When I was a boy, my mother taught me to sing a mournful little ditty which went like this: “The poor old slave has gone to rest/We know that he is free/His bones they lie disturb them not/Way down in Tennessee.” Maybe your mother taught you this little ditty, too. Did you also, as I did, try to picture that “poor old slave” who only in death would know freedom?
These lines lost their poignancy and became a sort of rollicking camp song when my mom sang it again but added syllables, as follows: “The poor-poor old slave-slave has gone-gone to rest-rest/We know-know that he-he is free-ee-ee!—etc. This effect was compounded in the rendition which followed that one: “The piggedy-poor old “sliggidy-slave has giggidy-gone to riggedy-rest we niggidy-know that higgedy-he is free-ee-ee!”
I can still hear mom’s voice and see her face as she sang through the stanzas with these nonsensical syllables added, and still feel her delight as I sang them with her.
A few days ago, as an offshoot from my research for and writing of “A Slow Eclipse,” the third volume in my historical fiction trilogy The Tinsmith’s Apprentice about Isaac Granger, an enslaved laborer of Thomas Jefferson, I became curious about the history and origin of this little ditty fondly remembered from childhood.
On You Tube, I listened to a recording from a CD entitled, “Gary Glawson, Songs My Daddy Sang. Mr. Glawson sang it solo in a slow, meditative cadence, accompanying himself on guitar. A Doug Dillard, on his CD from 1975, engaged a bluegrass band with fiddle accompaniment to give it a lonely, wistful sound. Both versions rendered it as a piece of nostalgic Americana with personal associations not unlike my own.
But through a Google search my perception was altered. I found a digital replica of the original sheet music held by the Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections as part of a nineteenth-century song sheet archive. I discovered to my shock that the ditty my mother taught me was but the chorus for a song of three stanzas entitled, “Poor Old Slave.” These stanzas were enclosed in an elaborately drawn border decoration, which included an African-American banjo player in carnival attire: striped tights, puff sleeves, and what looks like a sombrero.
Under catalog.hathitrust.org, I found the name of the author, G.W.H. Griffin (1829-1879), and the curious epigraph: “Respectfully dedicated to the celebrated tenor S. B. Ball, Esq. of the Ordway Aeolian Harpists.” More ominously, I found reference to other works produced by Mr. Griffin: “Darkey plays: a collection of Ethiopian dramas, farces, interludes, burlesque operas, eccentricities, extravaganzas, comicalities, whimsicalities, etc. etc.” Then I stumbled on the Duke University Digital Libraries, and its trove of 296 such items, such as “Come Back Massa, Come Back!” and “Go to Sleep My Little Pickaninny,” all catalogued under the rubric: History of Racism and Discrimination—Afro-American.
So I had come to the truth about the “poor old slave” ditty my mother sang to me. It was not after all a winsome lament passed down innocently through the generations; it was a deliberate construction by a prolific author of farces and burlesque operas popular with white audiences during the era of black-face minstrelsy, which began in the 1840’s and persisted well into the twentieth century. These shows, to quote the Wickipedia entry, “played a powerful role in shaping assumptions about black people. However unlike vehemently anti-black propaganda from the time, minstrelsy made this attitude palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of a well-intentioned paternalism.”
Very palatable, I ruefully admit. Until investigation discovers an unsettling history. The little ditty is like the exposed knuckle of a buried monster. It is both necessary and dangerous to excavate the creature. For exposed to air and circulation it can begin to reconstruct itself; yet left preserved in the ground, it never really expires. The excavation would not be so difficult if it did not include personal examination, but it does. In oneself is where the monster hides.
Whether it be Beowulf or the Minotaur, let me recover every last vertebra and piece it together in all its terrible detail, and so render it harmless and a warning, I hope.
A good friend recommended I listen to the October 13th, 2019 episode on the Sporkful podcast entitled, “When White People Say Plantation.” The episode began with the food, culture, and identity writer Osayi Endoly recalling an occasion when she had been served a mixed drink called, “Plantation rum.” Being African American and noting the embarrassed manner of the white waitress when identifying the drink in this way, Endolyn began to muse about the use of the word “plantation,” not just for this drink, but for various other foods, too. What, she wondered, did this word conjure up for "white people?" Her question set off a train of thoughts in me.
For instance, I could not help but think about "The Lost Cause," which though not mentioned in the podcast, was surely in the background: the idea, apparently concocted by a group of disgruntled Confederate officers soon after the Civil War ended that the South should have won the war--and that brilliant generals commanding fierce and ragtag rebel armies almost did, against overwhelming odds. Outfoxing and outfighting the massive armies of the industrialized North, the Confederates bravely defended the finer, gentler, and more christian way of life which had flourished below the Mason-Dixon. Though the Confederacy collapsed, its idealization spread like a meme, installing itself in the national consciousness, popular culture, and public school history books.
I had my own experience of this while developing a class on Confederate monuments three or four years ago for the Virginia Tech Lifelong Learning Institute. I recalled my first fascination with the Civil War, as a junior high school student in Illinois. I could almost picture myself as one of the lean, tough, rebel soldiers clad in homespun, lifting my voice in the eerie rebel yell before valiantly sprinting toward the hateful Yankees (never mind the gruesome killing). I became so enthusiastic that I even dyed one of my T-shirts with walnut husks, as Southerners were supposed to have dyed their ragtag Confederate uniforms. (The T-shirt didn't take much color, but my hands were stained for weeks.)
One afternoon while preparing for the course, I pulled out a favorite book from childhood, The Golden Book of America, inscribed to me from my father for Christmas, 1958. I loved this book and had pored over its images of mountain men in buckskins and bespangled Indians on horseback hunting buffalo. This time, I turned to the section on the Civil War, to a painting of Confederate generals in relaxed camaraderie, with low mountains shown in the distance, the wise-seeming General Lee sitting alert upon Traveler under a mighty oak tree. By contrast, General Grant and his generals were pictured businesslike, all on horseback in a tight phalanx as if charging into battle. Even more telling was a Currier & Ives print, depicting slaves working in a cotton field, with a lazy river in the picturesque background and a steamboat puffing smoke. All was quiet industry: the slaves with their sacks plucking cotton bolls as they went through the rows, the bales of cotton stacked on wagons in the foreground, where the plantation's master, with his arm out as if giving directions, stood beside his placid mistress.
Yet Frederick Olmstead's record of his travels through the "Seaboard Slave States" in the 1850’s has made clear to me that while there were plantations such as we imagine, the South for the most part was economically impoverished, the plantations themselves debt-ridden, the land exhausted, and the agricultural system, dependent upon slavery, woefully backward and inefficient.
I am re-reading now a slim volume, "My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery," edited by Belinda Hurmence, who selected twenty-one oral histories of ex-slaves interviewed as part of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project. Surely this is a book to dispel romantic notions of plantation life. Nearly every one of these ex-slaves begins by identifying their “master,” which was the one most essential relationship, since actual family members could be sold off or hired out at any time. In my experience, biographies of distinguished (white) personages begin by tracing the lives of the subject’s forebears. But for the slave, there was rarely such lineage to be recalled or recorded. The excellent, massive, 2019 biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight, for example, begins with scraps: Douglass barely knew his mother, and could only suspect who his father was. His biography essentially begins with Douglass himself--making his accomplishments even more remarkable.
It seems that we often seek solace in some version of the past which offers respite from the uncertainties of life, uncertainties which are especially apparent to us during this pandemic. We find solace where we can, and the vision of ourselves seated on the grand porch of a tranquil Southern plantation beside a placid river, sipping plantation rum under an overhanging live oak tree hung with Spanish moss may be attractive, so long as the contradictions are smudged out. Nostalgia, even if invented, is powerful. However, it does not always mix well with actual truths, as Osayi Endolyn in this Sporkful podcast made clear. She asks, or perhaps urges, that white people “do the work” of investigating for themselves the uncomfortable facts of the history of slavery in the United States, which even to this day, more than a 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, still persist in the details of our present lives, right down to the baking of “plantation spoon bread” (which I just now googled and brought up six hits on the just the first page).
I think, or at the very least believe that I have been doing that hard work in the writing of A Partial Sun, That Dazzling Sun, and now A Slow Eclipse. I have found the exercise distinctly unsettling at times, yes, but also rich, absorbing, and certainly inspiring.
Presently I am working on “A Slow Eclipse,” the final volume in my historical fiction trilogy, The Tinsmith’s Apprentice. Yet the whole enterprise, which began at least years ago, nearly ended midway through my writing of the first book, “A Partial Sun.” Nearly ended due to complications following a surgery.
I am reminded of this disconcerting fact because it was five years ago this month that I was released from the hospital. I had gone in for an outpatient laparoscopic repair of a hernia, the consequence of a previous abdominal surgery. As I lay quietly on a cot in my street clothes waiting to be formally admitted, I felt a certain foreboding.
I was not released that day after the hernia repair, nor the morning after that, because of excruciating abdominal pain. Nine days into my failing recovery, I had lost thirty-five pounds and had had an abnormal CT of my abdomen. Early the next morning, the surgeon came into my room. Ann stood at my bedside, anxiously awaiting his report. She knew him professionally and he spoke frankly to her. “His white count is now elevated and he has spiked a fever,” he said. She watched him turn down the covers and expose my swollen abdomen, which was tender and warm to his touch. Then he plunged a syringe into the affected area and aspirated pus. In my sedated condition, I was oblivious to all of this. Oblivious until he took my hand, and said, “I’m very, very sorry but I’m going to have to go back in.” I covered my face with my hands in a private moment of despair and angst, before being rushed down to the Operating Room. Ann upbraided the anesthesiologist for his blithe manner and demanded that he give me something for anxiety asap. Then she climbed up on my gurney, straddled me, took hold of me by both shoulders and said, “You can do this! You can do this!”
I woke up in ICU with a catheter, IV lines in my arm, and a tube from a “wound vac” meant to speed the healing of my bandaged surgical incision. I was given a smaller tube I could put in my mouth to suck out phlegm. I already had a central IV line with multiple ports threaded into my jugular vein through which I was getting nutrition, and, blessedly, another line was added that pumped a pain killer into my system every fifteen minutes if I pressed the little button in my hand. It was a comfort, that little button, and I pushed it a lot. At some point, I was told that two-thirds of my colon had been removed. I pictured that two-thirds, bloody and distended, now detached forever from myself and tossed into a hazardous waste bag headed for an incinerator somewhere. I slept, I woke, I slept. I hallucinated, not unpleasantly. Nurses changed the IV bags, friends visited, some with flowers. My doctor, who had seen reports of my surgery and could hardly believe what he was reading, came all the way from his office in Floyd to see me. The pastor of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church appeared and asked if she could pray with me and I gratefully accepted. Other members of the church, I learned, came by our house to walk our dog, Sabine, and later, bring food. I was amazed and even embarrassed by these and other expressions of concern and support, and by the wide circle of friends and acquaintances who responded to Ann’s regular Facebook postings with updates on my situation.
One morning I vomited all over myself; I couldn’t help it but was still embarrassed. Yet the nurse who was obliged to clean me up did her work without the least complaint. Ann came every morning before going to work, to be there when the surgeon and his team of student assistants made their rounds. I was inspected and questioned by them all. The surgeon was especially anxious for my bowels to begin functioning again. They did, finally, in a dribble. Three times in fact. When I informed the surgeon of these dribbles, he hopped up and down, joined by his student interns. “Poop dance!” he exclaimed. “Poop dance!”
A week later I was moved out of ICU and given meals; there was even a menu. I lay in bed looking at the wall clock, or out the window, with its uninspiring view of air handlers. I began walking, pushing a walker as I went, first in company with the cheerful therapist, Jim, and then on my own. Down one hall I would slowly go, to a seat by the window where I could see trees waving in the wind, and then down another hall, where I could see low mountains turning green in the distance. Nights were interminable. Few nurses were on duty, so I learned to get out of bed and into the bathroom on my own, holding onto the IV pole for balance and pushing the wound vac machine with my foot. I had barely enough slack in the lines to get myself around the door and seated on the toilet.
One morning, Ann and our daughter Haley came into my room together. They were somber, and I knew what their message would be: Ben has passed. Ben! He and I had both been in ICU at the same time, though at different hospitals, I for the abdominal surgery, he for an aggressive colon cancer. Ben was my sister-in-law’s youngest son, a tall, handsome, popular young man who had been the goalie for the Blacksburg High School soccer team when they won a state championship, and after that had a career as a women’s soccer scout and coach. He had been happily married for a little more than a year and had only recently become the father of a son, Daniel, named for Ben’s grandfather. Ben and I had communicated by cellphone. The last time we had talked he exclaimed, “I can’t move my legs! How will I ride my bicycle?” It was a wrenching question, for I loved riding my bicycle, too. We were crossing paths that terrible night, I on my way slowly back to life, and he on his way painfully toward death, though he fought it with the heart of a champion. Now he was gone. We all cried, the three of us together. Why had I survived? I asked myself. Why me and not Ben?
When at last I was cleared to be released, and Ann wheeled me out to the car, I rode home down Main Street in wonder. How many times in health had I driven down this very street, hardly noticing? Now, the beauty of the world stunned me: the blue of the skies, the glittering of the trees in leaf, our movement through space. In our driveway, I got slowly out of the car and for a moment stood transfixed at sight of the crowded bushes which edged our property. Previously nondescript to me, they were now shockingly singular, glistening in the sun, an iridescent green.
So began my long recovery at home with Ann’s abiding support and daily visits from home health care workers. It took eight months for the surgical wound to completely close. I spent hours doing little or nothing: on the back deck in my bathrobe, enjoying the sun’s heat; in bed reading The New Yorker; on the front porch, content for hours simply to watch the wind lift the leaves of the maple tree in our front yard in the late afternoon sun. I began walking, at first only half a block and then to the end of the street and back. Eventually, I began riding my bicycle once more—oh joy!
And finally, at long last, I began work again on “A Partial Sun.” It felt good to write again, good to return to the eighteenth century and pick up Isaac’s story. I felt a commitment to resume the book for Ben’s sake, too. His brother John had told me that even in his last excruciating hours, Ben had been “rooting for me all the way.” His courageous words were wind at my back, which impelled me toward completion. And now look: from that one book evolved a trilogy!
A good friend chose to restore a house on her property in the Ellett Valley to its original condition. The house, built in the early 1800’s, had in succeeding decades been remodeled and refurnished innumerable times. In the course of stripping away layers of wall to expose the original framing, workmen found a woman’s high-top leather shoe. The leather was stiff, the upper fabric brittle, and the laces were missing, but once upon a time that musty relic had graced a tender foot knitted to a living body strung with nerves, pulsing with blood, and animated by a beating heart and active mind. She who wore that shoe and its mate bore a name, possessed a history, hopes for the future, and worries over troubles all her own. What were her thoughts when for the last time she laced up that shoe for a trip into town on her own?
That shoe is like the word “historical” in “historical fiction”: a form made of facts, waiting for the author’s imagined character to put on those facts and walk us into a story.
In the case of A Partial Sun, the “shoe” or form made of facts with which I began were the recollections of a Monticello slave named Isaac Granger, written down by a Charles Campbell in the late 1840’s, about twenty years after the death of Thomas Jefferson. These recollections, which I found published in a slim booklet entitled Jefferson at Monticello, are prized by historians for their behind-the-scenes glimpses of Jefferson and life at Monticello. What especially interested me, however, was a two page digression which began: “the fust year Mr. Jefferson was elected President he took Isaac on to Philadelphia; he was then about fifteen years old.”
Just as I had examined that mysterious shoe discovered in a wall to learn what I could about the woman who had once worn it, so now I examined this passage to discover what I could about Isaac. I noted the phonetic spelling of “fust”—evidently Campbell’s effort to reproduce Isaac’s dialect, and Isaac’s plausible mistake in stating that Mr. Jefferson was elected President, when in fact he had been appointed by Washington to be Secretary of State. I wondered at Isaac’s speaking of himself in the third person and reflected that he knew only approximately how old he was when he commenced his momentous trip to Philadelphia because most likely he didn’t know exactly when he was born.
From little clues such as these, I endeavored to imagine Isaac’s character and his world. Another example: of his journey to Philadelphia in company with Mr. Jefferson, a Mr. Rattiff, and “Jim Hemings, a body servant,” he says this: “Fust day’s journey they [note again Isaac’s hiding of himself behind the third-person plural] went from Monticello to old Nat Gordon’s, on the Fredericksburg road, next day to Fredericksburg, then to Georgetown, crossed the Potomoc there, and so to Philadelphia.” Looking at a map, I could trace their route basically along I-95. Much has been wiped out in the building of this highway and the growth which followed, yet I managed to find a historical marker here, a preserved tavern there, the remnant of a river ferry docking station elsewhere. The paucity of detail in Isaac’s account and the insubstantial evidence gave me the freedom of invention. Such freedom allowed me to summon up Isaac and his experiences from inside myself, and in this way he became a “living soul” for me.
Of his living arrangements in Philadelphia, he says only that he “lived four years with Old Bringhouse,” and that he was “the only black boy in Bringhouse’s shop.” Contemplating these terse, matter-of-fact statements, I began to picture the startling reality which they represented. Having all of his life lived in the “Negro quarter” at Monticello, he was now living with white people in their own home, and working side-by-side with white apprentices, all of whom, I surmised, shared living space in the attic. He was substantially alone in a white world. The simple experience of sitting down for breakfast at the same table with these white people must have been, especially the first time, an experience that made his heart pound and his hands sweat. Yet he says not a word of this. Why not? The answer to this question reverberated profoundly for me: because he was relating his experience to a white man, and he, Isaac, was a Free Black, still trying to eke out a living as a smith, in Petersburg, Virginia, a decade and more before the Civil War. It would have been unwise, even dangerous, to reveal his personal thoughts or feelings to a stranger, especially a white stranger, who expected to publish them in a book. Suppose Isaac’s white customers read that book, took offense in some way, and refused any longer to seek his tinsmithing services? Or refused to pay for services he had already rendered? Breaking through what I believed to be Isaac’s deeply cautious silence about himself, to convey for readers an inner life, was perhaps the most essential and most rewarding task I faced.
In one detail at least I sought to honor him: by preserving in the novel his naming of the tinsmith as “Bringhouse,” even though this was probably a mistake. This I learned when, early in my writing process, I petitioned the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, for information about this signal individual in Isaac’s narrative. A researcher responded in time with a letter, which included a xeroxed copy of a city directory listing no Bringhouse, but instead a James Bringhurst, “I think,” wrote the researcher, “there’s a good chance that he is the tinsmith to whom Isaac was apprenticed.” Faced with this likelihood, I felt at first that I must of course change the tinsmith’s name in my novel from Isaac’s mistaken “Bringhouse,” to the historically verifiable “Bringhurst.” Then I balked. If Isaac himself referred to the man as “Bringhouse,” then so be it. I would follow suit. Isaac would be my authority, not a city directory. Yet I nearly recanted, when I further reflected that the rendering of “Bringhouse” in Isaac’s narrative may have been Charles’ Campbell’s mistake: he mis-heard Isaac’s pronunciation of the word. On the other hand, Campbell was a published historian and seemed to me to have listened carefully to Isaac and faithfully recorded his reminiscences. So I held with Isaac after all: his tinsmith would be “Bringhouse.”
The objective of historical fiction is not, I think, to combine segments of factual history with artful fabrications where the facts are lacking; no, its objective is an indissoluble unity, like the combining of two molecules to create a new element. The truth of that element is neither in one molecule or the other, in history or imagination, but in the two becoming one. That one is a verisimilitude, a telling likeness, radiant with meanings and faithful to the wellsprings of human life.
My, my, look what that shoe has led us to!
One of the most difficult problems I faced in writing A Partial Sun was how to deal with the n-word, especially because I am white. I considered avoiding its use altogether.
Yet the novel takes place in the 18th century and focuses on the experiences of an enslaved young man named Isaac Granger, born and raised on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. The real-life Isaac Granger recounted to a Charles Campbell in the late 1840’s, some twenty years after Jefferson’s death, how “dry old Mr. Cary,” an occasional visitor to Monticello, would whip Isaac if he didn’t get a series of gates open in time for him to drive his horse through. I picture Isaac going at a sprint from gate to gate as Mr. Cary cantered easily along just behind him, stinging Isaac sharply with his lash and his laugh, and expecting Isaac to laugh, too. I doubt not the old bigot was prone to using the n-word on Isaac as he exercised his lash. Dry old Mr. Cary does not appear in my novel, but a character at least as bigoted does. This character, Daniel Shady by name, a tinsmith’s apprentice working for Mr. James Bringhouse of Philadelphia, is offended beyond measure that Isaac should be trained in the same craft, on equal terms, at a bench just beside his own. Shady’s invective against Isaac is punctuated by the n-word, the proud emblem of his deep-seated prejudice.
Should I have had Shady use milder language out of consideration for our contemporary revulsion for the historical use of this inflammatory epithet? I did limit his use of the word and tried to soften its impact by using a substitution: “n---.” I wondered, though, if this substitution by its avoidance of the actual word only served to call greater attention to it. Furthermore, while this substitution would serve for the written text, how was I to read it aloud at a reading event or for an audio book?
This question notwithstanding, I remained committed to “n---” right up until the final draft, when I decided to seek counsel, first from Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, and then from Bennett Johnson, owner of PATH Press Inc, in Illinois. Mr. Reed advocated for my using “nigger,” provided I verified that the word was in fact used derogatorily in the 18th century, which I did verify; Mr. Johnson recommended likewise, asking rhetorically, “wasn’t nigger Jim a hero in Huck Finn?”
So I followed their advice, and to underscore it included the following exchange, in the Introduction, between Isaac Granger and the Reverend Charles Campbell, as recounted by Campbell: “On one point only, Isaac and I vigorously disagreed; namely, in regards to his inclusion of the word ‘nigger’ when quoting the speech of the despicable Daniel Shady. ‘The word is coarse,’ I objected, ‘an emblem of bigotry, and will offend the gentle ears of my readers!’ He only laughed at my objection. ‘Let it offend!’ he retorted. ‘If I have been required to bear the sting of that word upon my ears time and again all these years, then your readers must learn to bear it too, in all its savagery! Besides, I have been considerate of your readers more than you know, for if I were to include every instance of its use, why this proposed book of yours would require fumigation upon every readin’!’
In addition to this, I included the following statement in the Disclaimer or “Notice to the Reader,” borrowed with permission from Ross Howell, Jr., author of Forsaken: “The language used in the book includes crude idioms and epithets that reflect what the author believes would have been authentic to the period and characters The author intends no offense, disparagement, or hurt.”
In the end, however, whatever justification I may provide, readers will have to judge for themselves of my decision on the n-word. Some will approve, some not. It is my hope that these few paragraphs will make my decision comprehensible at least.
Threads in the Acadian Fabric: Nine Generations of an Acadian Family, written by my friend and former English Department colleague Simone Poirier-Bures is a wonderful work and an absorbing read. She wrote the book from a deep desire to know more about her father, who had been a figure of mystery to her even while he was alive and who died when she was twenty. She had intriguing clues to work from: a greatcoat and helmet from WWI and a brief diary he kept during his service as a medic on the front in France; an intermittent journal he kept for years afterwards; a box of seventy-six letters, in French, between he and his wife-to-be. Building a coherent narrative from these and other clues required years of patient work, and led Poirier-Bures to the building of a genealogical record going back nine generations to the fifty or so families who first settled in what they knew as “Acadie” and we would recognize as Nova Scotia, in the mid-late 1600’s. This record is a fascinating and troubling story of a people whose husbands and fathers built livelihoods as farmers and seamen, and whose communities for two centuries were periodically disrupted by the conflict between European powers warring for power in the New World. Poirier-Bures’ careful reconstruction of this history concludes where it began: with a touching estimation of her father in Retrospective. He was, in her words, a “man who never found his vocation”; a fellow of fine sensibility and a love of opera, who matured in the mid-twentieth century, when historical upheavals broke up the long history of his forebears, casting him out to find what work he could, including as a peddler of children’s candies, which she had earlier chronicled in a novel, Candyman.
Threads in the Acadian Fabric: Nine Generations of an Acadian Family is a fine work, told with grace and skill, and likely to provoke the reader to a contemplation of mysteries in their own family tree.