Tag Archives: slavery

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?

* * * *

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.

 

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?

 

Transitions and things and slavery (never far from my mind)

C and his girlfriend went away for the long weekend. As soon as they returned, it was time to drive my other son to the airport. Washing dishes at the sink this morning, I thought, “oh this phase of the empty nest is marked by transition,” and then a heart beat later, “ALL phases of life are marked by transition.” After all, I was washing a ceramic bowl that an hour earlier belonged to a downsizing friend.

Scanning her garage shelves this morning I said,  “I’ll look because both boys are setting up apartments this fall,” but the truth is I find opportunities to receive free stuff irresistible.  Perhaps my choices were puzzling to her. I took several decades’ worth of spigot and hose attachments, but not the complete set of enamel-handled silverware (surely handy in a young man’s empty apartment?!). I grabbed the funky, brass crab ash tray, but left the collection of vases from all over the world behind.   It is not quite as fun as it used to be — this gleeful, thrifty form of acquisition — because I now understand the cost of HAVING things. The housing, the cleaning, perhaps the wishing I hadn’t.  But still, can anyone doubt that those giraffe salad utensils look happy in their new home? Look at them, checking out the kitchen!

I could go on a framing spree to justify the big box of wooden frames I lugged home.

Or, I could go drink iced coffee in the shade before it rains. I’d like to finish Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses” even though I may have less idea about what’s going on than the author intended. Can’t a read be like that? Just a letting of the text wash over the mind? And then it’s back to “Blood and Indigo” and Eliza and the enslaved Melody and the events during the week of the Stono Slave Rebellion (the second week of September, 1739). Imagining.

It requires research and a kind of patient waiting to describe a scene situated almost 300 years ago. What was in the minds of my white characters that week? What was in the minds of my black characters? The attempt to fully imagine those events feels like a fruitful one. I begin to understand the harsh tensions of that time, including the true costs of slavery. The void between white and black points of view is vast and unbridgeable, as I tell it, and perhaps one or even both sides are unknowable to me, and yet, I keep going for it.

Sadly, this research and patient imagining of violence brought on by racial oppression echoes across the centuries and helps me to understand OUR time as well. I wish that weren’t true.

All kinds of things tell me that we, America, might be at a tipping point. Don’t you think? Commentators a lot better informed than I are talking about the coming of the end of white supremacy (for example, here). Everywhere, I see signs of a willingness to take on our history with a fresh and more honest approach.   


(If you know that this is Newton’s Jackson Homestead, celebrated as one of the documented stops on the Underground Railroad, you will understand the import of that banner).

To be continued, of course.

Keeper of the nest

Last fall, I found this nest on the lawn of The Royall House and Slave Quarters, in Medford, Mass., after spending a night in the quarters as part of The Slave Dwelling Project (blogged about here). How could I NOT pick it up? And how could I not feel a little ambivalent about picking it up? It spoke to me of fragile lodgings and displaced homes. The act of scooping it up as “mine”, referenced ownership, improper and otherwise.birdnest-deemallon But I took it. And housed it with care.

Last week, this bird doll and the nest and a reading of “The Logbooks – Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory” by Anne Farrow all came together. (I am almost done with the book and sooo wish I had heard Farrow speak recently at The Royall House. She authored another book called: “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery“). It felt proper to include some cloth that I dyed under Donna Hardy’s tutelage in South Carolina as part of The Sea Island Indigo Workshop (blogged about here and around there).  Afterall, the indigo we used had provenance to the time of slavery, and the land itself had been worked by the enslaved. I marked 25 places in the hem, so that I could stitch blood-red beads — with each one standing for a decade of slavery. I poked around my studio and found some rusty bits, too.
IMG_1841
IMG_1842To keep the nest visible, I selected a wide-mouthed jar for the base. (The white cloth was rejected).
IMG_1872
IMG_1871
IMG_1869A certain somebody, who likes all of my cloth projects, seems to have an especial fondness for this one. He stole it off the table and chewed it down in the dirty back yard twice, and stole it from the living room coffee table once, and managed to eat three or four of the silk beads during yet another unattended moment (silly me! — I have more, beads that is, and well, also, unfortunately, moments of not paying attention). The doll will get made. Finn seems dedicated to calling HER ownership into question as well!
IMG_9446The next post will feature some content from “The Logbooks” and some ideas about dealing with this particular ambivalence.