’ll say 200’s the upper limit,” he answered, forgetting that he had yet to mention the gala out loud. “And let’s make it memorable, my pumpkin. How about a masked ball?”

The cane grower’s wife sat down, befuddled for a moment but not a jot longer. She was onto it! They would roast four pigs! There would be dancing! She leaned toward his desk and said in conspiratorial joy, “The date must correspond to a full moon — think of the light on the terrace! Oh and Mrs. Thorp just this week made mention of an orchestra worth the hire!”

He concurred. She glowed. When had they last been this united in thought? He said, “A full moon – indeed! Always the one with the grand idea, you! Imagine it shining on the bay… won’t our guests swoon with envy, my dear, and high time?”

The cane grower dunked his quill into the bottle of ink rather too hard. Dunk after hard dunk. No wonder the point had been dull on that awful morning – but no — he would not think on it. He would take down his wife’s every idea. Nothing like a little scare to humble a person into conciliatory attentiveness!

Surely Mrs. Whittaker wondered at his softened tone, his posture of consideration?  She said nothing more about Sally, which could have meant any number of things. Maybe the distraction worked. Four pigs!  Mrs. Thorp’s orchestra!  Then again, she might have thoroughly skunked him out, but in the interests of marital peace generally and a magnificent ball specifically, let the matter rest. If so, she was not quite as dim as her husband believed. Furthermore, she might be possessed of a larger spirit than he knew as well. Think on it: if his wife so freely abandoned what turned out to be a well-grounded suspicion in order to graciously leap into their shared future, without for a second demanding the consolation prize of being right, maybe she deserved his ministrations of care, not as decoy against his sin but as her rightful due. Had she always been more worthy of his esteem than he’d allowed? He committed to granting her a bit more warmth, a more frequent nodding alliance of opinion. Maybe a dance or two on the moonlit terrace come time?  For once, she impressed him.

You could say, therefore, that in addition to preparing and serving meals, bundling alfafa, sweeping the veranda and house entire, watering bromeliads, and increasing the inventory with a son, Sally granted the couple the gift of a much-needed renewal. The fact that it was one the couple could not have engineered on their own made it all the more remarkable. It was the mulatto’s disruptive guile (for he at last concluded it was not diminished capacity but guile, guile, guile) that had generated a significant new conjugal arrangement. One spouse rose up, the other slipped down, causing the two to arrive somewhere in the middle where approach one to the other was possible. Like everything else Sally gave, it was bestowed (taken) without their having to fork out a single letter of credit or clattering coin.

In two months time, when the orchestra tuned up on the terrace and the bay shimmered with moonlight, our sugar exporter on Barbados would hardly be able to recall the mulatto’s voice. In fact, he wouldn’t even really remember that the wench’s voice had been singularly arresting. And, because amnesia does not carefully discriminate in its sweep of erasure, he would also forget that he had given the slave his small Bible. He’d forget how, when he held out his precious Bible – the one given to him by his sister all those years ago — the impudent slattern had had the gall to refuse it. You’d think such an exchange would stick in a man’s mind, but it did not. Smudge. Smudge. The cane grower’s amnesia so thoroughly swiped at that morning in the pantry, in fact, that he would later wonder where the Bible had gotten off to, even going so far as to question another house slave about its disappearance.

GEORGE LUCAS

In conversation it never came out that Whittaker had placed an advert for the mulatto one week prior. And, just as the cane grower hoped, the Captain purchased the mulatto’s two year old son too, with nary a moment’s hesitation. All traces of the wench would be gone!

Perhaps the purchase of the boy could be supported by South Carolina’s ‘head system’– whereby land apportionments were meted out based on the number of persons in a household, even colored ones, and even two year olds, albeit at reduced count. Surely, the low cost of a toddling boy as compared with the land his head would facilitate surveying made it a shrewd transaction?

A shadowy notion of quid pro quo inserted itself just below the level of the Captain’s attention — not quite conscious enough to make him calculating, but present enough to render him a fool. By purchasing the Negress’s boy, he hoped to purchase the slave’s goodwill, for what exactly remained notional and to the extent any thought arose at all, it surely wasn’t about sexual congress. It did, however, occur to the Captain what a nice presentation the mulatto would make in one of Millie’s well-made frocks and wouldn’t it be pleasant to have the girl sing in the parlor after tea?  A refined use. An acceptable intercourse.

And so, on a gray morning in December of 1737, with the purchase of Sally and her two year old son, Noah, Captain George Lucas became for the first time in all his years a man governed by more than mere duty. He renamed his acquisition ‘Melody’ and anticipated with a certain glow the pleasure of hearing her voice again. He was doubly satisfied, for he’d come into possession of valuable military information at the inn the evening prior. Spain was preparing to invade Georgia. Antigua’s Governor would be grateful for the news.

Had the Captain stepped outside of himself for a moment, he would have traveled back to Antigua empty-handed and discussed moving to South Carolina with his wife. A pro forma exchange, but not without value. He might have recognized that it was foolish to risk conjugal peace based on a ditty about peas and rice.

Furthermore, he might’ve recognized the folly of trying to recapture a momentary rapture with a purchase. His nebulous desires were unworthy of his character for a host of reasons, but there was one more flaw in all of this, one which stained his person with the darkest blotch of all and it was this:  How on God’s green earth could a man expect rapture to flow from transactions in human flesh?

 

Blue Cross and endings

These mosaics aren’t about my sister, per se — more about clearing out her apartment. The first four pictures show how she lived. The second four, the clean up.

As of this morning, it’s done. Keys handed over. Inspection performed. Cancellation of lease signed.

There were a lot of people at the housing office. Bundled against the cold. Stacking and restacking all the papers they’d brought. Proof of this. Proof of that.

It wasn’t lost on me that to each and every one of them, my sister’s death represented a boon — a chance to move up a slot on the waiting list. My sister was on that list for eight years. Waiting. Wondering. Whenever she’d trot out her conspiracy theories, I’d push back, “Nah — we’re just waiting for someone to die.”

I’m thinking the blue cross in my new quilt piece (more of a doodle than anything) might represent aid coming from unexpected places (a blue cross being a less recognizable symbol of aid than a Red Cross). The bird and flying insects represent freedom. The underlying thought is that it’s too bad my sister had to die for me to be free. It wasn’t the route I would have chosen. And my problems didn’t set it up that way.

In other fiber news, I added an external pocket to my denim travel bag for my phone. Yeah! Also, the pennant I contributed to Mo‘s project, “I dream of a world where love is the answer” has flown home, along with tokens. In particular, I love the little white star. Thank you, Mo!

And lastly, the woman who taught the Indigo workshop I attended in 2014 down in South Carolina, Donna Hardy, posted this on Instagram this week.

I am shipping off a heavy weight cotton rectangle with a simple resist that came from Africa. It’s an honor to be part of this project, too.

PS my eyes feel 90% better already!

Household phrase

“I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR! I KNOW THINGS!” (to be yelled like Billy Eichner interviewing New Yorkers on the street).

This week, that became a saying in this house.

It was a friendly thread on FB. Should we capitalize the word “enslaver,” asked someone who thinks about these things. Like “Democrat” or “Pope?”

I’m pretty sure everyone in the thread had come to grips with the idea that referring to ‘slaves’ as ‘the enslaved’ was less objectifying and worth the effort. And further, that replacing the benign, perhaps even noble, titles “planter” and “landowner” with “enslaver” in certain times and places in history was corrective. Necessary.

But with a capital ‘E’?

I played with the idea (Thomas Jefferson, President, Enslaver). Said I liked how it put the shameful next to the prestigious — right out there.

Martha set me straight. “Oh good grief,” she began. She made a condescending comment, complete with examples of usage. Went on to make a nonsensical distinction between occupations and appointments.

To my credit, I stayed in it without getting snide or contentious. I never mentioned the law degree that followed my English degree. She eventually gave up.

But now at odd moments in our house, you might hearing me loudly pronouncing: “I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR! I KNOW THINGS!”