Tag Archives: ‘middle passage’

Exercise in imitation of Colum McCann

Water Was

Water was refreshment. A bringer of fish. An instrument of light. A place to strip and ease the skin during blasting afternoon heat. Water was a knee baby’s source of joy. A place to gather and launder cloth.

Now, water was a shark bath, an endless stretch of grey, a bobbing, rocking, and storming transport. The repetitive slap of waves on the boat’s planks during the quieter days, delicate as it was compared to the pounding impact during torrential rain and wind, nevertheless tormented the kidnapped. The holds pulsed with the throbs of welts that puffed and stung where iron cut and abraded.  Joints vibrated in fiery ribbons of pain. Slap. Slap. Slap. Skin went sour with infection. Sick guts released over and over. Lips puffing to cracks. No wonder a slaver could be smelled two leagues off.

River-fresh water was something both less and more than memory.

The rocking made some of them sick. More seaworthy souls were sickened by the sliding puddles of vomit.  The defecation corner lasted all of one day and then it was the defecation hold, entire. In a short week and a half, dysentery would cause its floral notes to be squirted into the stew.

How could any man, tall, short, Portuguese, Dutch, English, with or without stripes, turn an entire ocean of water into such a vast jug of indignity?

Jemma vowed to appease his ancestors with blood.  Water might serve evil with its trans-Atlantic currents, but he would stand and rise on terra firma. He would stand and rise no matter the contour of the land drawing closer by the sick and sorry day.

Maghalah would be renamed “Maggie”.  The auctioneers couldn’t hear Yoruba in the syllables and the buyers didn’t care. By some stroke of weird fortune, an overseer haloed in red hair atop a face littered with freckles, such a strange sight to many of them, would buy both Maghalah and her mother, Saffron, but it would be hard to consider either the girl or her mother lucky by any other measure. Maghalah’s tiny frame would sweat and tremble all the way across the Atlantic to Sullivan’s Island. And after. The torment of the Captain’s violent privilege would not be remembered, but nor would it be forgotten. Trauma gone underground.

When the Passage and quarantine on the barrier isle were finally over, and after their sale and relocation, and during their ‘seasoning’, Saffron would comb her daughter’s hair in the pre-dawn hour and rattle on in a low voice about the acacia trees that ringed their village, about the clay along the Niger River, and ask in Yoruban, did her dear sweet girl remember the sound of women pounding cloth clean at the river, the thumps and the laughter?  Saffron worked memory like a defiant muscle. Saffron needed to speak her own tongue. Saffron wanted her daughter to remember, but wasn’t sure it helped. She no longer recognized what was balm to the soul and what constituted ongoing torture.

Home was not free of suffering, of course, but a natural order prevailed, more or less. Death might strike suddenly and heartlessly, imparting grief and ruin, but there was no one collection of people — not even competing and raiding tribes taking slaves – no one collection of people who had ever so thoroughly robbed another group of people of power and spirit and dignity, and then enforced that lowly status, savagely perpetuating it forward for twelve generations, based solely on skin color.

Though silence would become their primary language when in and among their captors, sometimes the native tongue of one or another of them would convey something immediate and raw. Such a conveyance might save a life – if the life wanted saving.  Or it might express a lyrical sentiment or nuanced observation that their broken English could not. And it mattered, even if only one other bondman in the field understood. Keening in their native language gave comfort in those early years.  Even if it was a voice of one or two, instead of the whole assembly, even if three or four languages rose in chorus, even if it was in the dark, fields and fields away from the Big House, where they were consigned to the dank, low spots of the woods, away. Small comfort as those echoes of home were, they would soon be transmuted, blended, and adapted to their new world, and faster than you might think possible.

This style exercise was written a few years ago and edited this morning, done in imitation of the opening section of “Dancer” by Colum McCann.

Though there’s some risk in publishing a couple of pages from my novel-in-progress, “Blood and Indigo,” I’m doing it anyway, partly because these pages have been rejected from the manuscript. Four of the novel’s characters show up — mother/daughter, the red-haired overseer, and Jemma. Only Jemma is based on a historic figure. He’s one of two figures consistently named in accounts of the Stono Rebellion (9/1739). The other is Cato.

All photos taken by me on an iPhone. In order: coffee pot from slave quarters at the Aiken Rhett House in Charleston; window opening and door and final house view from McLeod Plantation on James Island, sweetgrass basket was made by local African-American artisan and purchased at Charleston City Market.

Jewel tones and white

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New England quilters have been known to gravitate toward jewel tones this time of year. I know why! This little House Quilt arose from scraps left behind while finishing Middle Passage II yesterday. Sometimes these ‘cast off quilts’ are my favorite. There is a spontaneity to them that can get lost with other designs.

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Here is part of Middle Passage Two. This one focuses on the shape of the sails. I will not back the panel — just edge it and supply tabs on top so that it can hang like a curtain.IMG_7934
My daily pages are filled with snippets of learning that I eventually will share about the Middle Passage. For now, the quiet is good. Oh so good!! The incubation of this snow is making words seem far away. Appointments still being cancelled (though on account of the DOG, not the SNOW).
snow bank-winter2015

It is blessedly quiet here today (school children on vacation; roof clearing crews done for the time being; snow-moving trucks beeping away elsewhere). Why fill this rare, rare quiet with some of the most disturbing history there is?

Friday in between

IMG_6503Yesterday’s meal and company and fire were nice: delicious, warm, companionable. We had a couple of birthdays to celebrate, too.

IMG_6467.JPGIMG_6464.JPGIn the quiet aftermath, I have resumed work on the second Middle Passage quilt. In this one, the top band of cohesive and colorful culture is very narrow and grows increasingly fragmented as one works down toward the bottom, where the ocean resides.

IMG_6501.JPGThe pale green and white triangles are meant to signify the sails of the slave trading ships. The brown striped batik also signifies the slavers, but this time, the planking on the ships.

I forgot how much I like working this way.

deemallon, quilt, piecingIMG_6489Using photo apps to strip out color or intensify it can be a useful trick to find weaknesses in design.

I blogged about the first (and now complete) Middle Passage quilt here, but it occurs to me I have yet to post a good picture of it, finished and bound.

I’m afraid from now until the end of the year, my felt creatures will be hogging most of my time (not to mention Christmas), but in the New Year? Archives of everything! Binding and finishing at an amazing clip! With no significant writing time consumed!

 

trust time and edges

'Middle Passage I'

‘Middle Passage I’

This quilt has hung, unfinished, on a living room wall for a couple of seasons. I am finishing it now.
IMG_3782How often do I look at a thing undone and feel an unspoken but clear sense of failure?  (like those dolls on the mantle — when?!)

What if I walked around assured that each thing was being finished in its proper time?

The standard 1/4″ black binding with mitred corners was the first idea. But it was too much. Not right at all.  And, I didn’t want to use the machine.

IMG_0591I  pawed through my bins and found an old cotton apron. Very old. Very soft. Not quite Emancipation Proclamation period (1863), but a lot closer than most fabrics I own.
IMG_0586It was a little heartbreaking to tear through some hand darning.  But I did. As I ripped one, two, three, four, five strips, destroying the apron, hearing that destructive sound, I thought about the tearing action of the slave trade. Entire cultures being ripped apart — not just families.  Africans ripped from their homes, their continent, stripped of language, bearings, family, culture, dignity — and finally, their status as human beings.  Rip. Rip.
IMG_0605I am using a beautiful antique silk thread and starting on the top.  A simple running stitch. You can see the edge and the fabrics below. I like that.
IMG_0601You can’t tell from these photos, but the apron at some point in its life shared a wash with a red garment. The garment bled all over it.  That felt right, too.

This is the first of the Middle Passage quilts and will have a certain cheer and unity to the design.  It is meant as a ‘semi-before’ picture.  Terrible things have happened or are about to happen — traders kidnapping men, women and children,  chaining them in coffles and marching them to the sea.  Barracoons along the western coast of Africa warehousing human flesh.

But, it will get worse.

The next quilt will be darker and more fragmented.  African patterning less recognizable.  That will be THIS side of the ocean.

 

White privilege is an invisible thing

buttons-and-lace

My father, born in Fort Lee, NJ, raised in Queens, NY. Of Irish descent.

I have been wondering how to think about white privilege — how to acknowledge it, understand its parameters, and to notice the profound consequences of it in my life. It seems like the least I can do to honor Trayvon Martin. It strikes me as a more fitting tribute than wearing a hoodie to a rally.

Of course, wearing a hoodie to a rally is another way to express one’s grief at this shameful episode in American life and I’m glad that white people all over the country are doing as much. But one of the very first things to occur to me this week about racial privilege is that, in terms of the perception of menace, it doesn’t MATTER what I wear, or more to the point, what my 17 or 19 year old sons wear.

by-the-charlesHad my 17 year old been wearing a hoodie and acted in all the same ways as young Trayvon, either:  A) he’d still be alive, or B) Zimmerman would be in jail.  Further, if he HAD been shot and killed, the Stand Your Ground Rule would be dismantled in short order.

I was away during the trial and on a media fast, so I missed most of it, but I gather that the prosecution bungled the case pretty badly (perhaps the most obvious blunder being — AN ALL WHITE JURY, REALLY?!!)  A friend who is a criminal trial junkie (her term, not mine) stated it this way: “It was like watching a beloved sports team blowing it, over and over.”

Putting aside the nuances and complexities that populate most criminal trials, it is absolutely the case that there is real cause for outrage. And grief. And alarm. The Esquire piece by Charlie Pierce expresses that outrage clearly and poetically.

neworleans postcard

2005 – from Katrina series – “I am an American citizen”

What I have come up with regarding white privilege is only a threshold insight. It is this — when a cultural understanding is so assumed, so ingrained, and so supported by institutions, left and right, it becomes invisible. Part of the privilege of being a white American, then, is that my status requires no tending, examining, defending, or justifying.

2005 - Katrina series, close up

2005 – Katrina series, close up from another quilt

Put simply, one of the primary benefits of white privilege is not HAVING to think about race. What African American in this country has spent a single day of their lives similarly situated?

flower-of-youthWith all of this in mind, I started another White House quilt this week.

As some of you know, the White House quilt made earlier in the summer was, perhaps, about overcoming personal history — with white standing in for a state of peace or the absence of struggle.  And when I added a red thread, it became about protecting personal space.

The white in the White House quilt I’m making this week signifies a house in a protected, privileged, and not-necessarily Southern neighborhood. And the red signifies blood.

I placed red African fabric and a piece of a red floral handkerchief at the base of the white house — to represent the felling of a young African American in the flower of his youth — precisely because of his relationship to whiteness.  I built up the surrounding mantle with sections previously pieced (last summer) for one of the Middle Passage quilts.

white-house-and-middle-passage

White House, Blood, and Middle Passage

This really broke my heart. And here’s why.

Last summer, pairing up fabrics that represented African life in its sunny, beautiful, integrity with those that represented slave ships, ocean passage, and fragmentation of life, identity and culture, I thought of the Middle Passage, and even slavery, as history.

But the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman and the willingness to leave the Stand Your Ground Rule on the books, prove that slavery resides on a spectrum in this great land of ours, and that it’s not over yet. It is not over yet.

Any black person could have told me this.*

* As if to illustrate this point, reader Wendy sent this link in a comment below… It is a tour of Sanford, FL (where Zimmerman killed Trayvon) with a local African American and a visiting Canadian journalist. The tour guide tells of the long history of racism specific to and still-in-living memory of his town — including the lynching of his uncle for whistling at a white woman.  It is well worth the eight minutes viewing time.

Experimenting with quilt series

It is hard to think about anything but the election or the Nor ‘Easter rambling up the coast, but before too much more time goes by, I wanted to catch up my dear readers on the the Middle Passage quilt experiments.  You may recall “Middle Passage I” after its first dunk in the indigo vat:

It looked  more like blue fog than rising water, so I dunked the entire bottom half.  But first, I used corn syrup as a resist.  I slathered it on with a paint brush, hoping to preserve some of the color of the floral green shapes, the green hut, the turtle, and a few of the red stripes of the batik.
The corn syrup worked as a resist, but it will take some quilting to make it ‘work’ as a visual treatment.  And maybe it won’t.  We’ll see.  Not sure what the sugars did, if anything, to the indigo vat.
The back shows how much dye the quilt has absorbed.  Some dye landed on the upper green/white linen area by accident, so with a paint brush I applied more dye just to the surface (techniques learned in Glennis Dolce’s Indigo Class).  I also shadowed the edge of the moon with indigo.

Last week my fingers turned blue while quilting those floral green areas and the turtle.  And, I was disappointed with what the stitching accomplished.  Between the transfer of dye to my fingers and the presence of batik (notoriously difficult to poke a needle through), I may opt to draw with thread on one of my machines.

Also, it occurred to me that if this quilt is to live on someone’s wall in the future, it will need to be backed with fresh cloth, because I think the dye would transfer to the wall as well.  Maybe I could rinse in vinegar?  Then wash in soap and water?  I did this for the first time with one of the rectangular pieces of linen that I hemmed into a scarf.  Not a trace of blue came out in the rinse, which means success – I think!

I am prepared to be disappointed with these experiments.  It is the very nature of an experiment that the outcome is unknown.  In a way, every quilt is an experiment.  But, sometimes we add new techniques or color choices that scramble things more than usual.  If this one bombs, I will cut it up and try to use the pieces in another way. 

What do YOU do with failed experiments?  And, how do you talk to yourself while trying something utterly new and possibly terrible looking?

Middle Passage reveal

This is ‘Middle Passage I’ after dunking the lower edge into the indigo vat.  By adding more resists, I managed to retain more of the original fabric than I did with the other Middle Passage piece (where I turned the bottom four inches of the quilt into a solid band of dark blue).
I like how some of the dye concentrated on the stitches.
I also like how some of the indigo visually ties into the hand-dyed fabric that I had purchased and pieced right above the yellow-dunked print (they’re the ivory, ecru, and blue rectangles).  But, overall, this experiment might have proved more satisfactory had I dyed the cloth prior to attaching the three layers together – the batting absorbed a lot of the dye that might have otherwise saturated the quilt top.  Some of the indigo streaks don’t appear to fully saturate the threads. Below, is a view of the quilt that did NOT get immersed.
This morning, I twisted and dunked yet ANOTHER Middle Passage quilt (III?).
I can’t show you how it looks yet, but it is the least successful of the three by a lot.  Here’s how it looked prior to submersion:
Because I liked the red batik border on this one, I folded the quilt and immersed the mid-section.

Because I’m unhappy with the result, tomorrow I will probably go ahead and dunk the entire lower half.  I wish I knew how to apply a rice paste – I would use that to preserve some of the red.