Saturday, May 19, 2018

It's All about Land!

My uncle, A.E. (born in Oklahoma and, sometimes in the South, people had names that were just initials), is the source of the material Janet and I used to make our way across Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. His interest in his roots was sparked by his mother's claim that the family was related to Jesse James.

A.E. and my father 
probably Coalgate or Boggy Depot, Oklahoma in 1925

When A.E. retired, he decided to devote considerable time researching whether my grandmother's claim was true and a whole lot more. He bought a Cadillac – he knew how much time he'd be spending driving and decided to be as comfortable as possible! - and spent about ten years traveling to courthouses, libraries, cemeteries and the homes of family members. In the process, he came upon books and pamphlets written by distant family members, which gave him the information to delve deeper.

And along the way, he did confirm his mother's story. My great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth Mims Poor, were the great-grandparents of Jesse James. Jesse James married his first cousin, Zerelda Amanda Mims, who was descended from the same couple, so I'm related to his wife, as well. More about this in a later blog post.

Zerelda is back row right and Jesse James is next to her

As I've read through the hundreds of pages provided by my uncle, it becomes quite clear why many people can't trace their ancestry very far, if at all. So much of what has been recorded about a person's life is based upon the ownership of property. If you weren't buying, selling or somehow conveying property, your name may not be in the county courthouse. It's easy to skim much of what my uncle wrote because it's heavily a list of real estate transactions – going back almost four hundred years. There is also slave selling and “gifting.” Those aren't so easy to skim. They stop me cold each time. There are many entries like this one:

Between 1850 and 1859 William and Frances [Collier – my great-great-grandparents] sold to Frank Griffin for $1,400 a negro woman slave named Martha Ellen, aged about 19 years & her child named Marshall aged about 6 months.

While making this journey, I was reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Because so much of the White underclass in the United States was (and, to a degree, still is) heavily concentrated in North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas and so much of my family has lived in those areas, I assumed that we were that “White Trash.” Wrong! We owned property and the founders of this country worked assiduously to make sure that “White Trash” (and obviously Indians and Blacks) did not own property. White people with property could eventually vote (before universal suffrage) and “White Trash” were considered genetically unfit for voting. It has been interesting, indeed, to hear Trump's language aginst immigrants and the poor get more and more extreme – “animals!” - while reading about the ongoing tradition that began with the colonization of this continent.

Worth a read

The property-owning history of my family goes back to the very beginning – Jamestown. Sarah Winston Woodson, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, survived her husband (killed in 1644) and died in 1659. In the meantime, she married two more times – last names Dunwell and Johnson. Here's an excerpt from White Trash:

Men of Jamestown found they could increase their acreage and add to the sum of laborers by marrying a widow whose husband had bequeathed land to her.....Widows were obvious conduits of wealth and land, and with high mortality rates prevailing through the seventeenth century, those who survived rampant disease would likely have married two or three times.

Many were not so lucky. Here's more:

What separated rich from poor was that the landless had nothing to pass on. They had no heirs. This was particularly true in Jamestown, where the orphans of the dead servants were sold off like the possessions of a foreclosed estate. As 'beggarly spawn.' the poor were detached from the land. Only proper stewards of the fertile ground deserved rights.

This foundational value, that there are people who deserve and those who do not, is with us to this day and central to the way in which both business and government operate. Next time you listen to your neighbor speak about the homeless or the unarmed black men killed on our streets, you may hear the echoes of this undemocratic value. And when Trump uses this language, he's not just talking about people of color, but of poor white people, as well – all the people for whom money spent on education, housing, healthcare, clean water, etc. is wasted money and better directed into the pockets of the wealthy.

So much of the family record reads like this:

I [my uncle] have found a number of deeds references to a plat of division of George Richeson's tract of land on the Bell's Run and Buford Road into at least seven lots. Lot #2 (19-1/2 acres) was allotted to Frances G. Richeson, wife of William J. Collier. On 21 November 1884 Frances G. Collier transferred Lot #2 to George W.L. Richeson for $135. Lot #3 (19-1/2 acres) was allotted to members of the Bell famiy....There were seven owners of Lot #3, five of whom transferred their 5/7 interest in Lot #3 to George W.L. Richeson on 21 December 1884 for $75.

It goes on and on, but my eyes begin to glaze over.

But, even for those with land, life was fraught with the possibility of losing it or having to sell it. As people were lured west, government-sanctioned land speculators found ways to get their hands on the lands that ordinary folks had begun to improve. A long tradition there, too!

....the ruling elite at the Virginia constitutional convention....were quite content to dump the poor into the hinterland. With the opening up of the land office in 1776, a new policy was adopted: anyone squatting on unclaimed land in western Virginia and Kntucky could claim a presumption right to buy it. Like the longstanding British practice of colonizing the poor, the Virginians sought to quell dissent, raise taxes, and lure the less fortunate west. the policy did little to alter the class structure. In the end, it worked against poor families. Without ready cash to buy the land, they became renters, trapped again as tenants, instead of becoming independent landowners.

And if, like my ancestors, you did own land, it was hard to keep it in competition with the wealthy. Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about the value of farming and farmers, but most didn't have his advantages.

Farming was arduous work, with limited chance of success, especially for families lacking the resources available to Jefferson: slaves, overseers, draft animals, a plough, nearby mills, and waterways to transport farm produce to market. It was easy to acquire debts, easy to fail. Land alone was no guarantee of self-sufficiency.

You could build it and lose it
(of course, it was stolen in the first place)

The family records are full of land sales to repay debts. As the various lines of my family moved west, they generally owned less and less land, often ending up with none. And, for whatever reason, my direct ancestors seemed to lose more than many of their siblings, nieces and nephews. A.E.'s record includes what he learned about those siblings and their children and there are many lawyers, legislators, etc. Mine are mostly farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths. There are even some murderers.

For those whose families have been here for several generations, there is another excellent source of information – the U.S. census, which was preceded by county ones. Initially, these were public records and you can see the original documents – in the handwriting of the census taker – with names, addresses, ages, occupations, place of birth, and household members and their ages. The earliest county ones contain less information and, beginning with the 1950 census, that personal information became protected.

1930 census - my great-grandfather, Robert Bruce Collier, age 66, 
working as a blacksmith and living with his son
and daughter-in-law in Coalgate, OK

It is particularly interesting to see how often people moved and how often their occupations changed – particularly leading up to and after the Great Depression. Also of note, is how many people took in boarders. It's common to see your great-grandparents' names, followed by the names of a few children and then totally unrelated adults (sometimes with children, too). The ways in which many people are finding themselves forced to live now were once common. There was just this brief period when prosperity was “shared” a bit more – a period which is now ending as the rich realize we won't revolt if they take everything back.

Coalgate, OK - one of the country's dying towns
where my uncle and father were born

Okay, enough of the political for now. I promise that, in the next trip blog, I'll actually write about the journey. And more photos.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What's an Ancestor Worth?

My sister, Janet, and I just completed a 2-week, 4,000 mile drive across the country – from Maryland to California. Much of it followed the paths of our ancestors who first came to the continent, specifically Jamestown, in 1619. We went through the Cumberland Gap, as did most “settlers.” We spent time in Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma (where our father was born in 1923). For the remainder of the trip, New Mexico to California, we went simply as tourists.

One of my favorite photos with my sister -
in Sea Girt, New Jersey - ages 5 and 3

There are many who don't understand this fascination with the past. My elder daughter can't imagine why I feel any connection with someone thirteen generations back in time. But to someone who has stood, as I have since childhood, and tried to feel another person through my feet planted where their feet once stood, it doesn't really require an explanation or even have to make sense.

Just after getting back home, Janet sent me an opinion piece from the New York Times: “The Historians Versus the Genealogists” by John Sedgwick. Obviously, being an historian, Sedgwick is interested in history. But after writing a book and finding that he was related to a woman he'd written about, he observed, 'History and genealogy, after all, are two radically divergent takes on the past. The first says, “This matters.” The second says, “This matters to me."'

I'm not sure that's how I would describe it. After all, I'm acknowledging that I don't quite understand it all. But gaining knowledge about the roles your ancestors played in history somehow anchors you into that history, for better or worse. Stories that may have been distant and a little abstract, become less so. Don't go into it expecting to take pride in your history. It will be, at best, a mixed bag.

Learning of his personal connections caused Sedgwick's imagination to kick in. He began to imagine the feelings and actions of his relative, as well as of those with whom she interacted. He doesn't feel that this has an appropriate place in historical writing, but on a personal level, it mattered greatly to him. He could go beyond the facts and personalize them – he writes of a “felt connection” – not to create “fake news,” but to better understand the people who made that “news.”

Upon reading the essay, I immediately thought of political/historical issues which took on new meaning once I knew the ancestral connection to them. I had already reached conclusions on an intellectual level, but my reactions became more intimate with my new knowledge.

Quilt by Annie Mae Young using pieces of old clothing

When the exhibit of quilts, made by Black women of Gee's Bend, Alabama, arrived at the De Young Museums in 2006, I was immediately smitten. I went to the show multiple times, bought the book which told the stories of the women who had made them, showed a video about them to friends and even gave a talk on them at the Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County.

My father had graduated from the United States Naval Academy and he told a story, many times, of the serendipity of being nominated for that school. He was born in a small town in Oklahoma, son of a man who traveled throughout Oklahoma and Texas following employment – in oil fields, auto sales offices, forges, whatever those hard times afforded him. During the school year, my father lived with his mother, an assembly line seamstress, in Dallas, Texas, but he spent his summers with his grandmother in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma.

Not much remains of Boggy Depot today

One day in Dallas, he ran into a friend who was on his way to take the admissions exam for the Naval Academy. He invited my father along and, on a lark, he went. Being a very intelligent guy and a good student, he was the one selected by his senator to go to the Academy. He went on to graduate first in his class – in three years. What could that story have to do with the residents and quilts of Gee's Bend?

James Robert Collier - USNA '47

The quilt exhbit, book and video all made mention of the tar paper shacks, their interior walls covered with newspaper and magazine pages, in which the women of Gee's Bend made their quilts. The women helped each other, often working on the same quilt, which would be stretched on a frame that could be lowered from the ceiling for sewing. It was “community,” a chance to sit and talk while creating something that was needed.

Women sewing quilts in Gee's Bend, Alabama

At the time I gave the talk on the quilts, I told my parents of my interest and my father recalled his summers in Boggy Depot. The women would gather, sometimes at his grandmother's small house, complete with newspaper and magazines on the walls, to make quilts. He remembered helping to raise and lower the quilting frame. Since his much younger eyes were better than his grandmother's, he would thread her needles. And with the story, Gee's Bend and Boggy Depot became as one – a piece of the history of the United States. Here were poor women, in two different parts of rural America, gathering in similar circumstances to create beautiful bedding for their families made primarily from scraps of fabric and old clothes.

A quilt frame lowered from the ceiling (not a photo of my family)

It was easy to imagine and appreciate the similarities between the lives of these poor women, both Black and White. While true, I know better than to look at just what people's lives share. As someone who is constantly politically analyzing situations, I had to look at what they did not share. 

I thought of a young Black boy in Alabama threading a needle for his grandmother and understood that, at that time, it would have been impossible for him, no matter how intelligent, to walk through the door and take an exam to get into the Naval Academy. He might even have risked his life trying. My father beat the odds, making his way out of poverty along a path that very few White boys could travel in the early 1940's. But it was a path forbidden to every single Black boy in the country. As I said earlier, this was something I knew on an intelletual level, but it meant so much more, packed a much angrier punch (though my father was the beneficiary of this system) when it became personal. 

I imagine that there are those who would be proud to learn that they are descendants of colonizers of Jamestown and the continent's first slave owners. I have used that story to impart another political conclusion, both in writing and in talks on radio and before governmental bodies.

About fifteen years ago, my uncle's genealogical research revealed that my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (usually shortened to 10thgreat-grandparents, meaning ten “greats” in front of  “grandparents”) were John and Sarah Winston Woodson. They sailed to Jamestown from England in early 1619 and, by the end of the year, had bought slaves brought from Africa by Portuguese slave traders (the slave trade had been underway for quite a while in the West Indies and South America). It takes a while for that to sink in (which it never really does), but some solace can be found in taking lessons from this history.

A drawing of slaves being brought to Jamestown in 1619 -
drawn in 1901

The Woodsons did not stay at Jamestown for long, but were invited to live on Piersey's Hundred (land grants created by England on land - belonging to the Powhatan Confederacy - that was not England's to grant), later called Fleur de Hundred, which existed until a few years ago and could be visited by the public until it was closed. They lived there until the Third Anglo-Powhatan War during which John Woodson was killed in 1644. He died as Sarah and a neighbor successfully defended the cabin, killing a number of Powhatan. The gun used that day is on display in a museum in Richmond, Virginia.

Woodson gun used in 1644

Fast forward to the demonstrations and political activity around the issue of immigration and the Sonoma County Sheriff's cooperation with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in deportations of  "illegal" immigrants. Having stood in support of immigrants on, primarily, an intellectual understanding, learning of my Jamestown "immigrants" related the issue directly to me and I could broaden my scope.

While people, coming to the United States for economic opportunity (and doing many of the jobs White Americans didn't want to do) or to flee violence related to political oppression, were being labeled "illegal," I, a descendant of the thieves of Powhatan land, killers of Powhatan people and enslavers of kidnapped Africans, was considered unquestionably "legal." Something is wrong here.

Questioning the definitions of "illegal" and "legal"

The usual argument is "but my great-grandmother came her legally." But the concept of legal vs. illegal immigration didn't exist until the entire continent (above the Mexican border) was controlled by former Europeans. Having taken a continent by force, most White people didn't want "their" country taken over in similar or even less violent fashion by others. Ellis Island and Angel Island did not exist for reasons of right and wrong, but for the preservation of a country on violently-taken land. Up to this day, the U.S. wages literal and economic war on peoples around the world and views with contempt the refugees it creates. And, for many Americans, coming from immigrant roots is not enough to create understanding or compassion. The real history has been so thoroughly misrepresented. 

The majority of people would be content to look at their ancestors through an intimate lens, one that filters out the larger questions of the day, then and now. Or, as many do, as a question of how does this affect me and mine without consideration of the broader swath of humanity. For me, this thinking is a work in progress. I know that I am overlooking much. But I'm working on it.

All this and I haven't even gotten to describing our journey. More to come.

Friday, January 12, 2018

My Life with the Man

About eight years ago, in a poetry workshop, we read "My Life with the Wave," a prose poem by Octavio Paz. It is in keeping with the magical realism style of many Latin American writers. The poem is about a wave which begs a man to take her away from the ocean. After he is arrested on a train, they eventually end up together in his apartment in Mexico City. At first their love affair is passionate, but, like most affairs, it begins to fade in the routine of ordinary life. He spends more time away and she is trapped at home. He tries to buy her off with trinkets, but they move further apart. He ignores her and she turns cold - symbol of the frigid woman - in fact turns to a pillar of ice. He blames her for this turn of events and he solves the problem by taking her to a restaurant and having her chopped up to be used to chill bottles of wine.

Needless to say, I didn't find this acceptable - the story of a woman who thinks she can find her self worth in the "male gaze" and has no outlet for fulfilling herself. When she becomes angry, she's the crazy bitch who deserves what she gets. It immediately took me back to my mother's rage at being a highly educated woman, stuck in the suburbs in the 1950s, while my father went off to work in Manhattan (her favorite place on earth). So, I rewrote the story from the wave's point of view instead of the man's. You will not find the part in which she discovers her own self-worth in Paz' version! I had to make a few changes to the story to have the train portion of it make sense, but mostly, I just turned the tables. The poems are the same length - about 2,000 words. The photos are not mine - just right off the internet.

by Susan Collier Lamont

One woman’s response to My Life with the Wave by Octavio Paz – sixty years late

On a warm day like any other, my friends and I rocked together gently that day, lapping the beach, as is a wave’s wont in summer. Each time I receded down the sand and my belly slid upon earth’s grainy breast, I felt an inexplicable longing. I yearned for release from the monotony of in and out, over and under, but I could form no image of what might take its place. In the glare of the afternoon sun, a man stood with his feet, wet in our midst, solid and unmoved, shading his eyes. Wrapped in his own thoughts, he did not notice my approach. I thought he might be my chance and, with a surge, I broke upon him, drenching him. My friends tried to pull me back and roiled in agitation at his feet. I pleaded with him to carry me away. He explained that he lived in a city and that I would not be at home there – that I would find myself lonely and trapped. I cried, screamed, hugged, threatened. He apologized. He hadn’t understood the depths of my longing and agreed to take me with him.

He was anxious as we approached the train.He worried that it might be illegal to carry a wave on board. He feared the consequences. I was dazzled by the bustle – the whistles, the smoke, the crowd. He carried me close to his chest, afraid of discovery. People approached and suddenly he pushed me away! Poured me into a water cooler! Never before had I been imprisoned like that – forced to conform to the boundaries of such a strange vessel. I could feel nothing but the cold glass upon which I could gain no purchase.

Men, women, children jostled around me. The man tried in vain to protect me. Some drops of me fell through a hole into a cup. A woman drank me. In her alarm, she spat me out! Hers was the reaction of those who come to swim in me. I ebbed in rejection. Three policemen pushed their way through the crowd and dragged the man away. I was alone! Would I be stranded here forever? I cowered in fear of the hostile crowd. I quivered in dread of a friendless future.

I was tasted again and found to be just sea water – harmless and ordinary. I churned with bitter laughter because they obviously did not know me. I was poured into the train’s engine. It was as dark as the bottom of the sea, where we waves fear to go. And it was hotter than I had ever known. I was scalded and in agony. I cursed my desire to leave my friends in the sea. In my pain, I began to fly apart into a steamy mist. I lost all sense of myself.

I came to as I scattered into the cool night air and fell as soft rain and collected, trembling, into the crevices of the locomotive. The train carried me to the man’s city – far from the sea. In the heat of the mid-day sun, I again began to drift apart. In this strange place, I would have lost myself completely if the night air had not, once more, brought me to my senses. And I drifted down as dew and dripped into a chimney, sliding down and collecting as puddles in a dark and dusty room.

At first I was sad to find myself in such an unpleasant place. I had not come this far, throwing myself on the mercy of a stranger, to end up here – trapped once more – with no one to keep me company. I rocked back and forth in my sorrow and, to my surprise, the room began to brighten. I increased my swaying until every last vestige of gloom had been chased from the dark corners. The sun shone through the windows and I began to sparkle. My loneliness disappeared as I sang and danced.I never tired of the glitter that the sun called forth from me. My frothy skirts swished and swirled and laughter poured from me. I became my own world and my own company was all that I craved – that and the sun. A rainbow of blues fell from my hair. I was clothed in every green known to heaven. And the rays of the sun, as they played on my body, would have blinded mere mortals.

I had no desire but to live like this forever, but after a year the man appeared at the door. A look of pain and surprise crossed his face when he saw me. He was displeased to find me here and cross-examined me. He was unmoved by my story. I found myself receding into a puddle at his feet. The sun hid behind a cloud, but I did the only thing I knew to do. I began to dance. I danced to show him how beautiful I had become – a sinuous, strong, and solitary wave. He smiled and I saw myself reflected in his eyes. Forgetting all that I had been in his absence, I felt that I had never been lovelier than under the full gaze of his attention.

I swayed around him and he soon became caught up in the dance. At first he did not have the rhythms of my friends in the sea. Exuberantly I smacked him in the chest and he lost his footing, tumbled over, and almost drowned. I slid under him and carried him up the walls and down, as the sun joined us – a ménage à trois of warmth and wet and muscle.

Love was our life, a perpetual creation. In ecstasy, we melted into each other and, with our tongues as one, we taught each other songs in a new language. His voice, no longer foreign, replaced the ocean’s roar that had once been my heartbeat. Many hours of every day we spent singing hymns of praise and delight set to the rhythm of a sunbeam. And just as at home I had loosened the stones from the cliffs along the seashore, had broken them down and made them mine, I lapped at his edges and loosened his heart. His feet, once so firmly planted on the ground, began to rise, buoyed by liquid longing. And as he abandoned himself to love, he plunged his hands, his toes, his lips into my sunlit pools and I wrapped his body in liquid lace, growing softer as he grew hard.

But there were nights when neither man nor sun could hold me. Claimed by the waxing and waning of the moon, I was pulled onto distant shores, where I was unknown even to myself. So long had I basked in the heat of the man’s attention that I no longer recognized myself, draped with the beadwork of stars, advancing in feathers of white under the gaze of an adoring moon.

On other days, the sun stayed with us for hours, chasing the moon to a lone corner of the sky and setting our rooms ablaze. The candlewicks drooped, soggy and forlorn – useless in the face of such radiance. Forgetful of his duties, the sun let the streets grow dark too soon. The jealous, platinum moon bided her time and the sulking stars grew resentful as they worked overtime to keep the city lit. Drawn by our glow, people passing on the street pressed their noses to the windows. Voyeurs to the luminescent rainbows created by our union, they were envious of our joy.

When, at last, the sun crept home, the man slept. I cradled him in languorous swells and whispered sea lullabies in his ear. But some nights he grew restless and, as he rocked in sleep between my breasts, he would startle and cry out. Never did I love him more than when I could drink his salty tears, but he would not be comforted.

And in this love, I laid myself bare. Flowed shallow and transparent across his floor until I feared that, vulnerable and mortal, I would evaporate. Sent messages from my heart out in ripples. Would gather myself into a whirlpool and draw him down, revealing my depths, frightening him. My intensity was more than he could bear and he would swim frantically to the surface, breaking free with relief. As he fled from me, I would crash about the room, soaking his books and breaking his dishes.

When, in his fear, he spent more and more time away from the house, I grew bored and lonely, searching the rooms for the wave I had once been. The skies outside the windows became chilly and gray and I along with them. I would wait for his return and would search his face for some sign of his love. I could no longer remember the color of his eyes. Had they always been this flinty gray or were they a reflection of me?

In place of himself he would bring me offerings - starfish and crabs, shells and sailboats, coral and eels. At first amused and delighted, I would gather them round me – my treasures! I played with them or would drape them in my hair, about my breasts or between my thighs. Their caresses aroused me and as, through their attention, I changed from pearl to celadon to aqua, he grew jealous. Some days he sat for hours on the bed, daring me to join him there. I defied him and remained with my playthings. I would only lie down beside him when he slept and now, instead of lullabies, I hummed in his ears of ship-wrecked mariners, bridge-leaping suicides, and cave-trapped pearl divers.

Where once he had rejoiced in being drenched with my desire, he now whined about damp sheets, foggy windows, or sand between his toes. At other times he spat foul names at me, comparing me to sewer water. Occasionally I could placate him, recalling the dance that had so captivated him, but I was a chilly imitation of my former self. At night we lay cold and damp beside each other as the bed sagged in the middle and spilled us together, unable to break free as we continued to disappoint each other.

One afternoon he returned, having been away longer than usual. His trouser legs were damp. Did I smell pond water on him? Jealously, I surged above him, crashing down upon his head. He gasped for air. I surged again, crushing his chest to the floor with the full weight of my being and, as quickly, released him. Sometimes he fought me, frantic, clawing at his throat. Sometimes, oxygen deprived, he begged for a different release, the release of death. I would deposit him on our bed, his bed, and he would sit with downcast eyes, weak, fatigued and humiliated. I soon came to enjoy this power, my ability to bring him close to death and then resuscitate him with my kisses.

One day, he walked out the door, valise in hand, saying he needed some escape. I cried out to him, “Take me with you or return me to the sea, to my friends!” He did not listen and closed the door without looking back. Winter closed in. Snow and ice glazed the windows. Abandoned by man and sun, I was alone. Only the moon remained, held me bound to her rhythms, carried me on tides. I fought her as my voluptuousness transformed into sharp, glittering crystals.I fought her as my little shell teeth became barbs of cold steel. I fought her and waited for the man.

After a month, he returned. The room was bitterly cold and I, trapped, a tower of ice, could not greet him. He lit a fire, opened some wine, and slowly, very slowly, I melted, drop by drop, into a limpid puddle at his feet. He was home, but the moon tugged, the sun refused to shine and the man spent more and more time curled up on his bed of sandstone, eyes closed, asleep or awake, it mattered not. Until one night, drawn into my fatal tide by the light of a full moon, he called for me to submerge him, anchored his legs to the bedpost, and begged me to drown him. With the stars as my witness, I obliged.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Mary Jemison, Feminism and the Enclosures

Mary Jemison, Feminism and the Enclosures

Earlier on this blog, I told the story of a dream I had in Paris and finding its meaning in Scotland. I discussed Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in light of that meaning – her loyalty to the patriarchy, not to women. Here, I leave Clinton behind and relate the story of a truly brave heroine most of you have never heard of. I apologize for the need to repeat myself a bit.

Protesting the cutting of the Art program at Brown University in the late 60s

As a peace and social justice activist, it has been fascinating for me to trace the myriad ways in which one's political consciousness develops. Years ago, I hosted a gathering for activists and would-be activists at which people shared their stories of awakening political consciousness and how they turned that to action. There were as many variations of that journey as there were people in the room. My goal had been to inspire action in those who felt somehow unqualified. I wanted them to understand that there is no “unqualified.” I hope that happened.

Many experiences and encounters go into creating the activist one becomes – the causes one takes up, the combination of cooperation and resistance, the people with whom one feels comfortable working, even one's ability to work with people who make one uncomfortable - but one of the most important is simply being open and paying attention to the messages sent one's way. I'm reluctant to use that word “sent,” because I question that there is something doing the sending. Where I stand between coincidence and synchronicity, I'm still not certain. But I'm inclined to believe that what is labeled “synchronicity” is simply that openess, which enables one to see more and select what reinforces one's inclinations or gives one the confidence to move in a new and unexpected direction.

What follows is the long trail of one of those messages.

Our Long Island house in the 50s

During my elementary school years, I lived on Long Island, NY, in one of those new suburban developments that were springing up in the 1950's, in part because of the G.I. Bill. Our house was at the edge of the development and across from a small forest. We called it The Woods. It was actually part of a huge estate owned by heirs of the Cunard shipping line. Besides The Woods, it offered fields (some of them farmed), haystacks, greenhouses and a mansion. We generally stayed out of sight, feeling sure we could be arrested for trespass, but occasionally risked being seen by jumping from the haystacks. I remember daring to get near the mansion only once.

The Woods as seen from my house (that white house is not the mansion)

In a tiny clearing in The Woods, there was the roofless remains of a log cabin. It has always distressed me that I never took a photograph of the cabin (which no longer exists)..We did not know how long it had been there, but we always assumed that it dated from colonial days, which was unlikely. We played there often and I would stand outside the cabin door and try to imagine – through my feet on the earth – what it would have been like to be a young pioneer girl living before what I considered to be “civilization.” I was sure that the forest would have been home to “Indians” and that was a terrifying thought. This was the 50's and playing “Cowboys and Indians” was at its height. That pioneer girl seemed unimaginably brave! I felt her courage, along with a sense of both distance and belonging in that spot. And I still do that feet on the earth thing in hopes of connecting to the humans who are “history.”

My mother between her Aunt Helen (l) and Aunt Jessie (r) at the house in Belfast

At that time, we spent several vacations visiting my great-aunt Jessie, who lived in the farming community of Belfast in western New York State. Jessie lived in a white house with an old barn. I remember that house for its very steep and narrow stairs to the second floor, its Victorian furniture, a collection of Earl Stanley Gardner mysteries and a wonderful raspberry patch out back. Jessie smoked cigarettes and would blow smoke rings upon request! My mother's aunts were unusual for their time. They went to college, had careers and never married.

Jessie, when she was young, probably as a college student

When we weren't playing with the kids from the dairy farm across the street or walking a couple of blocks to buy penny candy or reading the decades' worth of “LIFE” magazines stored in the barn, we would play Canasta or Bolivia with the grown-ups. It seemed particularly sophisticated to be spending the hottest part of the day in the gloom of the old house playing cards.

My brother, Bill, standing on a fence which overlooks the Genesee River Valley

The town and the house were on a rise overlooking the Genesee River. About twenty-five miles away, the river runs through a gorge, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East, in what is now Letchworth State Park. We would drive to the park to see the falls, have a picnic and visit the cabin of Mary Jemison. Mary was born at sea as her family fled a famine in Ireland in 1743. I didn't learn until recently that my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (5th great-grandparents) had left Ireland in 1751 (at the time of the collapse of the linen trade) and my 5th great-grandmother had died and been buried at sea. She had already birthed my great-great-great-great-grandfather. The Jemisons grew flax in western Pennsylvania for what was left of the Irish linen trade in and they were killed and scalped in a Shawnee raid in 1755, except for Mary and a brother, whose fate is unknown. She was abducted and given to some Seneca women to replace their brother, who had been killed by settlers. She married, twice, and had several children. When she had an opportunity to return to White “civilization,” she refused.

My father, Jim, standing near the falls at Letchworth

When I was about 9, I bought her autobiography, which she had dictated to a local preacher, from the Letchworth Park gift shop. I read it a couple of times, had dreams about her for years and couldn't comprehend her choices. As a child, I had several recurring dreams which I would invoke in order to go to sleep. These dreams would generally be considered unsettling and, yet, I took comfort in them. Why they helped me sleep, I do not know. One was based upon Mary's life. From that time on, when I stood outside the ruins of the log cabin in The Woods, it was Mary Jemison I tried to imagine and Mary Jemison I could not yet understand. Why had she chosen to stay with a people who had scalped her family? I was a child and didn't know what I know now, but courage and belonging were the two conditions I still experienced as my feet were planted outside that cabin.

Me, at age 9

Though my mother was a feminist her entire life, beginning well before the Women's Movement of the 70's, she was definitely a modern White feminist with little understanding of intersectionality. Hers was a perspective of a highly-educated, white, middle class woman, who wanted to work, but dd not have to. I'm not sure that she ever realized that to have the freedom she wanted, she would have to give up much of what she felt she needed. It was always someone else's fault that she couldn't have that freedom. She was a slave to creature comforts and would never have been able to explain why a woman would stay with “savages.” It would be decades before I would learn that the majority of abducted White women, who lived in indigenous communities, refused to return to “civilization,” because life was more egalitarian where they were. And just a few years ago, I learned even more.

My mother

In the intervening decades I developed politically, but slowly. Protesting against the Vietnam War and the subsequent large and small wars, which the United States waged upon small countries, and a fairly constant appearance in the Letters to the Editor sections of several newspapers were the extent of my activism. But, eventually, I became more radicalized and with it came knowledge of The Commons and the Enclosure Movement in Great Britain and the United States and their relevence to privatization and climate change in the present moment.

Since then, most of my activism has been around the issues of war, income inequality and the militarization of law enforcement, often through the lens of feminism. But I wasn't giving Mary Jemison much thought.

In 2013, I turned 65 and had long promised myself a few months in Paris to celebrate that birthday. Some day I may regret having spent all that money that should have been for my old age, but I hope not. I planned 2-1/2 months in Paris, 2 weeks in Scotland and 2 weeks in Wales with my poetry workhop. My heritage is Scots-Irish, English, Welsh, German and Swiss. It was a fabulous trip, but a couple of things happened in Paris that are germane to this story.

The first incident was learning about the Scottish Clearances, as distinct from the English Enclosures. I did a lot of reading in cafés with a glass of rosé and some olives and got most of my books at a second hand store called The Abbey Bookshop in the Latin Quarter. It was tiny and so packed with books that one could barely turn around in it. One day I went into the basement and near the bottom of a stack on the floor I found John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird, about McPhee's time on the island of Colonsay, off the west coast of Scotland, the home of his ancestors. When I went to pay for it, the owner remarked, “Ah, you've found a treasure!” In that book, McPhee told the story of the Clearances, the Scottish iteration of the Enclosure Movement.

A photo of Scottish crofters from the internet

The Clearances (which spanned more than a century from the early 1700's to at least the mid-1800's) was literally a clearing of the land of people and the replacement of them with sheep. People were thrown out of their homes and many of the homes were burned so people couldn't return. Many fled to the coastal cliffs, where they could not support themselves. Most had led a subsistence life of weaving, shepherding and growing their own food. Some were dumped in Ireland. Others fled to North America and Australia. Many of them died of hunger. In the book, McPhee offers an 1827 quote: “The landlords have very properly done all they could to substitute a population of sheep for innumerable hordes of useless human beings, who formerly vegetated upon a soil that seemed barren of everything else.” Sounded to me an awful lot like some modern politicians and corporate CEO's laying waste to workers through job out-sourcing and automation. People had become superfluous to the needs of the rich – which is all that matters, right? - just as many have here in the United States.

The second incident of import to this story was a dream I had about a week before leaving Paris for Scotland. In the dream, I was standing with some allies behind me. I could not see them, but sensed they were women. I knew we were facing a violent enemy and we had to be brave and strong. Whatever the upcoming conflict was, it was not a part of the dream. I clearly felt both the danger, which was extreme, and the support, which was not necessarily sufficient. I was keenly aware that this was a “battle” - both physical and ideological – that we might not win. And now I know that we didn't.

The apartment in Paris, where I had the dream

My trip to Scotland was in the southern part of the Highlands along the western coast. One evening I was having dinner in a restaurant on the Isle of Mull. There were two women – probably in their 70's - at the next table. I was reading and one of the women leaned over and asked me how I liked the book (it was history). She explained that she was a retired professor of British history and we discussed the book briefly. Hearing my American accent, she asked, “What do you think about what happened in Detroit today?” I hadn't seen the news. “Detroit declared bankruptcy today.” I had known that was an imminent possibility and I told her that I thought Detroit was but one U.S. example of a modern day Scottish Clearances. Then she did something uncharacteristic of the British: she stood up and gave me a huge bear hug. She was thrilled to discover someone from the U.S. who knew about The Clearances and who understood the relevance for today.

Photo of Kilmartin, looking from across the glen

My next stop was the tiny town of Kilmartin, which I chose because it had the greatest concentration of cairns and standing stones in Scotland. I was traveling by local bus (often as the only non-local passenger) and ferry and needed to see sites to which I could walk. The small inn I stayed at looked out on a glen (valley) that contained several Bronze Age cairns and a collection of standing stones. It wasn't until later that I would realize how much its denuded hills with rectangles of existing Spruce (non-native) would reflect exactly what had begun in this glen thousands of years ago.


Looking down the glen from my room at the Kilmartin Inn

Standing stone in the middle of a sheep pasture

I spent a day walking down the glen and at one point stopped to look at a scraggley grouping of thistles. For some reason I felt compelled to take a picture of them, though I had passed many examples of beautiful thistles. I took the picture and, as I turned to walk over to a cairn, I suddenly became completely disoriented and almost fell over. I was sensing that I had been there before and kept telling myself “you've never been here, you've never been here.” I regained my balance and then realized that the dream I'd had in Paris had taken place in this spot, as impossible as that seemed.

The thistles that stopped me in my tracks

Thistles I'd seen elsewhere

It wasn't until I returned to the U.S. and ordered some books about the area from the museum in Kilmartin I hadn't wanted to add them to my baggage) that I learned that the glen was one of the first known examples of the clash created by the evolution from a feminine, earth-centered culture to a masculine, war-centered culture. One of the books contained an essay titled “From Sacred Landscapes to Warrior Society.” In that dream, I had somehow been tapping into the struggle that had taken place in the glen. And the women, those brave allies who had stood behind me, lost. Actually, I believe all humanity lost.

Someone's imaginative rendering of a Bronze Age burial in Scotland

After returning from my trip, I spent time thinking about the relevance of what had happened a couple of centuries earlier in Great Britain to our era of privatization and increasing income disparity. Let me give you an example. For quite a while now, people have been wondering why government would so consistently under-fund education. We say, “Don't they understand how important education is to a healthy economy and country?” But this does not account for automation, among other things, that will continue to eliminate jobs on a massive scale, as computers increasingly replace people in the workplace. Most of us will become those “useless hordes” - just 200 years later. Why spend the money on educating people who will be superfluous, when you can spend it on, for example, the law enforcement which will be needed to protect the 1% from the rest of us?

During this same period, I also did some genealogical research, building on work done by my uncle who had died a few years before. This was when I started learning about the exodus of many lines of my family from the British Isles, primarily because of religious and economic persecution.

This chair is in Chester (England) Cathedral and is where "nonconformists" were questioned by the Church of England - often resulting in prison and, sometimes, death. My Welsh ancestors were "nonconformists" and left for the Colonies at this time.

A year after my return, while attending the Progressive Festival in Petaluma in 2014, I came upon a book in the PM Press booth titled Stop, Thief!:The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance by Peter Linebaugh. Ever since returning from Scotland, I had wanted to read more about The Clearances and this book was just what I was looking for. As I was paying, a man came into the booth to buy the same book (there was a single copy) – he'd gone back to his car to get the money. The PM Press rep told him he could get it online and he was amenable, relieving me of a little of the guilt I was feeling for snatching it up ahead of him.

I really can't recommend this book enough. As I mentioned above, just as so many believe that the United States could never return to slavery and don't recognize it in mass incarceration and the renting out of the labor of the incarcerated, so, too, people don't recognize that the political/corporate class has already returned to this period of “superfluous” people, who can be allowed to die through law enforcement violence, recruitment of young people for wars for the rich, lack of housing, healthcare, jobs, etc. Aren't we too aware to allow this to happen? Apparently not. And it is the culmination of the “march of history” which began with men who replaced the “sacred landscapes” wth a “warrior society.”

I started the book that evening. In the “Introduction,” Linebaugh wrote of his mother, who grew up along the Genesee River, of his time in Rochester, NY and his visits to Letchworth State Park. To my amazement, the “Introduction” ends with a tribute to Mary Jemison! My heart actually started pounding faster in my chest when I read her name. So, it was here that I learned how much more important she had been. While putting the essays together for his book, Linebaugh wrote, “....I learned about Mary Jemison, an unsung inhabitant of the region.....her story....seems so well to summarize the personal, professional and theoretical themes of Stop, Thief!” A story in my life, that had comforted me in my childhood dreams for unknown reasons, had come full circle.

While, as a child, I had concentrated on Mary's early years, Linebaugh concentrates on her adulthood and wrote, 'Mary Jemison fled to Letchworth Gorge from the terrorizing onslaught in 1779 of General Sullivan who killed and burnt everything – corn, orchards, cabins, men, women and children [just like the Clearances] – of the Iroquois [of which the Seneca were a part]. With two children on her back and three trailing behind, she found refuge in the relatively inaccessible gorge where two runaway African-American former slaves made her welcome. They lived in common for several years. Given the opportunity in 1797 to return to so-called “white” society, she refused. That was at the peak of the second historical wave of enclosures. Despite the settlers' terror, the commons was, at least, temporarily preserved by the unexpected endeavors of a commons of Irish, Iroquois and African people. Her white, Anglo editor of 1824 agreed that “she was the protectress of the homeless fugitive, and made welcome the weary traveller.” It was the women of the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois Nation] who preserved the commons in the midst of the expropriations attendant on the creation of the USA. It is the women of the world who continue to do so in the midst of our dark times.' (excerpts from Linebaugh's book)

At Letchworth State Park

You can imagine how exciting I found this. It felt as though I had somehow been destined to be in the political place where I am now. How could I ever have imagined how much Jemison would come to represent, back when I was dreaming of her as a child, back when I tried to feel her presence through the soles of my feet.

I've begun, but have not completed to my satisfaction, a couple of poems about my walk down Kilmartin Glen. But last year I wrote this poem about my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's voyage from Ireland.

And I've posted this before, in August of 2016, referring to the inspiration from the Irish poet Eavan Boland. Please bear with me as I repeat it.

Sailing ship of the period

by Susan Lamont

for my 5th great-grandmother, buried at sea in 1751, wife of John, first name unknown

I imagine cormorants, black against rinsed sky, fog
a second skin, your hands on the ship's slick rail
steady against the tide that day you fled. I imagine

your leave-taking, rough unpainted door, hedgerow
of hawthorn in bud, blue song-thrush eggs safe in their nest,
left behind with your idle loom. Ulster's kings of commerce

no longer trade in linen, raised the rent, pressed your life to the margins.
You and yours can only imagine freedom and plenty somewhere that is not home.
A rough migration along the curve of the earth leaves the Irish Sea behind,

your ears filled with wind, heaven past the horizon, just out of reach.
I imagine ingots of light igniting the waves as smallpox ignites
your cheeks, your fevered dreams of home, the hawthorn buds, open,

their honeyed scent, a thrush's fluting song, while on this ship,
three children, John, Jacob, Sarah, clutch their father's homespun shirt.
I imagine a life, a death, your memory a whisper,

nameless. No shroud save your linen apron. No Memento mori
on lichened stone. The salt of fever and tears joins all the unnamed
beneath the waves, your life just so much salt in the wound of the world.