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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

I’ve been thinking about the tree of life ever since a book near-literally fell from the shelves into my arms at the Boston Public Library. A non-descript old fashioned hardback with no book jacket. A bit over-sized though not especially thick. It was turquoise blue with gold lettering on the slender spine that said “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?” The title page made clear that it was a collection of interviews by Guy and Candie Carawan, with black and white photographs by Robert Yellin, together capturing the words, images and songs of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. I knew of the island and that the people interviewed must have been the descendants of slaves, slaves who most often were of West African origin, who had labored on the plantations producing indigo, rice and other produce that had made their white owners some of the wealthiest people in America. Slavery ended with the Civil War but by the time this book was published in 1966 a new war of sorts raged for civil rights especially the right to vote.

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Given that the preface was written by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnographer and musicologist, I figured the book was just another cool book documenting folkways before a group of people and their ways vanished. Probably a good read but I had so many books in my bag already. I decided to flip through it just a bit and then I would put it away.  I did put it away but not before I saw myself.

Now I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia not the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it really didn’t matter as I stared into a book at a landscape that had surely shaped the people, as my childhood landscape had shaped me, and looked into faces that reminded me of home.  Beautiful men and women with dark-hued skin. Some slim as a stick and others quite round. Seniors and babies and every age in between. Some people laughing, some people crying and then there were those with their heads thrown back in song as they prayed through music to God. The poverty comes through too. Even so the poverty does not overshadow the joy, the sense of community, and the intense devotion, a devotion that must have helped these people survive the present when they had little idea what the future held for them and their children.

Look at pictures. That’s all I intended before placing the book back on its shelf.  But then I thought maybe I’d read a page or two, just standing there in the library, and then I’d tuck the book back on the shelf.  It was just a couple of minutes of reading. And then I walked away.

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That night I dreamed about what I’d read. It was a scene described in the first interview by Rev. G. C. Brown. It opens with him describing how his father had been a slave. But then he goes on to describe his grandmother whom he had known. She was a stubborn woman with a cruel owner and when she did not do as was expected of a slave “he’d take her by the ears to the corner of a house, and just bang her head against the corner until she’d bleed. … She died in the insane hospital in Columbia. You couldn’t find three square inches on her head where there wasn’t a scar when she died. And well, you find naked places all through her head where she was beaten until she beaten into unconsciousness. … In her latter years it was discovered that during one of those forays the skull was crushed into her brain.”  It was horrific to think of that woman having to endure such treatment for so much of her life, for her children to know of her abuse at the hands of someone who saw her as less than human … and that people must have stood around and did nothing, for whatever reason, as she was having her head bashed against a wall.

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I returned to the library and checked out the book and have begun to read it properly. I’ve learned more about the people behind the book, Guy and Candie Carawan, and their incredible legacy of social activism. And then there’s Esau Jenkins and his mission of teaching people to read so that they could register to vote.  He operated a bus driving people to their jobs between the island and Charleston. He decided to get a group on the bus in the mornings to teach them how to read the part of the Constitution they needed to read before they could become registered citizens.  As one woman describes she didn’t think Jenkins would have any luck with her; she’d had too little book learning to read such a thing. But somehow, as she described, standing in line and watching the woman before her stammer (and thus failing?), for the woman who’d been on Jenkins’s bus, the words flowed. She even surprised herself.

 

I am immersed in the music of the peoples’ words as well as the lyrics of their music. The music transcribed by Ethel Raim were songs sung by the island congregation at Moving Star Hall. I can’t read the music notes but the words themselves have impact — sad, uplifting and thought-provoking.

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I’m still working my way through the book, this book that’s not so thick and mostly images. The words I read resonate, in some ways too much so, with words I hear today.  By the way, another book recently fell into my arms at the library, 865 pages including footnotes and index. It’s called The Framers’ Coup The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. One book at a time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Guy Carawan

Alan Lomax

Esau Jenkins

Moving Star Hall

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life? (1966)

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life? (1994 updated & revised)

 

The Framers’ Coup by Michael J. Klarman

 

 

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The man knew why security and I escorted him to the door. He was drunk and that meant he could not stay on the premises especially not with the beer he held tight in its brown paper bag. “I want to make a change,” he said, voice cracking. “I want to stop.” He sounded sincere, as sincere as the friends and family I knew who struggled with alcohol. “I believe you,” was all that I could say, then added. “I wish you well.” He shook the security guard’s hand and then he turned to me. “Will you give me a hug?” What else could I do as he leaned down but to embrace him?

After my shift ended I wandered around the building and there he was. Close, so close, to another door where he could have received help. Instead, he stood there in the damp of the day and opened the bottle.

The child did not utter the words, give me a hug. She just walked up to me with no other expectation than what was to be. If she were to lean against me but of course I would wrap my arms around her. Had I not done that the whole of her short life?

Somehow the child felt heavier than the man. The weight of her promise waiting to be fulfilled versus all that he had lost perhaps. “I’m tired,” she said. “I know,” I replied. “You can lean here for a bit but no sleeping. I might have to tickle you so we can get you home.” There was a giggle but the weight remained in my arms a while longer. And that was alright.

In my dreams I sometimes try to hold people. It is the gift of paupers and probably no greater gift. I hope so.

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an unlit candle waiting for its spark

… there’s a company called Usful Glassworks. Recycled glass is transformed into lovely, useful items. What’s really special about this company, in addition to its merchandise, is its founding philosphy of providing manufacturing and production experience to those who face the greatest employment barriers including at-risk youth, male and female offenders, those with mental or physical disabilities, refugees, veterans and the low-income elderly. It is an institution providing help, hope and opportunity to those who need it most. See for yourself in the following video and learn more about its future on its gofundme page:

https://www.gofundme.com/usfulglass

Additional Reading

http://builtinboise.com/usful-glassworks/

 

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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 – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but 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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detail from The Arthurian Round Table and the fable of the Seat Perilous

Between 1893 and 1902 fifteen panels were installed in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square depicting the story of The Quest for the Holy Grail. Conceived of by artist Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) he based his work on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s  version of the Arthurian legend. In recent years the BPL has done a magnificent job of capturing the beauty of the full panels and sharing each panel’s story with the public through Flikr. That link is below. When I walk in with my camera I tend to focus in on the details and this is what I recently saw.

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detail from King Amfortas and the Castle of the Grail lie under a spell

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This time one of my favorite panels to focus on what the last in the sequence, The Golden Tree. According to the BPL summary, an adaptation from an outline by Henry James, “Sir Galahad, now the King of Sarras, builds a golden tree. When he is presented with the Grail, his spirit and the Grail ascend to heaven. Like other elements throughout the mural cycle, the golden tree and the Grail are depicted in gilded raised relief, a method that Abbey may have learned from his studio partner John Singer Sargent.”

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Well worth a visit to see in person but until then you can see the full cycle of panels here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157647672175522/with/15258034891/

And if you have a large cup of tea at hand, or something else, you can read Tennyson’s Holy Grail upon which the murals were based. They don’t write poems like this anymore. 🙂 http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/tennyson-the-holy-grail

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I have a favorite coffee shop. It has become near-ritual that when I am working at a certain place on a certain day, I and a friend will stop in this store to grab a bite to eat before our shift starts. The place is a little pricey but the space is so inviting and the people, when not overwhelmed by the masses of customers, are so friendly, it is worth the expense. Recently we visited. One of my favorite managers was behind the counter and he was directing staff and clearly someone hadn’t shown up for their shift and so he was having to step in to make the coffees and as he stood by the machine, scowling, frustrated, multi-tasking, I asked, “Where’s your smile?” At his blank stare, I added,”Whenever I’ve come in here, you’ve always greeted me with a smile. What happened to it?” The man burst out laughing. As my friend and I left his establishment, we left him smiling. How long that smile lasted I don’t know and I don’t think duration matters.

 

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That is what I encourage you to do if you choose to view the poem, Refugee, written by Miki Byrne and beautifully illustrated by Podessto:

http://popshotpopshot.com/posts/20170215-refugee.html

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