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Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

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photo by patricia cobb

I feel I honored the memories of the children like Willis Cofer. ūüôā

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CSinstallation

I have received many encouraging words about the installation. For me it was a truly collaborative process where people around me helped bring to life the picture in my head. I am thankful. We’ll see what the future holds in terms of future installations. Meanwhile, I do hope if you’re in the area you have a chance to walk beneath these branches.

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the completed trough

Nope, that is not the opening to one of my fairly gentle political posts. Just breathe. Those are the words I repeat to myself the night before I attempt to set up my first installation for the exhibit Peace: Cutting through Turmoil. My contribution to the show I guess I can say is a three dimensional representation of my artistic and emotional experiences after chancing¬†upon 1930’s Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives in the public library, and then later reading more narratives online. It was a short paragraph that set me on this path, a recount of childhood memories of eating from a trough with a mussel shell. Shells pulled from the branches …

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What I am creating is ephemeral. Paper, prints, words produced to physically be on display for a little less than a month. A contribution that I think will be part of a powerful whole when viewed in the company of the works by the other participants who have esteemed careers in the arts. I feel a bit like the new kid on the block. A little scary but freeing too.

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It will be an assemblage of pieces and parts, words and images, some culled from nature, some acquired collaboratively with the aid of friends. The least ephemeral of the whole is the trough. While he did let me hold a chisel or two, it was Steve who carved the trough for me using a fallen tree, and a pivotal tool, both shared by friends.

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Shared by friends. No matter what happens with this project it has been a wonderful collaborative effort. I was even able to involve one of my littlest friends, aged 9 and going on 21, who agreed to hold a mussel shell for me.

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Hmmm. What else is there to say? Before this night is done, I have a few more shells to drill holes in and string, and I still need to discuss with Steve how to hang … oops, I can’t tell you what I intend to hang or from what. At least not yet. Meanwhile, I just breathe. ūüôā

Peace: Cutting through Turmoil

Brick Bottom Artists Gallery, Somerville, MA

Opening Reception Thursday June 8, 6:00 – 8:00 pm

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I first met Lois Fiore as a fellow participant in an art show curated by the Riverside Arts Group. It was a pleasure meeting her and learning of this artist whose work has been shown in the Boston area for over 30 years. Not only was she engaging in talking about her artistic process, she expressed genuine interest in learning about me as a person. When I shared with her that, in addition to photography, I also write and on occasion combine words with images, she invited me to share my work. I shared a post about the unexpected impact of meandering through the Boston Public Library and randomly opening up a book.

It was a compilation of slave narratives from the 1930s. Excerpts had been placed in various categories one of which included childhood memories of food. After reading “mussel ’em, a work in progress,” Lois invited me to submit a proposal to be part of a new exhibit, an exhibit inspired by the recent Presidential election and the subsequent struggle by so many to perceive how they could possibly move forward through the ensuing chaos. The proposal was accepted for my first interactive installation. ¬†I am truly looking forward to showing my work with the other artists in the exhibit PEACE: Cutting Through TURMOIL, on view June 8 – July 1 at the Brick Bottom Artist Building.

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If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll be able to drop by the opening reception or visit the gallery¬†at another time. Meanwhile, I continue to work on the installation. More updates in the near future!

 

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April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution.  Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.

People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth.  Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.

That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships¬†delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with¬†colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.

So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were¬†stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were¬†dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became¬†the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies¬†subject to British rule.

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after).  As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property Рperhaps loved or respected by those who owned them Рbut they were property nonetheless.

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September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on. ¬†The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world,¬†would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.

When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.

Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with¬†nostalgia about those former times. ¬†The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.

There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.

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Eventually, it would work this way — some places were safe and some places were not. If you could make it to the safe place, sometimes woods, sometimes city, then you were safe. But eventually laws were changed, compromises made, and so then even if you made it to the safe place, you could be forcibly brought back to the unsafe place. Sometimes people stood up for you. Sometimes those people were steadfast but there were times when even those pillars were pushed aside. That is what the children remember. How if they did not have the right papers, and especially if they had no papers at all, how the pattyrollers could pick them up, hit them, chase them with dogs. It did not matter if they had made it to sanctuary. Laws said that they were less than human. Only 3/5ths. Until a President put pen to paper.

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It took me a while to understand the word¬†drawn from¬†the childhood experiences of the former slaves, their fears of the pattyrollers. These patrollers were charged with keeping track of slaves in the slave owning states and eventually given¬†legal right¬†to enter into free states and bring back those who had sought a free land.¬† Back into slavery the children¬†would go … until a President put pen to paper.

That President was Abraham Lincoln. His pen upon paper produced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued on January 1, 1863.

In his famous eulogy for the slain President, Reverend Phillips Brooks made note that Lincoln served a divided nation and describes how Lincoln was able to stand forth in the struggle between two American natures.

We are told he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their nature bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these … “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.””

Brooks goes on with great eloquence, an eloquence that cannot be conveyed in a blog post but these words stand out to me … “Do not say that [slavery] is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives. While another man counts another man his born inferior …” Brooks ends the sermon with Lincoln’s own words delivered at Gettysburg. “He stood there with their graves before him and these are the words he said” –

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.””

Over 150 years after the American Civil War, I live in what is known as a sanctuary city and I work in a place of sanctuary. I read of students demanding that their campuses become places of sanctuary. I wear no blinders, at least on this subject. What has happened before can happen again. But it does not have to. It does not have to. All this said as a new President of a different character continues to put pen to paper.

 

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.¬† Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.¬† Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.¬† The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.¬† The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.¬† Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.¬† They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.¬† Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.¬† I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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Recently I was walking through the reference section of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Though I had a specific destination, probably trying to find a book on stained glass, my eyes kept raking the shelves and a book title made me pause. I pulled the book from the shelf, randomly flipped it open and began to read.

Willis Cofer, seventy-eight years old, a former slave in Georgia, was recounting his memories of how the cook fed the slave children.¬† They were fed all the time, he said, feeding them bread and milk for breakfast, mostly peas and cornbread for dinner, and then milk and bread for supper. ¬†There were so many children on the plantation that “dey fed us in a trough. Dey jes’ poured de peas on the de chunks of cornbread what dey had crumbled in de trough, and us had to mussel ’em out. ¬†Yessum, I said mussel. ¬†De only spoons us had wuz mussel shells what us got out of de branches.

Strangely enough I had been pondering what to do with my growing collection of mussel shells. I often pick them up when I’m walking along Revere Beach. Sometimes I keep a few shells if we cook some up for dinner.¬† They have always been a treat. I’d never thought of them as a necessary utensil.¬† Just like I’d never thought of children being fed in a trough, like the rest of the farm stock.

The book I’d picked up was called Slave Culture, a 2014 series of books that present excerpts from slave narratives.¬† The narratives were collected starting in 1935.¬† It was at that time that the Federal Writers’ Project, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, was established. The program provided jobs for unemployed writers, researchers, historians and others. ¬†One of those jobs included interviewing more than 2000 former slaves across seventeen states like Willis Cofer.

Sometimes the stories captured were kept in the vernacular, like Willis Cofer’s childhood memories and those of Adeline Cunningham, 85, of Texas.¬† She shared, “Dey feds us well sometimes, if dey warn’t mad at us. ¬†Dey has a big trough jes’ like de trough for de pigs and dey has a big gourd and dey totes de gourd full of milk and dey breaks de bread in de milk. Den my mammy takes a gourd and fills it and give it to us chillun. ¬†How’s we eat it? We had oyster shells for spoons and de slaves come in from de fields and dey hands is all dirty, and dey is hungry. Dey dips de dirty hands right in de trough and we can’t eat none of it.”

Sallie Crane, at least 90 years old when interviewed in Arkansas, remembered eating out of a trough “with a wooden spoon, mush and milk. Cedar trough and long-handled cedar spoons.” Her owner’s children would taunt the slave children with their leftover school lunches, “Hold it out and snatch it back! Finally, they’d give it us, after they got tired of playing.

Other narratives were “cleaned up” by the interviewer or the former slave had received an education dependent upon the whims of his or her previous owners. Mary Anderson of North Carolina recalled in her 1937 interview:

The narratives are in the public domain. They can be found on the Library of Congress website. Universities in many states, especially in the southern states, have made them available in their libraries and online. So why read them? Institutionalized slavery in the U.S. was ended over 150 years ago. People of all shades fought and died to see passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregration and discrimination.  Why revisit the past?

Well, at one point, I believe that there were six million people enslaved in this country and many of those people had been enslaved over successive generations. To oversimplify, they were purposefully denigrated, treated like animals, and considered less than human. They were bred, fed and fattened to be sold and purposefully kept uneducated to dampen any dreams of a different life. And some of the people who suffered were my ancestors, and I’m fairly sure that some of the people cracking literal and figurative whips were my ancestors too. All of that history forms the foundation of this country. The seeds of fear, hate, discrimination that were planted so long ago have not disappeared.¬† They can too easily sprout again and in some places they clearly have.

I’d say revisit the slave narratives as a way to get a sense of what happened, the impressions made upon a people and upon a country, and to then reflect upon what has changed and what has not.¬† I was moved by Willie Cofer’s words to consider something I’ve never done before, to create an art installation.¬† I wanted to … and perhaps I will do it … to find a cedar trunk and carve it into a rough-hewn trough. To place nearby a tree and from its bare branches hang mussel shells. To fill the trough with milk and torn up pieces of bread and peas. I did find a little wooden box and one of my mussel shells and a wooden spoon. I poured in some milk and sprinkled in some corn meal.¬† I would do a little photo shoot, you see.¬† It was only when I tore up the bread and tossed it into the box that I began to cry.

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