Category Archives: slavery

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?) Other times, it’s just clunky and it’s hard for me to know if I’m showing off (look what I’ve learned!) or whether the historic business at hand is essential to the story.

“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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In between

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between day and night

Between sleep and waking: yesterday I woke with four syllables in my mind: Appomattox. (That’s the place where General Grant finally cornered General Lee). It was a dream about writing.

Even though 1865 is more than 100 years after ‘my period’, I rewatched the Ken Burns’ Civil War episode featuring General Lee’s surrender, in part to see why my dreams would use this specific place name. So, I listened again to Mary Chestnut’s heartbreak at the fall of Richmond; to how a cavalry of black soldiers escorted Lincoln not long after; to how the KKK was born almost exactly as the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified into law. It’s a moving episode highlighting the extraordinary cost of that war.

I am rambling here, but I want to end with recent scholarly recommendations about vocabulary, indicating how we are ‘in between’ myth and a greater truth about our history:

Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications.

And:

[L]et us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared. The dichotomy of “Union v. Confederacy” is no longer acceptable language; its usage lends credibility to the Confederate experiment and undermines the legitimacy of the United States as a political entity. The United States of America fought a brutal war against a highly organized and fiercely determined rebellion – it did not stop functioning or morph into something different. We can continue to debate the nature and existence of Confederate “nationalism,” but that discussion should not affect how we label the United States during the war.   

Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University specializing in the intersection of slavery and politics in the 19th century United States, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).

– See more at: History Network’s website.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves on the verge of spring, when there hasn’t really been a winter. In my yard, the crocus have been blooming since mid-February. Still, the birds gladdened the air this morning. I walked out for the paper at around 5:15 (thank you, Finn, the furry alarm clock) and reveled in their songs and the smell of rain.

And, apropos of dirt (which I just read might have healing properties merely by squishing a clump in your hand — Atlantic Magazine, The Nature Cure), I made a recent decision, one that makes me feel good.  I will focus all my gardening energies this year on the side and front yards, areas where Finn has no access. I hope this will offset some of the discouragement about the dirt-mess the backyard has become.

 

Silence of listening and acknowledging

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Magnolia Plantation, April 2014

Thank you to Christi Carter of Sweet Pea Path for sending me a link to an article called “Holding the Sacred Space of Many Silences“.  Written by a young Northern white woman teaching in Charleston, South Carolina, she makes some great points.

I love what she says about failure and silence.

In order to do this work — to even begin to think about attempting this work — one must acknowledge that this will be a practice of many failures. In order to give voice to the transatlantic slave trade, its long life, and its innumerable repercussions, one must embrace a silence created by two factors: a silence necessary for listening, and a silence necessary to acknowledge that which is unspeakable.

The article came just as I was finishing “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His beautiful prose and hard-hitting insights are essential reading — especially if one is white and serious about becoming conscious about racism. I came away feeling chastened by all the ways that white privilege so seamlessly bolsters my life and my children’s lives and also saddened at all the ways racism continues to destroy African-American lives. Right now, I’m taking a break from the book about Afro-Cuban Ifa (Babalawos, Santeria’s High Priests, by Frank Baba Eyiogbe). My head spins with the complexities, not at all helped by so many of the gods’ names beginning with the letter “o”!

Lately, I’ve been rewriting a lot and trying not to worry about it. There is so much story still to go! But this is where the energy gathers and I’d be a fool to fight it.

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Magnolia Plantation, April 2014

I am trying to figure out this business of voice for the enslaved characters. Those chapters are written in “third person close narrative”, which means even though I am referring to them in the third person, the story is coming as if from inside their heads. The language can’t be mine. And it can’t be Eliza’s. To help, I am referring to transcribed interviews of former slaves collected during the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (“Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember“). The people collecting the narratives were all white, so there’s that. But as best I can tell, they captured the cadence of speech employed by the enslaved, as well as their vocabulary and sentence structure.

Some other well-known slave narratives are less useful for this purpose because the writers became literate to such polished degrees (Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass“, Harriet Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Solomon Northrup, “Twelve Years a Slave“).

IMG_7546The Eliza chapters are told in the first person. I find her easy to hear in my head.

My goal is that by juxtaposing her story with the stories of a handful of her slaves, the structure of the novel itself will create a harsh and exacting contrast. A while ago, I made this collage of well-to-do Colonial children and a desolate Louisiana bayou to explore this very contrast.

And speaking of contrasts. How about my plodding descriptions of this or that and Janelle’s exuberant description of struggle?!!

Onward!

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Writer, Black Characters

IMG_7101Some time ago, I received a challenge on Instagram about my use of images of African Americans. After watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s show, “Finding Your Roots”, I had triple exposed photos of a quilt I’m working on (from the “Middle Passage” series) with a TV screen capture of an enslaved woman near a river in Louisiana. The result was haunting and satisfying enough that I wanted to share a few of the variations, and did. Undoubtedly, copyright violations. But were they acts of cultural appropriation?

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Through both quilting and photo collages, I have been letting my imagination range in service of writing a piece of historic fiction set in South Carolina in the eighteenth century. As an intensely visual person, working with photos and cloth often comes more readily than writing a historical scene, particularly one with dialogue.

But whether in cloth, photography, or text, when is the use of an African American image or topic by a white artist an act of cultural appropriation? And if it is, how do you tell? Can a white audience/creator ever be the judge? Do the artist/writer’s intentions matter? And if a work offends even one African American, should I defend it?

Initially, I did defend the images. ‘Exploration in service of understanding. American history/my history. Blah, blah.’ But then, after following tags like #whitefragility on twitter and reading articles with titles along the lines of, “why I won’t discuss race with my white friends anymore”, I sent a private apology and deleted them.

But now I’m posting them again. Have I learned nothing? I am not sure about any of this.

[Just to explore the idea that my results would be ‘truer’ using topics closer to my own ancestry, I layered the same quilt image with a TV screen-capture of Irish gangsters from ‘Peaky Blinders’. The results were more compelling, but I don’t think it was the Irish connection that made them so].

I am a firm believer in genetic memory. Just so you know.

In the foreword to her book, “The Logbooks — Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory”, journalist Anne Farrow describes a conversation with a black friend who challenged her choice of topic. Her friend said, “‘When white people take up black stuff, there’s always a reason. There’s always something there.'” My sister refers to that ‘something’ as “hinky”.

So, am I entitled to the topic of slavery? Is there any way to get it right? I like to think I’m self-aware, without major amounts of hinkiness lurking. The only thing I can come up with is this: I don’t want to spend this much time with fictional material closer to my own suffering — and maybe so much so, that I’d rather leap across three centuries and a tricky racial divide. Okay, but is that ‘hinky’?

‘The research I’ve done about slavery has made me a better citizen’ is something I have asserted from time to time. And indeed, if healing the wound of racism requires acknowledging the complexity and horror of our history, then shouldn’t all of us white people be learning a little? And maybe even, a lot? You cannot read about the transatlantic slave trade and the practices of enslavers and be unmoved or unchanged. And, if you follow the news, you cannot learn about this historic stuff and think, “glad that’s over”.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intense and informative article, “The Case for Reparations“, he asserted that the fact that one’s white ancestors were not here during the 250 years of slavery in no way makes us exempt. And why would we be, when we dwell in white privilege? For purposes of white privilege, it doesn’t matter when our grandparents arrived. It only matters that they were white. Even if they were shabby, uneducated, Catholic, Irish. Still white.

Watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series for the third time, I hear Shelby Foote‘s words with new ears. He said something like, ‘oh, sure we’ve had other important conflicts in our history like the Revolutionary War, but you cannot understand the American psyche unless you understand the Civil War.’

[Case in point: how can you understand the rise of the Tea Party without understanding the Civil War? And Trump? Clearly, his hat should read (I didn’t think of this): “Make America White Again”.  As if it ever was].

Around the time the controversy about the novel ‘The Help’ erupted, I watched a documentary about the making of the film “Nat Turner”. The movie was based on William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner“. Most of the interviewees harshly criticized Styron and the movie because they diminished a hero in African American history, especially, but not exclusively, by making him lust after a white woman.

Lots to learn and note from the documentary, but since I was busy writing scenes of another slave rebellion (The Stono Uprising, SC, 1739) and wringing my hands about ‘getting it right’, my take away came from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who voiced a contrary view. He said something like, “if others have a different version of Turner, let them write their own novel.”

Pondering all of this, I found an an article on the site “The Root” entitled, “White Writer/Black Characters: Bad Idea?” by Desmond-Harris. After establishing that no writing pleases every audience, she asked, does that mean you should abandon your interest in making black women your protagonists?  She continued:

“No way,” says Marita Golden, author of a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race. “White people, because of the emotional legacy as well as the historical and political legacy of racism, often feel that they do not have access to the black soul and the black spirit,” she told me, “but I think writers have the right to write about anything.” In fact, she said, “I really feel that white people should write about black characters.” …

So here’s a start. Develop relationships that will allow you to become confident that you can begin to speak to that experience, because you know African-American women as individuals. “Usually, white people who write meaningful books with black characters, they do have black people in their lives who they know deeply and respect,” said Golden. To be clear, that’s “as friends, not as research. Serious, meaningful, complete friendships with black people.”

I wonder about jinxing my writing efforts with such a public discussion, but this is where I am. Where I dwell. (I like Saskia claiming the word, ‘dwelling’ — there’s a lot to that word. And it seems like it resonates with ‘remembering’ (Liz) and  ‘flourishing’ (Peggy)).

This might be a selfish post dressed up as risk taking, but there’s so little cloth in my hands these days and the business of creating one page after another is so solitary that the urge to connect here with where I dwell wins out over cautionary superstition!

To be clear: I am not looking for permission or rigid definitions. I am curious. What do others think about cultural appropriation, the uses of the imagination, artistic subject matter, genetic memory? What about this business of facing suffering straight on vs. from the side?

The Spiral of Work — October 2014

polebarn-indigo-ravenel-deemallonContinuing with a one-year-backward-look as a tool to propel some completion of unfinished work, here’s a shot from last fall. This time last year, I was busy integrating my experience from the Sept. ’14 Sea Island Indigo workshop. I really can’t believe that was only last year! Was it?!!
indigo-clothhoop-weaving-deemallonAnd, here is a piece that was begun in Jude‘s Considering Weave class. Not sure what I’ll do with it, or even where to find it!

Another incomplete piece:
indigo-quilt-moon-deemallonI’m happy to say that the October 2014 folder includes a few finished things as well: two dolls that I made for my sons and the “LA Circles” quilt that I finished a couple of weeks ago.
boydolls-deemallon-ragdolls The book to finish is a memoir about the descendant of slave owners in Texas — his process of investigation and atonement. It’s called “Tomlinson Hill”.  I purchased the book after hearing the author interviewed on the radio, and within a couple of weeks (during The Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight in Medford, Mass., at the Royall House and Slave Quarters), I met two or three people who were descended from slave owners and learned about the group, “Coming to the Table“.  The group is “for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism rooted in the United States’ history of slavery.” There was a meeting nearby recently, but I don’t seem to be in a phase of life where it is easy, natural, or right (somehow) to join a group or even attend meetings. Too much else pressing, including the need for restorative solitude.
tomlinsonhill-deemallonBut I can read. The book comes at a good time — I started and then put down “Purity” — Jonathan Franzen’s new novel (I’m a fan!). I was going like gangbusters because it’s a “speedread” from the library (7 days, no renewal), until I realized that the toxic relationships described in the story were just too close to some parts of my current reality to make the read pleasurable. I like books that challenge me and make me uncomfortable (and those that don’t, btw), but this was too much. Control what you can control, right?!

African Burying Ground – for reverence, reflection, learning

IMG_2217In October of 2003, multiple coffins were discovered under a Portsmouth, NH street during an infrastructure update.

Further study (DNA-testing and archeological examination) confirmed that the remains of the 13 people found were African-born — both enslaved and free. What is now a short urban street originally lay at the outskirts of town, and although papers housed with the city refer to the area as a “Negro burying ground” beginning in 1705, the city grew up and over the graves. None of the dead are named.

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Portsmouth put together a committee to raise money and create a site that would allow “reverence, reflection, and learning.”  The process took over ten years and the result is the African Burying Ground Memorial. I knew about it from coverage in The Boston Globe from the spring (May 2015), when a consecration ceremony was held and the human remains were laid to rest in the new vault.

At the corner, one first meets the Entry Figures. They stand back to back. The plaque tells us that the male figure represents the first enslaved Africans brought to Portsmouth, while the female figure represents Mother Africa.

entryfigure-portsmouth-deemallonafricanburial-motherafrica-nh-deemallonafricanburying-deemallonAt the site’s consecration, artist Jerome Meadows mentioned that there was quite a bit of debate about whether these hands should touch.* Ultimately, the decision was NO. The gap stands as a “reminder of their forced separation and the division of past injustice.”  Indeed, it is full of tension and heart ache.

IMG_2214Someone had recently left a red rose in Mother Africa’s palm. The fragility of those petals, well into the process of decay, managed to convey a sense of reverence and stillness, countermanding — even in their delicacy — a street construction project ten yards from her feet in one direction and a roofing project twenty yards from her hip in the other direction.

 From there, a ribbon of contrasting red stone engraved with words from a 1779 petition leads you further into the site. The Petition was drafted by twenty enslaved men who had served in the Revolutionary War. Sensitive to the Revolution’s language of freedom and equality, they were among many blacks who tried to make a case for their OWN freedom during this period. The petition was heard but not acted upon because it was “not a convenient time”.

The petition was eventually passed — quite recently (April 2013). You can read more about it here and read the petition in its entirety here. Above is a screen shot from the last link and I include it so that, if you wish, you can read the twenty names outloud.

Finally, you come to the vault, where the new caskets were interred, and these figures. IMG_0326africanburyinggroundnh-deemallonLife-sized and featureless, representing both genders and all ages, each of the eight figures bears a line of a poem (below) by the artist, Jerome Meadows. africanburyinggroundnh-plaque-deemallon
  africanamericanvault-nh-deemallonThe vault features a mosaic rendering of the Adinkra symbol, SAKOFA, which means “Go Back and Get It — Learn from the Past”.   The railing shapes reference oars and the middle passage. Middle school children designed them after learning about Kente cloth and Mr. Meadows transferred their designs onto tile.  A few other thoughts:

  • I like that the site occupies the original burying ground, even as it is incongruous with the houses and businesses now there. Afterall, the history of slavery is an inconvenient history — one many of us would rather not learn.  And why should THEY  — the neglected remains — be moved elsewhere?
  • The second figure is stamped with the words: I stand for those who feel anger. That’s probably you. And it’s me. To be included here mattered in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I don’t expect this sort of inclusion. I don’t require it. And in fact, to expect it would be presumptuous and ridiculous. I even hesitate to write this reaction because IT IS SO NOT ABOUT ME. And yet, when I read those words (I stand for those who feel anger), my relationship to the memorial shifted a little, and it felt enlarged.
  • Without knowing a thing, really, I took this inclusion as an indication of a good community process. It gave me hope, really.
  • This quote from The Globe article by Holly Ramer Associated Press May 23, 2015 speaks to that:   The discovery [of the graves] triggered community wide discussions not just about what to do with the site going forward, but about the city’s past, said Stephanie Seacord, spokeswoman for the African Burying Ground Committee.‘‘Why didn’t we pay attention to it? That’s been a really central part of the conversation,’’ she said. ‘’This isn’t just another monument being dedicated, it’s a conversation.”
  • Here is a PDF of the proposal that includes interesting pictures of the site before the memorial was built as well as old maps with the “Negro Burying Ground” indicated.

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*  The website for the organization, AfricanBuryingGroundNH, includes a link to the Reburial Ceremony. It’s the first link.  I watched a portion of the two-hour video the morning of our visit.  It was fascinating to hear the artist, Jerome Meadows, talking about the site, including the thinking behind his design choices, and it was terrifically moving to watch the actual interment.

(Thank you Gracelaw Simmons for pointing out that the ceremony was the first link on the website!!)