This week in Chicago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time in several years. It’s not generally my thing, contemporary art, but I’ve always found the place deeply thought-provoking. This time was no different. Howardena Pindell—an artist whose work I didn’t know. But trusting the MCA (and the nice guy at the front desk who recommended her show as he sold me my ticket), I went. I was drawn in at once by her exuberant color, and the strange, nit-picky way she numbered grid paper in her early work—an homage to her mathematician father, the labels claimed—and the intricate transition from those fetished numbers into hole punches inscribed with numbers, into hole-punched canvases, into beautiful, hand-stitched paper assemblages scattered with punched holes, bits of glitter, talcum powder, thread.

I was merrily absorbed in all of this when I was taken up short by an abrupt transition—Pindell’s car accident in 1979, from which she emerged semi-amnesiac. Now the hole-punched abstract canvases took on more urgency. She began affixing scraps of paper—images, slivers of postcards from friends, fragments relevant to her lost memories. Titles repeat the word “memory,” as if by insisting on memory she might recover it. The work is recognizably hers—the vibrant colors, the obsession with punched holes, stitched paper.

And then the show’s great revelation: a vast and brilliant blue oval of sea (or sky or both) reckoning with the Middle Passage and Pindell’s African ancestry, titled Autobiography: Water/Ancestors Middle Passage/Family Ghosts (it belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum). Here, in this impossibly beautiful blue piece, she conjures the stitched-together nature of memory, collective and personal. We see a female body, capped with a self-portrait of Pindell herself, cut from and stitched back into the broader canvas, which is scattered with images conjuring the slave trade, including the notorious diagram of a slave ship with its packed human cargo. And in its midst is this body—alive, fragrant, contemporary. The arms and legs are patched with small images of eyes. She is both an eye and an I. A witness—in a place where she was meant to be only cargo, eyeless. I-less. But here instead, like an Egyptian goddess, she sees all.

The piece feels one with Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman, a descendant of enslaved African Americans, attempts to stitch together the “gaps and silences and empty rooms” of her history. “Alongside the terrible things one had survived,” Hartman writes of those who endured the Middle Passage, “was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the will to forget.”

I’ve got evidence that my own great-great-great-grandfather purchased an imprisoned African from the illicit slave ship Wanderer in 1858. I too am working with scissored truths to reconstruct a history from this destruction. So blue and beautiful from a distance, the sea: so cruel in the details.


In the midst of the debate over Confederate monuments, I’m reminded of the statue of Strom Thurmond that stands in front of the South Carolina state capitol. I saw it last year for the first time and was struck by the palimpest it’s become. The base of the statue lists both his accomplishments (minus, of course, his decades-long segregationist vitriole) and his children,  including Thurmond’s mixed-race daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whose story did not emerge publicly until several months after her father’s death.

What’s so striking about the monument—and a partial argument, I think, for keeping some of these statues intact and in situ—is the very obvious way Essie Mae’s name has been added to the list of his children. And the very clearly edited number of those children:

Strom Thurmond Monument 1

I’ve been told the reason the number “five” is smudged is because so many hands (many, if not most, of them African-American) have reached up to touch it—as if to prove this isn’t a mirage. Like a medieval relic, that edited number bears witness to a kind of miracle: the fact that the state of South Carolina, which until 2015 flew the Confederate flag over its state house, acknowledges, even honors, Essie Mae’s existence.

Context is everything when it comes to these statues, and I’m with those in the museum world (including Lonnie Bunch III of the National Museum of African American History) who’d like to see them preserved in museums, where viewers can probe their full and complicated meanings, rather than out-and-out destroyed. Meanwhile, let’s all work to make public as much of this sorrowful history as we can. Some parts of the story have seen entirely too much public light. Some have not seen remotely enough.

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.


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.


“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.


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.