In the Archives

When I was working on my life of Lorca, I often asked myself the question Lear asks, late in Shakespeare’s play, about Cordelia: “Have I caught thee?” It’s the biographer’s essential question: have I managed to transcend time and circumstance and geography to know what makes/made you tick?

I find myself asking it again as I try to make sense of my forebears—the Scarletts of Georgia, who built a small fortune using the labor of human beings they bought and hunted and enslaved. I’m especially curious about the man who started it all—Francis Muir Scarlett, my great-great-great grandfather, who fled from England to Georgia in 1799 and by 1812, at the age of 27, was a plantation overseer, and within another decade, a planter, slaveholder, and state legislator.

He’s a squirrely guy. I’ve got one photograph of him, above, undated. He left little in the way of a paper trail—mostly legal documents and ads for runaways. But last month I got a tiny glimpse of Francis Muir Scarlett in action.

I was trawling the Journals of the state legislature at the Georgia Archives, outside Atlanta, and found multiple references to Scarlett. One, from 1826, showed him in action, in his “room” in Milledgeville, demanding to know why a fellow legislator—a Mr. Powell, from Darien—had published a private letter. The back story is complicated and involves bank business, but the description of Scarlett caught me:

Mr. Scarlett then rose, got the document, and handed it to Mr. Powell, who read it and made no remark about it, nor evinced any surprise.

There he is, my ancestor, fleetingly alive and in action. I can see him in a firelit room, dark suit and white shirt, black tie, as he brandishes the incriminating letter and confronts his peer. It’s a rare moment.

The state legislature Journals reveal other details: that Scarlett was more interested in infrastructure (canals, bridges, ferries, roads) than in questions of slavery or Native American rights (both of which preoccupied lawmakers in the decades he served). Tto my delight, I learned that Scarlett voted in favor of divorce every time he was asked to weigh in. (For a married couple to divorce, both houses of the state legislature had to authorize it.)

But have I caught Francis Muir Scarlett? No way. Try to fathom why he embraced the slavery business, and I’m stumped. Was it simply circumstance? Geography? Need (or greed?)

Could he have said no? I go round and round, wanting to understand how and why he did what he did. It’s clear he wanted to be wealthy and powerful, and it’s equally clear that in early-19th-century Georgia, those tended to go hand-in-hand with enslaved labor.

And what about the women—Scarlett’s wife, daughters, daughters-in-law? Women confined to parlors and birthing rooms, for whom marriages were arranged and dowries compiled, for whom legal rights did not exist. (When Scarlett’s daughter Mary Ann became a widow, her vast inheritance passed directly to her father.)

Unlike the Grimké sisters or the actress Fanny Kemble, who published a chilling eyewitness account of the appalling conditions on her husband’s Georgia plantations, my female ancestors did not, so far as I can tell, speak out. They clung to the family business, it appears, and to their comforts—as I fear I would have done in their place.

I’m working, still, to catch all of them.

Lost Causes

I’ve been reading Faulkner: Sound and Fury a couple of weeks ago, now As I Lay Dying. (When I mentioned him earlier this year to the undergrads in my first-year seminar, one of my Chinese students groaned. “Faulkner!!! He’s impossible.” Tough enough for a native English speaker, I agree. I can’t imagine grappling with him if your first language is Mandarin.)

But the wonderfully self-contained Sound and Fury sheds obscurity as a dog does its coat in spring. Once I’d finished the novel, I circled back to the beginning and reread that astonishing first chapter in Benjamin’s voice. The plot and characters emerged from hiding. I was thick in the Compson fold.

It strikes me that Faulkner was of the same generation as my grandmother (b. 1898) and of Margaret Mitchell (b. 1900). I associate Mitchell, of course, and to some degree my grandmother, with the infamous Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Mitchell’s paean to that fantasy is well known. Reared on the same post-war brew of regret and recrimination, my grandmother shared Mitchell’s reluctance to forgive. While her Missouri-born husband reveled in histories of the Civil War, my Georgia-born grandmother shunned any such reading and repeatedly warned me, “There are some things we don’t talk about.”

I doubt she read Faulkner. But I’ve got my grandmother’s 1936 copy of Gone with the Wind on my bookshelf, and I remember her mentioning—proudly—Mitchell’s use of our family name (Scarlett) for her heroine.

It’s instructive to remember that Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom! just a few months after Mitchell’s novel came out. Faulkner’s novel sold around 7,000 copies, as compared to Mitchell’s millions, and then more or less vanished from bookstores. “I seem to be so out of touch with the Kotex Age here,” he complained. His only other pronouncement on the GWTW  phenomenon was that “no story takes a thousand pages to tell.”

Today, of course, Faulkner’s thorny novel holds up far better than Mitchell’s. Morally, socially, politically, it’s a much more digestible read—although Mitchell’s storytelling still slides easily down the throat.

I was intrigued to learn this year that few of my 18-to-21-year-old students are familiar with GWTW. They know of it, that is, but unlike earlier generations, most haven’t seen the movie, let alone read the book. That strikes me as good news. For too many decades, going back to my grandmother and her peers and extending well through my own generation, readers—especially women—have warmed to Mitchell’s facile tale of chivalric masters and loyal slaves battered by vulgar Yankees.

Faulkner’s the one we need now. “What is it?” he asked of the ideology we associate with the Lost Cause:

Something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens’ children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas?

Faulkner knew Mitchell and her ilk—they were, after all, his contemporaries. He knew where their obsessions led. We need only look today at the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in places like New Orleans to know that in the second decade of the 21st century, Mitchell’s vision breathes on.

Tree of Life

When my first husband and I split up 30 years ago, we didn’t have much trouble divvying up our stuff, except—to our astonishment, given the fraught nature of our five-year union—for the Christmas tree ornaments. Those hurt. My second husband (18 years today!) reports the same. He and his first wife fell apart when it came to the ornaments.

Later this week, we’ll take down this year’s tree and, as I did three weeks ago, when we put the thing up, I’ll finger its decorations and remember their provenance. Increasingly, it’s a gallery of the dead and lost: gifts from long-vanished mentors and friends; hand-blown eggs painted by my late mother (and even earlier, by her sister, who died in 1977 at the unimaginable age of 54). Presents from colleagues and friends, from a former sister-in-law and a never-to-be sister-in-law; souvenirs from travels; more than a dozen felt birds painstakingly assembled and embroidered by my grandmother, gone since 1994. A pair of hearts stitched from fabric left over from a skirt I wore onstage during my first appearance at the Fulton Theatre in the early 1970s.

African Americans build bottle trees to trap evil spirits. The Christmas tree, it seems, corners good ones (mostly)—the absent loved ones invoked in the daily blessing we said over dinner in my childhood. It courts the grown living, as well. There’s the star I colored for the top of my parents’ tree when I was five years old, still in use, and the painted discs that my stepchildren emblazoned with their names maybe 15 years ago.

I imagine my mother fondling the ornaments as tenderly as I now do. Each one a voice, a year, a friend, a child. Maybe that’s why she shed the whole business in the last, awful years of her life, and put the ornaments away in boxes that sat on the top shelf of the bedroom closet in the condo she loathed, unopened until after her death.

Meanwhile, we continue to haul out the decorations and display them on a dying tree, that emblem of marital harmony and family connection, that time bomb ticking with significance.

Totems

Here in Vancouver, on a brief (and surprisingly welcome, given my recent misgivings) trip, I’ve been looking at totem poles. Dozens of them at the Museum of Anthropology; a handful of contemporary ones in Stanley Park; and just today, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, painter Emily Carr’s enthralled and turbulent renderings of the totem poles she saw during her travels along the BC coast in the first half of the 20th century.

I grew up with images of them, as I expect most Americans my age did. But I’d never really looked at them until now—at the intricate and fluid metamorphoses that unfold up and down the length of an individual pole. One creature grows out of another, resides within another, emerges intact from another’s mouth or ears or loins. Animal morphs into human, human into animal. It is an inviting, prelapsarian world—an egalitarian Eden, summoned, literally, from nature itself: those massive cedars I saw yesterday in Stanley Park, the whirling blue-green trees that sent Carr into such spiritual rapture.

But it’s their ancestral role (and work) that most intrigues me. A marker at Stanley Park describes the totem pole as “the British Columbia Indian’s ‘coat of arms.’” Clans identify with totemic animals, and poles narrate family history. It’s a rich image, one I’m eager to milk as I continue to wrestle with my own family’s past. In the presence of these towering structures, I see afresh how the generations build on and spring from and nest within one another—how long-gone ancestors grow into enormous figures whose deeds cast thick shadows. Try though I might to build my own house, independent of ancestral influence, there they are: immense familial poles rising tall on either side of my front door, exerting their power, generating complications, reminding me whose I am.

Exposures

This odd photo has come down to me along with reams of other documents from my grandmother. I never paid much attention to it until a few weeks ago, when I was rummaging through the family scrapbooks again in search of some detail about my Scarlett ancestors.

The picture—or pictures, for it’s a beguiling double exposure—dates from around 1899. My grandmother (the infant in the wicker baby carriage) was born in 1898. The house under construction behind her is the replacement for the family manse, which burned to the ground in 1897. The setting is Brunswick, Georgia, specifically a tract of acreage called Oak Grove, once the center of my great-great-great grandfather’s cotton empire, worked by hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children.

My grandmother had always told me how poor she was growing up in Brunswick in the first years of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Civil War and its lingering privations. She belonged to the same generation as Margaret Mitchell, and like Mitchell, she imbibed the stories of the lost South at the knees of grandparents and great-uncles and aunts who had lived the thing. The lessons stuck. “It still makes me mad at those Yankees stripping the Southern families,” my grandmother wrote to her son in the 1970s.

The photograph suggests otherwise. It’s all there: the fire, the ruin, the loss. But there, also, is this baby in a wicker carriage, being tended, as of old, by a black woman. Forty years after the war, my ancestors were re-creating the life their ancestors had known. In the background, I can make out the silhouettes of men—possibly black—building the new Scarlett homestead (which, incidentally, looks a lot like the house of Margaret Mitchell’s grandparents in Clayton County, Georgia).

This is not a poverty-stricken family: the women wear wasp-waisted dresses, mutton-chop sleeves, little straw boating hats, stockings. Renoir could have painted the scene. My grandmother’s carriage sits on enormous bicycle wheels. Her nurse, a woman named Mattie, wears a starched white apron over a dark underdress. They are peering into a new century—one that will claim them all, claim the house under construction, yet still not free the people building it from the attitudes and prejudices of the past.

Here is the double exposure of family I’m trying to untangle: the story behind the story, the second image, the one that accidentally slipped into the portrait my grandmother so carefully composed, the only one she wanted me to see.

Genesis

Through my public health work, I’ve learned something about epigenetics—the phenomenon by which factors in the environment (diet, stress, air quality, whether your grandmother smoked or not) attach themselves to our DNA and become a part of us, capable of being passed on to future generations.

I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry by which it happens, but I’m drawn to  the idea that we absorb our environment—or perhaps it’s the opposite, our environments absorb us. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just back from a week in Haiti, a country that has been a part of my environment since well before I was born. From 1927 until sometime in the late 1940s, my grandparents ran a sisal plantation outside Cap Haitien. My mother and her siblings grew up there. Talk of Haiti permeated my childhood. We learned Haitian words for body parts (boonda for rear end) and foods (my mother’s egg custard was zeffelie, Creole from les oeufs au lait).

When I was four, my parents and grandmother took me to Haiti on a trip whose particulars I remember far more powerfully than its overall structure or duration. I remember, for example, the number of the hotel room where my grandmother and I slept (12); my encounter with a young girl who pointed to a plant in the hotel garden and uttered the word fleur (and my astonishment that I could understand her); the endless drive on a dusty mountain road; the night we dined al fresco atop a steep hill while Haitians danced the limbo, and my parents ordered  succulent steaks for themselves and a tough cut of cheap beef for me, confident I would never register the affront.

Haiti is not only the locus of my mother’s childhood and site of my own first foreign journey, it’s where my father spent World War II and where my parents met. It is thus, in ways both symbolic and real, primal—the place without which my brother and sister and I would not exist.

After that 1959 trip, I did not go back, nor did my parents. Too much political upheaval, the logistics too daunting. My mother spent the rest of her life savoring the sounds and smells and tastes of Haiti. She kept plantains in her fruit bowl and limes in her refrigerator (even if she rarely ate either), and in her later years, she sometimes danced to Haitian music when my brother played the right CD. She became obsessed with the notion of her life as a bon bagaille—Haitian for a “good time”—and insisted we describe it as such after her death, which we did.

She repeatedly asked us to scatter her ashes in Haiti.

We promised we would.

Specifically: “I want to be scattered in the Caribbean north of Haiti.” The north, where Columbus landed—a place of origin not just for us but for the North American imagination.

“OK, Mom.”

By the time my brother and I made our way to Cap Haitien last week, our father, too, had died, and we combined their ashes in a pair of pill bottles and on an outing to a fish restaurant in a cove near Labadie beach, scattered our parents in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Afterward, over lunch, a fellow traveler raised his bottle of Prestige beer. “A toast to your parents,” he said. “They’re finally home.”

The day felt as if my mother had orchestrated it.

As I sat on my hotel patio the next morning, absorbing the pre-dawn sounds of Cap Haitien—roosters, the tin clang of cathedral bells, sensations my mother must have carried in her bones—it occurred to me that Haiti had long been lodged in my chromosomal matter and was now, in my 60th year, expressing itself. A latent contagion, adult-onset.

Coming here had been a pilgrimage. We’d found the pink hotel where my mother and her family had lived for two years while waiting for their house to be built, and where I’d stayed as a four-year-old, in a majestic room (# 12) surrounded by gardens of fleurs. The plantation of my mother’s youth lay off in the distance from where I now sat with a mug of coffee (strong and black the way my mother and grandmother always drank it), beyond the bay over which a bright January sun was rising, hidden as primal scenes should be. I sat, sipping coffee, remembering my mother’s memories, knowing they would soon morph into mine, were already, in fact, mine. My inheritance.

My Mother’s Caribbean

????????????????????????????????“As she told me stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.”

That’s Jamaica Kincaid, writing about her mother in the exquisite Annie John, a novella I read for the third time yesterday while flying from Grenada to Miami on my way home to Ann Arbor. Inside my copy of the book (whose cover cracked in half midway over the Caribbean, so old is the volume), I found a note I’d written to myself in an unspecified year:

“I first read this book eight years ago and fell in love with it. I picked it up again a few weeks ago on a dreary January day and fell for it all over again.”

Such is the nature of literary devotion. This time I took the affair a step further by carrying the book to and from Kincaid’s kind of island; I even coupled it with her delicate screed of an essay, A Small Place (now reviewed in the newly released  Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter). A Small Place indicts those, like me, who swoop down on beautiful islands for a mid-winter respite from our colorless lives.

“When the natives see you, the tourist,” Kincaid charges, “they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Flying over Caribbean yesterday, I spotted a larger place, the island where my own mother grew up: Haiti, whose stories she has not tired of telling, even now, in her 92nd year. She grows teary when I report by phone from Miami that I saw the dun-colored country of her childhood from the air.

At 30,000+ feet, Haiti is an unpeopled bit of geometry surrounded by an ethereal blue sea that edges into sky, into a kind of nothingness that suggests (to me at least) the state of my mother’s mind these days. I sit staring from my window at the place where my mother slept under mosquito nets and checked her shoes for scorpions in the morning and listened as the family maid, Ta Gras (from Alta Gracia), brought the morning’s coffee to my grandmother. It’s an idyll Kincaid might attack, given its context–my grandfather was managing a sisal plantation, and the U.S. Marines had recently occupied the country.

Still, these are the stories my mother fed me until I no longer knew what she was saying, and as we fly over the turquoise sea where her mind increasingly dwells, I tell myself she is laughing.