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.