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fiction, fiction as history
History as fiction, fiction as history
Ploughshares; Cambridge; Fall 1994; Cliff, Michelle;
Start Page: 196
Subject Terms: Writing
Geographic Names: United States
A woman novelist describes traveling across the US, visiting its historic sites and how they've been cleansed of unpleasantness. Writers of historical fiction must revive history as it happened through imagination.
Copyright Ploughshares Fall 1994
I am reading The New York Times on Sunday, Tanuary q, 1984. There is the following headline: RECOMPENSE BEING SOUGHT FOR MASSACRE. The article underneath the headline describes events of seventy-one years ago when a white mob terrorized a black town in Florida. The town was named Rosewood. During the rampage of the white mob at least eight people were killed; every house, every place of business, church, school, was burned to the ground. Today, the town consists of a single house and a sign bearing the town's name.
Rosewood is an American ghost town. Not born of the romantic, mythic violence of the Old West, but created of something else--banal, commonplace.
American history has been tamed. The books record no evidence of Rosewood or what happened there, or elsewhere.
How do we capture the history that remains only to be imagined? That which has gone to bush, lies under the sea, is buried in the vacant lots of big cities.
In my mind I erect a scaffolding; I attempt to describe what has not been described. I try to build a story on the most delicate of remains.
I traverse the American landscape as someone foreign-born, as a writer, a novelist, as a woman who has fallen in love with this country--certain that this love demands accountability. This love impels my search into America's past.
Some months ago I was driving to the University of Virginia. There was to be a panel on women and multiculturalism. I am weary of the shorthand which passes for cultural commentary, political awareness in these times. Why can't we use more words? Why can't we take the time to say what we mean? Why do we settle for a term like multiculturalism, as if it means the same to us all? Why must the complexity of America always be reduced to simplicity?
On my way to the university I cross the Hudson River at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, which I mistake for Sing Sing. When you drive this country you become aware of places where people are kept, you begin to tell them by sight, from a distance, the state-of-the-art and the ancient.
Huge rolls of razor wire, like baled hay, like the kind strung on the fences in Johannesburg's suburbs. One of these places reminds me of another.
I remember when I saw San Quentin by night. A wrong turn on the way to the Pacific Ocean, and then the lit-up Oz, but yellow, not green like the Emerald City. It was a Friday night; scores of dressed-up women were leaving the prison. I parked and went inside to ask directions, and noticed a sign saying San Quentin Gift Shop hanging above the guard's head. The entire prison was washed in yellow light. I thought about George Jackson and his life and death.
I thought about his prison letters as a testament to his intellectual survival. About all of us communicating from what may seem like prison. Where the guards wear the uniform of what will be released as American history.
I am driving past the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. Like the salt mines of Detroit, the refineries of New Jersey, there are small houses, gardens, clotheslines hung with laundry bang up against them.
Slag heaps stand like monuments.
From the height of the Alleghenies I descend into the terrain of farmland, battlefield. I am preparing to write a book about the black-centered struggle for emancipation, a struggle which for the most part has been excised from the official record, and from the volumes which cascade from library shelves, the various miniseries and Hollywood movies smitten with the period of enslavement and the Civil War. Whenever I mention the heroine of my novel--the entrepreneur and radical Mary Ellen Pleasant--to scholars of this period, they say they have never heard of her, or they ask me, in a non-questioning way, "Didn't she run whorehouses in San Francisco?"
I have done research in libraries in search of Mary Ellen Pleasant. I have read an interview she gave to an African-American newspaper, The San Francisco Elevator. I am getting a picture of her in my mind, this woman who funded what we know as John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, who went south with a wagonload of guns to arm the slaves. Now, on this journey across the American landscape, I am also in search of the past she inhabited. And it is all around me. The past coexists with the present in this amnesiac country in this forgetful century. It is as Toni Morrison says in Beloved. "Everything is now. It is all now."
If eyes can be inherited, dimples, tendencies, why not memories; why can't our DNA contain inklings of the past?
I am nearing Antietam battlefield. On the car radio they are playing gospel music from our nation's capital. Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! The D.J. cuts in, apologizes for playing Pat Boone, saying she wanted to give the boy a chance, but "enough is enough."
I drive through the battlefield. It is early morning. A mist hangs over the cornfield. Cows are grazing. The same farmhouses, barns that were witnesses in 1862. I pick up a stone, also a witness. The past closes in. I have seen photos of that day and recognize the ditch where the bodies were piled like cordwood when the day was over. I walk through the ditch. Blackbirds pick over last year's cornstalks. Pick through the ground. There is the sound of a mockingbird calling for its mate. An old sound. And behind that plaint the hum of cars in the early morning, Saturday, on a secondary road in the Maryland countryside.
I drive on to Sharpsburg where the graves lie. Row upon row of tiny white stones. The word unknown repeats and repeats. So many times that to read it may become meaningless. The stones resemble nothing so much as babies' teeth. I store this image away, to use later. Everything is grist for the mill of the imagination.
I recall a play by the African-American playwright May Miller, The Straggler. A one-act play which dwells on the ironic thought: What if the Unknown Soldier were black?
I drive through the gorge which is Harpers Ferry. John Brown is noted here and there. What did I expect? I hold nothing against John Brown. He cannot help what history has made of him.
I arrive at the University of Virginia where I am informed by the graduate student who is my escort that Thomas Jefferson didn't own slaves, which is news to me. Villagers, as they're officially known, built the university, Monticello, every rotunda the great man dreamed of. They liked him so much they just pitched in. She tells me this with a straight face.
She continues my orientation: Sally Hemings, the slavewoman who bore Jefferson several children, either didn't exist or she was white.
I ask her if she's ever met a white person named Jefferson, or Washington, for that matter.
I suggest that she read Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings, which, like my proposed book, like Maryse Conde's Tituba and Morrison's Beloved, attempts to rescue an African-American woman from the myth of American history.
She does not seem interested.
It is through fiction that some of us rescue the American past. As artists, Morrison has said, it is our job to imagine the unimaginable. The interior of the slave ship, for example. The rush to suicide of the cargo, for example. But also: the resisters, female and male. Those who organized and armed themselves and fought back. The history of armed and organized African-American resistance has been made unimaginable by the official histories of this country. One or two incidents are allowed in these sanctioned pages, but these more often than not end with the hanging of the hero. The extraordinary extent of ordinary people involved in a centuries' long struggle goes unacknowledged.
I am driving along a secondary road beside Lake Erie on a Sunday afternoon in early summer. There are high soft clouds on the horizon. My eye catches a sign, hand-painted, in earth colors, by the side of the road. WELCOME TO TOUSSAINT COUNTRY. Nothing else. Or does it say TOUSSAINT COUNTY?
Either way my heart jumps. Did some of the Black Jacobins, as C. L. R. James called them, end up here? Why would many people consider this a bizarre thought, and me some sort of extremist for having it?
Jamaican slaves, recalcitrant and troublesome, ended up in Nova Scotia. Why not Haitians in Ohio? The state of Beloved. Stop on the Underground Railroad. Why not use our historical imaginations, envisioning the armed and organized network as extending throughout the Western Hemisphere? Wherever the institution of slavery thrived.
I am thrilled by these unimaginable thoughts.
A few days later, I am in Omaha, in an old brick building on the black side of town. Around the building are small tidy houses, vegetable and flower gardens, lilacs are in bud, rhubarb stalks are beginning to redden, tulips are just about over. It is early afternoon. There are housedresses, work clothes, undershirts, and nightgowns flapping in the breezes of the Great Plains, off the Missouri River. On the street are debris of rusting cars, and a beat-up place with the "best barbecue in Omaha" has ceased to exist.
A woman, disheveled, crack-skinny, runs in front of my car screaming, "Bitch!"
She is a casualty of our forgetfulness.
Here again the present collides with the past in this Midwestern city, as it does everywhere in this American landscape. The brick building is the Great Plains Black Museum, in this town where Malcolm X was born.
The rooms of the museum are packed. A son's graduation portrait from West Point. Buffalo soldiers on duty at Fort Robinson. Did they witness the death of Crazy Horse?
A woman in a high-neck collar, her hair upswept with tortoiseshell combs. A man in a high-neck collar with a watch fob across his vest. Named and unnamed, these faces are the past. Tuskeegee airmen. A woman named Liza Suggs who wrote her family's story of their escape from slavery. Records of towns named Brownlee and Brownville, all-black towns in Nebraska: the legend explains why such settlements were necessary, and suggests that towns with the words "free" or "brown" in their names, dotting the American landscape, were African-American communities.
I find here the epitaph of Ben Hodges:
A COLORFUL PIONEER
Upstairs a pioneer dwelling has been recreated. Quilts, canned goods, recipes, home remedies, iron bedstead. I find myself imagining the families who put this food by, who passed through the phases of human life on this bedstead, under this quilt. I pass my hand across the label on a Mason jar holding strawberry jam, imagining another hand. This, too, is history.
In the basement a figure in an Olympic warm-up suit raises a black-gloved fist. In the basement are newspapers from 1919. They lie on a table next to the black Olympian.
RED SUMMER (bold in red ink)
The head-and-shoulders mannequin from the window of a black beauty salon stands to one side. On one bare shoulder is inscribed:
At the end they chained her to her hospital bed. They said they'd found a white powder around her nostrils. I think back to the woman on the street in the bright sunlight. I think of "Strange Fruit."
My book is coming together in my head.
I make notes and drive on to Grand Island, which promises something called a pioneer museum. I ask the woman at the desk if she has any information on black American homesteaders in Nebraska.
"Oh, there were no black people in Nebraska," she says.
This is comic and tragic at the same time.
I wonder for a moment where her own people came from. Were they among the Irish who fled the great famines? I remember reading a letter written by Frederick Douglass on a visit to Ireland, witnessing the consequences of British racism, recognizing the need to make common cause. I remember reading that when Douglass spoke in Boston, scores of Boston Irish came to listen and to cheer him.
I end my journey in the California wine country in the town of Napa. I am visiting the grave of Mary Ellen Pleasant. At one side of the plot is a huge white oleander bush, at the other a huge blackberry bush. The petals of the oleander and the juice of the blackberries meet on the ground. On the marble slab between is the epitaph she insisted on.
SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN
Behind those seven words lies an extraordinary life.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.