Category Archives: slavery

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.

strange fruit

“Strange Fruit” — 28″ x 26″

This piece emerged while I was making the “Middle Passage” quilts. In that series, I used a brown fabric with horizontal stripes to represent slave ships. That fabric shows up again here, notably under a white house. It’s one of those references that no one would get unless I told them, i.e. a white structure upheld by the slave trade. The central motif was pieced during the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal (blogged about here and here).

“Strange Fruit” addresses the fact that the racism underpinning slavery exists on a continuum — how it’s evolved rather than disappeared. Specifically, I was thinking about the Jim Crow era and all its brutality — which explains the tree motif and the quilt’s title. At some point during its creation, I researched images of lynching victims. These are hard to look at. Nevertheless, I printed three of them out onto a sheer organza with the idea of overlaying the human images on the tree fabric to make explicit the reference. But I found I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I carefully rolled up the three sheer rectangles of cloth and placed them in boxes or vases for safekeeping — away from human eyes, in a restful dark — until I could decide what to do with them. Bury them?

Around the same time, I came across notes about a visual arts show (in D.C., maybe?) that featured images of lynched African Americans. I read with avid interest how carefully staged and curated the show had been, specifically designed to account for the intense sorrow or rage that might arise, including the hosting of structured, public conversations.

It confirmed my decision to exclude the images.

I couldn’t retrace that research now, but here’s a link to a similarly themed 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This show was a collaboration between the museum and the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization founded by Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy / A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Stevenson’s new project, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes episode, but it you’re short on time, I recommend watching the short clip at the top of the Memorial’s website, here.

To continue.

Last weekend, K and I attended Claudia Rankine’s play, “The White Card” — which addresses this very topic, that is, white people’s support of and use of images of black death in art — either art they create or art they buy. The black artist character, Charlotte, refers to the topic as “the black death spectacle”.

The play asked lots of provocative questions about cultural appropriation and they were all the more powerful for being aimed at white liberal progressives “trying to do the right thing”.

(I cringed when I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me” on the living room coffee table. Is that a ‘meta-prop’ — a prop of a prop? You can just make it out on the white upholstered surface).

Needless to say, the black artist invited to a dinner party hosted by wealthy white potential patrons cringes over a lot more than that. The collectors mean well — ahem — but the conversations make clear that good intentions are not enough (when did I hear that last? — in a review of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, “Detroit”.)

The play wrestles with the question: What does it mean to portray black suffering as art? More specifically, what does it mean when white artists do so or when white collectors collect it?

One statement and one question really stood out and apply to me (to this quilt and others, as well as the many-year project of setting a piece of historic fiction in 18th century South Carolina):

  • “Maybe you buy images of black death because that’s the only form of blackness you’re comfortable with” and
  • “Why don’t you make yourself your project?” (instead of black suffering).

Back to the ink-jet print-outs: I have looked for those disturbing cloth-printed figures a number of times in the intervening years and not been able to find them. This probably says more about my distracted self and less about the potency of the images, but still … Now, at least, I know that they will never, ever appear on any art work of mine.

I’ll end with a question Charlotte asks of her white patron: “Have you ever had the feeling that you’re ALL WRONG?”

Choose Listen

A fluffy snow fell. I slept late. Tried not to feel guilty. On our walk (trusty ear buds in place) a little of my soul was restored by the smart pundits behind “Pod Save America”.

(this morning’s main point: pleeeease people! It’s not the fucking profanity that offends, it’s the underlying racial animus).

Off to the page. This morning already written a few paragraphs wondering what it’ve been like to see your breath for the first time as an underdressed bondwoman from Africa?

I will leave you with with an excerpt from this week’s reading:

“We follow the speaker and their shifting states, look at their shirt (do I want it?) carefully examining their shoes, taking their pulse in terms of the rhythmic pitch, the seismic by which we know what is going on in the ocean on earth right here in the room in terms of information mattering. Each of us is a cell of that potential knowledge cluster, that mammoth great dog being lead right now through the cosmos.

More and more of us came and the patterns got swifter and the knowing entirely disassembled and we will never reassemble it again but instead we now return to knowing’s just before. It is attractive.

To add. I did this in my childhood too. And you too else you would not be here. In adulthood we must relearn the wisdom of the young who feels her inside while she is being taught she is wrong. To abide in the totalitarian, to survive one must look straight into the face of the nun or whoever and muse. Yet this brought so much upon me. Warily I learned not to absorb their enmity. Choose listen.”

Eileen Myles, Afterglow (a dog memoir).

PS if you’re an SNL fan, there are strong echoes with Aidy Bryant’s recent Weekend Update performance, in which Aidy Bryant apologizes every other second and tries to craft her message about equality in a manner palatable to men.

Ward and Northup

I finished four books in the first week of 2018, a fact that’s a little less impressive given that I’d already read 2/3’s of one and 1/2 of another and that one of them was a slender volume of poems. And Shakespeare? The text is limited to the facing pages, so that went fast, too. Also: I tend to be terrific out of the gate, flag at the mid-range and die towards the end. The real test for this challenge (#theunreadshelfproject2018) will be mid-summer and fall.

Jesmyn Ward’s book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has everything (except sex): addiction, death, redemption, a road trip, one character’s coming of age, parenting (both deficient and exemplary), prison and release, the long shadow of slavery, and ghosts.

Set in contemporary Mississippi, the story features three generations and centers on themes of caregiving, racism, and secrets. There are acts of self-destruction and acts of mercy. The author also takes an interesting look at the porous line between death and life.

The elders, who are both African Americans, take care of their two bi-racial grandchildren. Their drug addicted daughter, Leoni, drives north to pick up her white husband, who’s about to be released from Parchman Prison. Leoni gathers up her 13 year old son, her toddler daughter, and a friend for the drive. That journey parallels two others that are happening simultaneously: the journey of her cancer-ridden mother toward death and that of her son, who approaches adulthood by grappling with the harsh truths around him, some of which have previously been secret.

I can tell you without spoiling too much that the novel features two ghosts. Early on, we learn that Leoni’s brother was “accidentally” killed by her husband’s cousin (we are meant to see it otherwise). She can see her brother’s ghost, but only when she’s high, a fact that made her addiction both more complicated and understandable. The other ghost appears to her son during the drive to Parchman. He is a former inmate and will be instrumental in releasing a long-held secret of Leoni’s father.

The 13 year old boy is a better caretaker of his sister than their mother, something that causes Leoni no end of defeated bitterness. The scenes of mother lashing out in frustration are rendered well and, for obvious reasons, hard to take. We see one of the costs of drug abuse up close and personal.

The author shifts point of view by chapter so that we get different perspectives throughout, but every chapter features haunting, gritty, and lyrical prose.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To follow Jesmyn Ward’s book with a slave narrative made for powerful and damning echoes. [Trump’s “shithole countries” comment came two days ago, so there is no escaping the specter of white supremacy these days, said a person with white privilege].

One of the most startling parallels between Ward’s novel and Northup’s narrative can be found in the labor scenes. It was shocking but not shocking that the field work scenes depicted at Parchman Prison were barely distinguishable from those of a plantation (think: patrollers and dogs; unpaid labor. Think: Ava DuVernay’s “The Thirteenth”).

Both Ward’s novel and Solomon Northup’s story contain details of racially animated violence almost too awful to bear.

I won’t go more into the slim and eloquent “Twelve Years a Slave” because I imagine many of you have seen the film, except to say this : reading the narrative is very worthwhile even if you’ve seen Steve McQueen’s movie. To hear the words of this free black is powerful. To slow down and see the world through his eyes, also powerful.

Also read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an issue of the literary journal, Rattle.

Dogged effort 

I tried to download a Countdown Clock to help me focus on an arbitrary deadline (to finish a first draft). But it’s too complicated, so I’ll just tell you. An October 30, 2017 deadline means I have 109 days left.

That’s pretty sobering and I guess that’s the idea.

A quick check in on progress —

— revising an early chapter when Eliza’s father and his newly purchased Barbadian slave sail back to Antigua, where the Lucas family lives.

“How long would that take?” was a question that suddenly needed answering.

Ugh, I spent an impossible amount of time trying to find out. First, determined the distance between islands was 492 kilometers. Then converted kilometers to nautical miles (a nautical mile = 1.8 km). Then learned that American nautical miles and British nautical miles are not the same and decided not to worry about that. Also decided not to worry about wind speed or direction, in part because I can never remember what ‘a northerly wind’ means — as in, does it blow IN from the north, or TOWARDS the north? (I’m pretty sure it’s the former).

My rough calculation: three days. For some reason, I’d been operating under the assumption that it was an afternoon’s sail.

So, now I need to think about: What else would have been on that schooner? Would a newly purchased slave be allowed to wander about at will? Where would she have slept? If there was human cargo on board, what would it’ve been like for her to see them, chained in irons in the dark hold below? And, if she was unable to see them, would she have been able to hear them? Would she have had any conversations with her new owner and if so, what about?

My character is musing about the power and variety of lies (in part because she understands that the stated reason for her purchase is a lie), but something needs to happen since pure musing gets boring.

Yesterday, I revised a chapter where skunk bones figure heavily. An enslaved man recently arrived on the Lucas plantation in South Carolina, is a trained priest (babalawo) from Ife and grieving a brother who died during the Middle Passage. He wishes to remain apart, hidden, even. But when he finds an entire skunk skeleton, he takes it as a sign that he cannot walk away from his power.

Feedback on chapter five

Yesterday was my day to get feedback on some manuscript pages. Much was very positive (always nice to hear) — the prose was “vivid” “raw,” “transporting,” with credible characters. The rapes described: ‘disturbing without being gratuitous’ (but would they have used the word ‘rape’? –  good question).

The more critical feedback addressed some of the ongoing difficulties. These difficulties are listed below in no particular order:

1). It’s my first attempt at writing a novel. 2). There’ve been some ongoing (sometimes heartbreaking) caretaking responsibilities during these same years. 3). Voice. Voice. Voice. 4). Race. Race. Race. 5). Tempo (is this section too interior? have I spent too much time describing the light?)

Voice goes to research and it goes to structure and it goes to race (including but not limited to problems of cultural appropriation) and it may be the single biggest ongoing challenge I face. If I ever dump the project (and believe me, I consider it often), this will be the reason.

To put it another way:  How, as a white suburban Yankee in the 2000’s, do I craft a southern landscape with authentic (or at least not mortally offensive) white and black characters set in the mid-eighteenth century? 

I chose to tell the Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapters in first person and the bondwomen sections in third person close. I didn’t think I could pull off first person for the enslaved characters, a decision that seems alternately respectful and cowardly. Even third person close is very very hard. Until a professional asks me to revisit these two overarching decisions, I’m sticking with them.

But, can I rethink the complete absence of an omniscient narrator? Not having one means that historic conditions have to be explained vis-a-vis the characters. It can be cumbersome. Plus, I’m denied any opportunity to make modern observations about human bondage (which, in the thick of things, believe me, I do really want to make).

Some historic junk I’ve assimilated so thoroughly that it flows into the narrative easily and then the issue is — does my reader understand what I’m talking about? (what’s a ‘factor’? is a ‘Guinea’ a ship? why say ‘rigger’ when ‘sailor’ would do? I know what a ‘mulatto’ is, but what’s a ‘quadroon’?) Other times, the insertion of historic detail is clunky and it’s hard to tell if it’s essential to the story or something better left out.

“working in the brakes… certain winds over Barbados brought the smell of a slaver long before its sail appeared on the horizon… Noah was a quadroon… the cutter monkeyed to the ground, hand still clutching the machete”

Anyway, when the idea was floated to allow myself the occasional insertion of an omniscient narrator, I was very open to it. And, guess what? I’ve been hearing this new voice talk all day and it’s not at all who I expected (i.e., white, female academic). Instead, he’s a sly and humorous bondman. I suspect his forceful commentary will ‘lay some learnin’ on me way before he does on you. I don’t think he’ll get a name. We’ll see. I’ve also kept the Barbadian cane grower who rapes one of my main characters (Sally aka Melody) nameless.

Tomorrow: how what I learned about accountability at the Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles anti-racism training on Wednesday applies to manuscript feedback.

(Note next day: Nope. Can’t go there yet).

Photographs were taken February 2017, at MacLeod Plantation on James Island.

Screen and page catch up

Image result for rachel mcadams and colin farrellTrue Detective, Season Two, received mixed reviews, but I found it pretty compelling. The plot gets dense, meaning I had to refer to the internet now and then, but I didn’t mind (thank god for the “Pause” button!). The characters are really great, with good back stories, and there’s plenty of corruption and suspense to go around, which I like.

And, I cannot stop raving about the show’s spectacular opener.

[Leonard Coen sings “Never mind” to a haunting array of double/triple images featuring the faces of the main characters and aerials of California].
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I’ve never seen Vince Vaughn in a role that I liked until now. Even though by the last couple of episodes the lack of inflection in his voice made me a little nuts, he was amazing. He plays a complicated and sympathetic Mafioso-type who is clever but not quite clever enough. There’s an erotic scene between Farrell and McAdams that starts when they are in hiding in a cheap hotel room. The way they DON’T look at each other is every bit as charged as how they DO look at each other. It was miles from that up-against-the-wall-standing-fuck so often dished up on film when two characters have held off acting on their mutual attraction.
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I can’t talk about Taylor Kitsch without totally embarrassing myself. Suffice it to say, I ate up “Friday Night Lights” a couple of summers ago. Image result

Finished the novel by Ben H. Winters called “Underground Airlines”. It was the kind of dystopian novel that describes a landscape that could be fifteen minutes from now (my favorite kind — think: Octavia Butler, “Parable of the Sower”).  The central conceit is that four states have maintained the institution of human bondage. The main character is a PB (‘person bonded’) who is ‘freed’ in order to capture runaways.

The scenes in Indiana of a black man negotiating white neighborhoods or encountering policemen read like today’s newspaper. The tracking chip inserted in the base of the protagonist’s skull could be tomorrow. It was a real page turner, with plenty of corruption and twists of plot, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the author has won both mystery and sci-fi writing prizes.

Like the evening news, the book forces a look at how the effects of slavery linger.

I heard the author, who is white, interviewed and could relate to the doubts engendered by inventing African American characters. The book was well-received, but nothing like the the more recently published “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. I heard Teri Gross interview Whitehead last week and look forward to reading the book soon. I felt a smidge of pain on Winters’ behalf when his novel was not mentioned in Teri’s list of recent books dealing with slavery.

Now, I’m reading J.D.Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy. I’ll post some notes about it later.

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