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.

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.

Artifacts

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.” —Colette

 

In late January, on an unexpectedly frigid day, and despite a sore throat, I spent four hours inside Mexico City’s great anthropology museum. I’d been there once before, when I was 13, on a visit with my grandmother and brother. The museum was then four years old. It’s held up beautifully: still that bold stone exterior, at once hard and undulating; that astonishing umbrella-like roof shading its massive interior courtyard.

The day was overcast and damp, and the museum unheated. I’d worn nothing warmer than a summer raincoat. A cold day made worse by the raging wound at the back of my throat.

But the galleries held me. One after another, they told their stories. Mostly in stone and clay; occasionally in wood, fabric or paint. Figures two, three, four-thousand years old engaged in the stuff of everyday life. They watch, they crouch, they harvest and prepare food, they stare down from impossible heights, they give birth. They are noseless, faceless, dead, bleeding, about to kill, grinning. They’re being devoured by a snake, a jaguar, another being as powerful as they.

I lurched between admiration and horror. In each gallery, something whimsical called out: a squatting rabbit, a cat, a man cuddling a dog to his chest. In each gallery, something appalled: the sacrificial altar or slab where hearts were offered to the bloodthirsty sun. A display case holding the deformed and decorated skulls of child slaves who’d been purchased at the market for sacrificial slaughter.

I lingered for some time over the last of these, grateful to the archaeologists who’d excavated these artifacts and deciphered the grisly story they represent. Unnerved by that story.

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Reconstructed Slave Cabin, Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

Why unearth the past? A man at the gym asked me the other day why I’m digging up the story of my slaveholding ancestors. I gave the obvious answers: because it’s important, because we need to confront the truth, because this country has done so little to acknowledge the brute realities of our history—slavery and Native American genocide, twin foundations of so much that we regard as American progress. 

Those are easy answers. The tougher one is how are we perpetuating this history in the present? I’ve often wondered how my ancestors could live their relatively comfortable lives within sight of the slave cabins. (How those ancient Mexican civilizations could carry on with business after murdering enslaved children …) But then I ask myself: what are the slave cabins of our era? The inequities on which my comfort depends? The shorn mountaintops of West Virginia? Detroit’s failing public schools? Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods?

Each generation solves and complicates. We leave behind marvels of beauty, artifacts rich with story, actions and attitudes too callous to explain.

Into the woods

Eat the slick interior of an oyster and you’re left with two shells, layered like mica or phyllo, blues shading into grays shading into lavenders and creams. I’ve never found a pearl in one, though I think of Steinbeck’s The Pearl (first read in fourth grade) nearly every time I eat an oyster.

But today it’s the debris that interests me, those massive piles of shells left after the sweet bivalve has been plucked. And particularly the strong-brittle substance known as tabby, which, like so much else, enslaved African Americans learned to fabricate and then turn into objects of utility: oyster-shell bricks with which to build houses, their own and those of the people who professed to own them. People like my ancestors.

I have such a brick in my family room here in Ann Arbor. It came to me from my late mother, who undoubtedly explained its origins to me, but I’ve forgotten them. I assume it’s from coastal Georgia, where my forebears grew cotton. The land is saltwater marsh, a fragile ecosystem then and now, riddled with snakes, gators, crabs and other crustaceans. In the summer, 19th-century planters used to escape the malarial swamplands by heading inland. They left their slaves to contend with the pests and keep working the land—dredging canals, clearing tick-ridden woods to make fields, hauling supplies from wharf to plantation to wharf, endless labor. And of course picking, sorting, baling cotton. Men and women both were expected to pick 80, 90, 100 or more pounds of cotton a day; a shortfall meant whipping.

A man I met last year at a conference, a former staff member at the Historic Preservation Trust, has proposed a “Who Built America” campaign to mark—and celebrate—the anonymous contributions of enslaved African Americans to the nation’s infrastructure. To date he’s got no takers.

Many of these things came to mind in May as I stood deep inside a grove of tick-ridden woods in coastal Georgia, on acreage my family owned in the years leading up to the Civil War. I’d gone in with an archaeologist who’s been working on a dig to retrieve artifacts from a  a half-dozen former slave cabins on the site. The foundations of those cabins are tabby brick—so much tabby, in fact, that the archaeologists are using some of the bricks to hold down the protective tarps they lay over the sites each evening. Together, the archaeologist and I inspected two of the cabins where she and her team have found the remains of adjoining tabby fireplaces. On either side of a shared chimney, a family of as many as ten would have lived. The space is maybe twelve square feet. It was humid and buggy the day we went in, and when we emerged, we each picked nearly a score of tiny red ticks from our pants and shoes.

Inside one cabin, the team had found a nineteenth-century penny with the word “Liberty” stamped on its surface. Perhaps the enslaved people who lived here studied it with hope? More likely, they doused their fears and sorrows with one of the multiple pipe bowls the archaeologists have also found at the site, along with shards of pottery and glass, all of which will eventually be taken to an archive for storage.

But not the fireplaces. Not the tabby foundations of the cabins. Those will be turned back into the earth and ultimately covered with an asphalt parking lot. My first—and enduring—impulse is to rail against this desecration. Americans are quick to fault others (the Taliban, ISIS) for destroying cultural heritage in the name of religious ideology. But we do it in the name of commerce.

Some small part of me resists, however. Maybe it’s fitting that this awful part of American life—what journalist Charles P. Pierce calls “the mother of all American crimes”—be pushed back into the soil and buried in our humic earth. Maybe it’s fitting that these countless bits of oyster shell—these tabby bricks, molded by nameless, countless hands—be restored to the Edenic place from which they came, a world not yet corrupted by human greed.

Slave Dwelling

The carpenter Sam managed to hide for more than a month before being captured, jailed, and shipped south. The year was 1807. I don’t know Sam’s age. I don’t know where he came from or who in Savannah claimed to own him, but I do know the name of the planter in Brunswick who purchased him that July for $550 and waited nearly two months to receive his unhappy property.

I know Sam was caught in early September 1807 and sailed south two days later, presumably in irons, and I imagine William Crawford, the planter who bought him, sent boat hands to fetch his recalcitrant new slave. What became of Sam afterward is a mystery. Maybe William Crawford was a forgiving man who welcomed the young carpenter gently onto his plantation. Maybe he had Sam flogged. I’d like to believe the captive from Savannah found some pleasure in his new surroundings—maybe a wife, children, friends—and that these were not sold away from him nor he from them.

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

But I can’t know. I have only this faint outline of Sam’s story, culled from a ledger I discovered in an archive in Savannah the day before I joined Joe McGill and Prinny Anderson on an overnight stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, near Brunswick, as part of Joe’s Slave Dwelling Project. Sam’s story is one of countless narratives, small and large, that hint at the scope of the suffering endured by African Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As Joe reminds us, there were over four million enslaved Americans at the end of the Civil War. That’s a lot of sorrow.

I thought of these things, and of the carpenter Sam, as I lay in the slave cabin at Hofwyl, courting sleep and trying to fathom what it must have meant to be confined to a place like this for the entirety of your life, knowing you’d never be free. Unlike Sam, I’d driven down from Savannah by choice, confident that after my night in the slave cabin I’d get into my car and head north to Michigan, to that destination we all cherish most—home. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever see my husband again, didn’t have to part from friends or children or a familiar and even beloved place. Didn’t have to rise at the clang of someone else’s bell. Didn’t have to forage for my breakfast. Didn’t have to fear being whipped or raped or chained should I exercise my will.

The night was strangely peaceful. My mind wasn’t. Not far from where I lay—from the city where Sam took up a new and unwanted existence in the fall of 1807—my ancestors practiced the dark arts of slaveholding. I thought of them, too, as I tossed in my sleeping bag, wondering why and how. I got no answer, only this image, toward dawn, in some sort of dream state: of a hawk descending on a sleeping cat, talons extended, beak at the ready. The bird caught the cat and soared into the sky, and as it did, drilled its beak into the captive’s head until blood poured down onto the earth where I slept.