Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Clay: (Note: post contains excerpts from interviews of former slaves and the descendants of slave owners, made by WPA workers in 1941.)






















Voice X: Could you feel me in the mud, Pete? Tamped
Soft between the logs in your cabin, then I got hard. That
Icy winter wind couldn’t get you then. Someone who knows how
Can make me into any shape, man or woman. Wasn’t your head
Made out of clay, back when you were Adam?

Your Hands would make two of mine.
Strong hands, working all the time.
Playful hands, playing games.

I sit at the threshold of the door, I’m one of the spirits
Of this place, and of you, your ancestors are interred
In me, and I am in you – the boundaries of your cells
Have their passages – that’s me
I always have an erection penetrating something
Remember how we met when you were bout 13?

There’s a snake out there in the woods
If you’re out there in the bushes it isn’t like
It is outside – you will be inside that place.
Time won’t be going
The same speed - you won’t know WHEN it is at home.
It’s like you’re dreaming you’re on the side of a hill
And the snake like a lightning flash
Grabs its tail and makes a rolling
Wheel coming right after you – it’s like rainbows
Spinning round, - it’s dangerous, tipped with
Pizen.
You will kill that in the head, take that skin
Carefully off and stretch it on a board
With little nails. Rub the flesh with salt….

#9: “Some of the slave owners were very good to their slaves; but some whipped them until they made gashes in their backs and would put salt in the gashes.”

#5:”It’s called a blacksnake whip.”

And when it’s dry you make yourself
A belt
And that’s for luck.
Good luck in bed.

The snake never stops swallowing its tail
That’s eternity - the Ouroboros.
It’s nothing to be scared of…

#1: “We was goin' thru de woods to a neighbors ter a prayer meeting en a man stepped out in de woad without no head wid all his clothes on en I had jes wropped my head dat day and wen I seed him all my hair strings en all jes stood straight up. I got hot den I'se got cold and he jest stepped ter de side of de road en I went by running.”

...the earth retains an element of chance. Lightning,
though it never strikes exactly
the same spot, hit one man seven times
before he took his own life - it's said the bolt completes the charge.

#3: “Dream of de ded hit always rains.”

Did you feel me when you ploughed? When the earth
Yielded easy to you. The air peeping with little frogs and
The last of the spring sun taking the chill off
the evening.

#4: “You know they all had to take their masters name in slave days.

I will never forget how mean old Master Nolan Barr was to us. I was about fourteen years old and my sister was a little younger. We lived in an old log cabin. The cracks was filled with mud. My Mother done the housework for Master Barr's house. My father and sister and me had to work in the fields. He had a big farm, and owned lots of slaves, and when the old master got mad at his slaves for not working hard enough he would tie them up by their thumbs and whip the male slaves till they begged for mercy. He sure was a mean old man. I will never forget him as long as I live.”


The rain is coming down steady now, the fields are
Soaking it up – it’s not a ditch digger and
A fence buster; it’s a root soaker and a nubbin stretcher.
I’m under the ground, stretching life out like
Rainbow fibers in the soil – dissolving skin...

#2: “"I heard my Mammy talk of "De Nigger Risin". De Klu Klux uster stick de niggers head on er stake alongside de Cadiz road en dar de buzzards would eat them till nuthin' was left but de bones. Dar war a sign on dis stake dat said "Look out Nigger You are next". Us chilluns would not go far way from dat cabin. I'se tells you dat is so. I jes knowed dat dis Ku Klux would do dat to us sho if weuns had been catched.”

The Interviewer (who has a job at this) would like to know if you are superstitious -
Have you ever seen a ghost?
(The concept of a ghost, or haints as they’re called in this
cemetery, is that the dead get stuck repeating themselves –
for instance they are doomed to relive (in a manner of
speaking) the tragic event again and again, on the very
spot where it happened long, long, ago… but it’s
not clear if they know
they’re dead.)

#8: “"My master wuzn't as mean as most masters. Hugh White was so mean to his slaves that I know of two gals that killt themselfs. One nigger gal sudie wuz found across the bed with a pen knife in her hand. He whipped another nigger gal most to death fer fergiting to put onions in the stew. The next day she went down to the river and fer nine days they searched fer her and her body finally washed upon the shore. The master could never live in that house again as when he would go to sleep he would see the nigger standing over his bed. Then he moved to Richmond and there he stayed until a little later when he hung himself.”

On your belt you will hang your hand – a hand
Is some particular things gathered together and
Kept in a bag. You can make the bag out of cloth.
The things gathered together LOOK like what
They do. A certain kind of root
Might look like a blacksnake. That’s the old ancestors
So far back that no one can remember – it’s deep
In that inner place – a tube of blackness
That inverts time and space, out there the darkness
Is as dense as clay, the stars can be pushed
By your fingers through it.

#5: “When he died he had a whole trunk full of the queerest looking things you ever seed. And they took it all and buried it. Nobody would touch it for anything.

”


You imagine a woman, making her out
Of yourself – wasn’t a woman pulled out of your side
Just after God gave you breath?

#7: “As a rule negro men were not allowed to marry at all, any attempt to mate with the negro women brought swift, sure horrible punishment and the species were propogated by selected male negroes, who were kept for that purpose, the owners of this privileged negro, charged a fee of one out of every four of his offspring for his services.”

The moon was swallowed by a cloud, then
After traveling a short ways through the darkness,
Burst through and illuminated
The hill, streaking through the hickories
Above the spring. We’re high as kites
And walking through the fields. I was horney, as usual
And thinking about what we might do when
We went to bed. All the sudden it felt like I
Stepped through a thin wall of electricity, like
A membrane you could pass through – as it
Passed through you. It didn’t feel good – it
Was shocking but like something hidden too.
You knew no one would believe it.
I thought it was something to do with
The power lines - it was years before I
Figured out I felt it on the spot where soldiers
died.

#10: “So I went after Linda Woods, the witch doctor. She come with a bottle of something, all striped with all colors, but when you shake it up it was all the same color. She rubbed her leg with it and told me to get all the life everlasting (a weed you know) that I could carry in my arm, and brew it for tea to bathe her leg in. Then pour it in a hole in the ground, but not to cover it up. Then not to go down the same road for nine days.

"

The Interviewer would like to know if you believe
In the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?

#11: “The following is a very old Negro sermon I found in an old scrap book dated 1839, belonging to Mrs. X. She says she has heard her family refer to parts of it at different time in her early life and supposed that the negro preacher belonged to her people. Quote: Mine deerly fren: Ub dar's wun ting wot de Lord abominerates worser nor anudder; it is a wicked nigger! A wicked wite man's bad snuff, dur Lord nose! but dey so dam wite, an so kussed sarcy, day doun no no better, so dar's some appolleragee fur 'em; but I gin yer for th noe as how, a wicked nigger can nibber scape frum de vengence ob de Lord-day's no use playin possum any more dan day was ob Joner coorin it into de wale's belly! (Glory from the congregation)”
Quote? Apparently the Interviewer believed it.

Voice X: “And the king said unto her, be not afraid; for
What sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw
Gods ascending out of the earth.”

#4: "No I'se jes ter scairt ter go whar day call up Spirits."

Voice X:
I sit at the crossroad at midnight, just
A black little hump, like a lump of clay, dark
And slick with poured-on blood. If you hadn’t
Come to meet me here – if you hadn’t had some
Need to converse – you might have passed by
Undisturbed. History is the hand
And that can bless or curse. But now that you’re
Here, glean, if you can, the metaphors
That will raise you from savage brute to
Clever Human.

#12: “There were auction-blocks near the court houses where the slaves were sold to the highest bidders. A slave would be placed on a platform and his merits as a speciman of human power and ability to work was enomerated the bidding began. Young slave girls brought high prices because the more slave children that were born on one's plantation the richer he would be in the future. Some slaves were kept just for this purpose, the same as prize thorough-bred stock is kept. In many instances slaves were treated like brutes and their places to sleep were like barn sheds with only a little straw, on which to sleep.”
#13: “I saw the slaves in chains after they were sold.”

Voice X: Ascending out of the earth, called up –
Disturbed… Will you let them speak?

#14: “Yes, the blood wuz a-streamin' down. Sumtimes theah hung them by theah feet, sometimes they hung them by theah thumbs.”

Voice X: Mercy is not retroactive.

#15: “
No I'se done believe in no ghosts hants or anything of that kind my white folks being "quality". I'se been raised by "quality"!

Voice X: There were once two men
Neighbors and the best of friends, sworn
To love each other to the end. They
Worked two farms divided only by
A little road – so I put on my favorite hat, one
Side white, one side black, and walked that
Path between them as they hoed respective
Patches. After I had passed them, one leaning
On his hoe, commented that my hat
Was black, and was disputed by his friend,
Who saw it white. An argument ensued and through
Hot words their Friendship ended. You could say
I'm the personification of philosophical accident.

#3: “Master White was good to the slaves, he fed us well and had good places for us to sleep, and didn't whip us only when it was necessary, but didn't hesitate to sell any of his slaves, he said, "You all belong to me and if you don't like it, I'll put you in my pocket" meaning of course that he would sell that slave and put the money in his pocket.


The day he was to sell the children from their mother he would tell that mother to go to some other place to do some work and in her absence he would sell the children. It was the same when he would sell a man's wife, he also sent him to another job and when he returned his wife would be gone. The master only said "don't worry you can get another one"

#16: “In this community most of the slaves were kept on farms and each family was given a well constructed log house. They were fed by provisions given them by their white masters and they were plentiful.”

“The darkies had suppers in their own quarters and had much merrymaking and laughter.”

#17: “These slaves were well housed, in cabins, well clothed and well fed, not overworked and seldom sold.”

#18: “I onced saw a light colored gal tied to the rafters of a barn, and her master whipped her until blood ran down her back and made a large pool on the ground. And I have seen negro men tied to stakes drove in the ground and whipped because they would not mind their master; but most white folks were better to their slaves and treated them better than they are now. After their work in the fields was finished on Saturday, they would have parties and have a good time. Some old negro man would play the banjo while the young darkies would dance and sing.”

Voice X:
“Oh the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home, Tis
summer, the darkies are gay…”

#19:
"Nigger aint got no business being sot free, niggers still oughter be slaves. Us niggers did not hev to bother bout de victuals sor nuthin.

"Wen my Missis called us niggers gether and told us we was free I was as happy as a skinned frog but you seed I didn't have any sense. All niggers are fools.”

My dad said: “Pete stayed here until he got so old he
Couldn’t work, even after he was freed. He was
Big, powerful (6 foot 4, 250 lbs) – His hands
Would almost make
Two of mine.
He finally went to live with
His kids in Danville. He
Made a trip back here every
Year when I was a boy, and
It was interesting to hear him talk. One
Thing about him was
That we’d get ready for a meal and say,
‘C’mon Pete’ and he’d say,
‘No s’um, I’ll eat
after you folks.’ He wouldn’t
eat at the same table with us. I guess
it was drilled in his mind so heavy
that he wouldn’t.

#6: ‘Sho de dead can hant you if war not good to dem wen dey is livin'.

As a child I took offense, that Pete
Was buried by the graveyard gate, a ways
From all the rest. But closer to him now, or
Rather closer to my death, the spot seems
Best. His name reminds us of the light
And dark; of who we are, what we
Have because he worked, and,
Considering how this came about
we’re
Blessed he wanted to come back
and join us in the earth.



(Images from the Elmer Foote magic lantern collection, courtesy of the Lexington Public Library)

2 comments:

Cathy said...

The interview excerpts are harrowing, not least because they seem so matter of fact. That WPA project was such an amazing undertaking!

I'm so awed by your ability to weave these historical snippets into such a compelling narrative. (That's not quite right but I don't know what else to call it.)

Dan Dutton said...

This stuff really challenged me - I don't think you can approach the period of slavery without being harrowed, severely. There were 128 pages of interviews in Kentucky and reading them was like being in a kaleidoscope of horror and insanity. The worst ones (if anything can be worse than the torture scenes...) - are the snarky dismissals by local historians that slavery, in their area, was peachy.

At first I thought I should assimilate this material somehow and try to evoke a coherent single image - but after some struggle, I started to work on some method of framing the voices and just let the strangeness and awfulness of it speak for itself.