Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

I couldn’t believe I was holding it, procured so easily from the public library: “The only known novel by a female African-American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere,” read the cover jacket of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. who laid hold of the original 300-page handwritten manuscript launched an extraordinary quest to unmask the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. Taking the clues he left, Professor Gregg Hecimovich from Winthrop University located the novelist in history at the end of an assiduous ten-year pursuit. Hannah Bond was the mulatto house slave who fled a North Carolina plantation disguised as a man and lived to tell her story cast in part fiction.

BondwomanI have always felt a pull toward the African-American odyssey of slavery. The female slave experienced double jeopardy not only for her race but also for her sexual vulnerability. I beckon to light the invisible greatness of a woman who made her way out of bondage with pen as she did with her feet.

TIMELINE
To authenticate and date the book, Dr. Gates consulted experts of historical documents. The characteristics of the paper, binding, handwriting, the iron-gall ink that had been popular until 1860, the style of the narrative were some of the elements they studied. A sedulous search among federal census records turned up the “Mr. Wheeler” whom Bond had served. In 1855 John Hill Wheeler enjoyed more fame than he had sought in government when word got out that his slave Jane Johnson had run away. Hannah describes how she found herself filling the vacancy. So the manuscript would have been drafted after 1855. I was captivated by the rigorous intricacy of the literary archeology.

Dr. Gates reports the observations of the keenest scholars in slave literature, the cause for their excitement over this particular self-authenticating text: “Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice that we have rarely, if ever, heard before…For Crafts, slaves are always, first, and last, human beings, ‘people’ as she frequently put it.” (Gates’ preface to the novel)

LITERACY
How did Hannah learn to read and write? She enjoyed her first secret reading lessons from an elderly white couple until the meetings were aborted. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical investigator, paid “close attention to Crafts’ level of diction, the scope of her vocabulary…the degree of familiarity with other texts, or literacy, that she reflects in word choice, metaphors, analogies, epigraphs, and allusions to other words, concluding that she had the [modern equivalent] of an eleventh-grade education.” She evidently had taken liberties with John Wheeler’s private eclectic library. The plantation also housed students from a neighborhood finishing school. In a news radio interview, Hecimovich said, “Bond would have been listening and waiting on the young ladies who were boarding at the Wheeler family plantation while they were practicing…and she would have intuited, like other slaves we have record of, when she came to write her own stories. She could tell her story in the way that she heard the other stories.” (What does this say, incidentally, about the impact of quality literature upon listening children?) She has a beautiful, bold hand in the word selection and painting of imagery: “The clear cold sunshine glancing down the long avenue of elms…” While Hannah’s multisyllabic words [magnanimity, obsequious] tell of a rich bibliodiet, the many misspellings [meloncholy, inseperable] reveal the struggles of one who was self-taught. The novel was printed with the spelling errors and revisions Hannah had made intact, offering a precious glimpse of the subnarrative where writers play out choices in the birthing of a tale. Scholars thrill to have broken new ground in the landscape of antebellum literature. Gates explains, “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

DEPRECATION
Hannah draws a distinction between house and field slave, one of class and levels of degradation. It is when she is forced to marry into the squalor behind the Wheeler home that she decides to flee. “Accused of a crime of which I was innocent…most horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror unspeakable…” (p. 205) The relative advantages she enjoyed as a house negro and very light mulatto distill the institution of slavery to its unrelenting truth. Hannah wasn’t whipped to work faster under the sun, didn’t have to mind the hogs in their sty. But no matter how light her skin, she was a thing with no license to go where she chose, wear what she wanted, say what she thought. The day she woke to was not hers. She got out of a bed she did not own to meet the needs and demands of another. Why would slavers think she had intellect, talent, feelings, a soul? Hannah was sold and bought, had no say under whose roof she ended up. “No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better.” (p. 6) And even house slaves were not immune to the prospect of torture, rape, or murder. Hannah recounts the tale of a beloved nurse of the master’s son who, after begging for mercy, chose to suffer rather than drown her dog. Woman and pet were gibbeted on iron loops for six days with no food or water, making it through a fierce storm that only revived them to agony. A drop of black blood — and you were no better off than a dog. The establishment of slavery ironically did not discriminate between the classes extant in the world of slaves. Hannah writes of a man who agreed to part with his young chattel for a handsome amount of money: “He reck[on]ed not that she was a woman of delicate sensibilities and fine perfections – she was a slave, and no more that was all to him.” (p.82)

FREEDOM
The act of running away, of plunging into the harsh vicissitudes of threat and want, is obviously a bravery all its own. What impresses me as much are the battles Hannah won first in the deepest places of self. She was bold enough to envision not only her escape but well before, to have broken through the low, hard ceiling that kept slaves from the daylight of dreams. Taking the words that had come alive to her on paper, she would compose a novel that revealed truth. I find the vast verbal blueprint she was able to draw up in her mind astounding. It appears Hannah had not been “writing this for herself,” as “it was not an internal sort of story [in which she grows or changes] which makes me want to think of her imagining a public for it.” (Preface, lxiv) The pen at work was a soaring of the mind, a declaration of will. She did not heed the holes in her learning. A full imagination, insight, and instinct for the framing of words would do. Her sense of worth, not mollifiable, told her she was capable of attempting what no hand of woman had as of yet and that she could secure readers. This anchor is what impelled her escape, for “rebellion would be virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it, and that whatever accidents or misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse than what threatened my stay.” (p. 206) I love the duty to herself. Her body, her spirit, her dignity were worth protecting, and she would see to it.

COST
Some things are not worth fighting for. “Marriage like many other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system…I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being.” (pp. 206-207) Hannah decides it the wiser course for slaves to forgo certain pleasures. The sweetest of them – creaturely comfort and family – promise in the grander scheme only to embitter their own existence, feed the very beast of their anguish. So how far do you go to protect your child? Hannah describes the response of a young black woman forced to sell her children by their father, the master of the house. “Her eyes had a wild phrenzied look, and with a motion so sudden that no one could prevent it, she snatched a sharp knife…and stabbing the infant threw it with one toss into the arms of its father. Before he had time to recover from his astonishment she had run the knife into her own body, and fell at his feet bathing them in her blood. She lived only long enough to say that she prayed God to forgive her for an act dictated by the wildest despair.” (pp.177-178) This despair was no drama out of a writer’s fancy. Hannah likely knew of the publicized infanticide of 1856. Margaret Garner was fleeing a Kentucky plantation with her husband, their baby and two-year-old daughter Mary, and his parents when she was pursued by her master. Margaret slit Mary’s throat with a knife to spare her the waiting travail. It was a doomed attempt to solve the lesser of two impossible evils, and Margaret’s act of desperation articulates Hannah’s own conviction to refuse helotry another generation of victims. So accustomed to the relative comforts of the wealthiest nation in the world, I can’t imagine what would compel me to extinguish my son’s breath.

GREATNESS
To run away is to face the real possibility of torture and death, but the road before holds out the irresistible hope of autonomy and birthright of dignity. To stay or go back is to assure oneself of a living death. The Underground Railroad saw many, though not enough, lives to freedom. But literacy liberates the mind and creates its own opportunity of voice. The depths to which Bond pursued her art yielded a remarkable achievement. She reached for access to that forbidden code of the written word we call reading, and went on to add her own undimmed testimony of good, evil, and the true to the dark pages of the human heart we call history.

Dear White People

Making America great again.

A Thomas Point of View

Can we talk?

Can we truly talk about the elephant in the room that you never want to talk about?

Race.

Let’s talk about race.

I’m black.

I’m a woman.

Two indisputable facts that you may have noticed.

I’m a mother.

To a son.

He’s the light of my life.

He’s my Munch.

He’s also black.

Why do I keep mentioning color? Because I need you to see and acknowledge the rich hues in my skin tone. I need you to see my melanin and know that I am black. Can you see the warm coffee colored hues of my skin tone just radiating? Yes?

Good.

Let’s talk.

I’m black. A beautiful black woman who shares a rich history in this country. My ancestors were kings and queens, slaves and sharecroppers. I know this. Many of you know this. But, I need you to stop acting like I’m supposed to forget…

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midnight in wonderland

we felt so grown up 
when we were kids
and now wonder that 
we are so old when 
we're not yet grown

we started losing 
our parents to 
time and frailty.

in the cycle of life 
things go upside 
down sometimes

you rush
d o w n
the
  rabbit hole
      into a world
above the logic of sorrow

and find you are so
small, but remember:
Mom's high ceiling, 
your sure ground.

see the sky and trees
in your pool of tears
they're the other side 
of life. how beautiful 
things are when they drown

how clear it is underwater.

you long to run 
to the garden 
beyond that door 
but you don't fit

life would feel deformed 
under the weight of loss 
if it weren't for the faith 
that was bigger than the 
life that shut down

she archived her fears and 
hopes in her kids, did
anyone hear the story 
in between, did
anyone  look?

hold fast 
your heirloom assurance

the midnight of your dreams
is really a new day.

for HJ &
anyone else
who would like it

Secrets to a Happy Marriage: For Women

1. Develop amnesia. Find some way to forget what he did. Or didn’t do (again). Go without sleep or spin 50 times to reduce cognitive faculty. Stick a finger in the socket.

2. If biting your tongue hurts too much, pop some chocolate. Sure, every time.

3. Lie. Tell yourself he’s listening. The short-lived delusion will reap a harvest of peace for the home, the good of the kids.

4. Use your imagination. He mistook medication for digestive enzymes and is suffering severe side effects. Yeah, that’s it. He’s sick.

5. Count to 10. No, 40. In Portuguese – or Swahili. Lose yourself in a dictionary. Hec, master a foreign language. You’ll get there in no time and can have any job you want. (Let me help. I can count to 1,000,000 in Korean.)

6. Don’t repeat your requests and be called a nag. Text him the list of Honey Dos (even if you’re sitting facing him) after breakfast when glucose has hit the brain before he plans his day. Lunch is too late, what with food coma and that sweet nap. Cap it at three tasks or he’ll ignore ’em. Reward him with a drink between tasks. Your head hurts? Consider the mental tap-dancing your cerebral exercise for the day. You’re excused from the Times crossword and Sudoku.

There. You might find yourself mangled, bruised, or diabetic. But gosh darn it, you are loving each other to death. Nothing worth having spares the suffering, and he is so worth it. Because when the amnesia wears off, you’ll remember: he said I do. And in his helplessly human way, he has.

colorformal-pose43-copy

WANTED: Male Doctor With Vagina

Dr. Y:

I was told your peers on the medical review board will see this letter. The day you squeeze out a human being from between your legs is the day you will have earned your license as a doctor thanks to your closed-minded, dismissive attitude to women. I couldn’t believe I had to appeal and work so hard for a simple test that would shed light on my troubles. I did not realize you were an arbiter of the services within my rightful reach. You were supposed to be my advocate. Little did I know I would have to prove to you my credibility as a patient. The testimony of my experiences and attendant symptoms was not significant enough. Since when is patient history insufficient? You “did not find it medically necessary” to learn what I could rule out to care for myself appropriately. You “did not need to know” right now? Who said my welfare is about you?

DrPhotoDo doctors really have to make us feel so stupid? Don’t dismiss women’s pains and symptoms if you don’t have a vagina that does different things throughout the month, and I won’t laugh when you hit andropause. But since you shouldn’t apologize for having been born the gender you take obvious chauvinistic pride in, you might see a female urologist next time. She should understand you as well as you can handle my concerns, yes? Acknowledge the limitations of experience and understanding your gender brings to your occupation and listen to your female patients. Rather than see us as people, you sit there matching symptoms against your sacrosanct checklist and call it science. It’s glorified plumbing. You seemed to think your job was to plug my case into your textbook paradigms and criteria of legitimacy. Doctor – while you don’t consider compassion, support, partnership medically necessary – your task, in the least, is to investigate problems on our behalf. Show respect for women who are obviously in tune with their bodies, not to mention educated. Most of us are not airheads or liars. If we tell you we feel terrible, believe us. Last I checked, this was America and my PhD in embryo development and childbirth that trumps your book knowledge entitles me to feel seen and respected as a human being when I walk into a doctor’s office with female concerns. You can’t begin to call yourself a physician until you remember that.

Diana Ha

*Don’t ever let any practitioner or medical staff member make you feel small. If there is no site supervisor, pursue it with the licensing board or state medical society. Doctors with the God Complex ruin it for the dedicated professionals who make every difference.

 

My Wife Is An Animal

Blue = Mr.  Black = Mrs.

Listen to this, the 2014 Reader’s Digest: “LIMIT ARGUMENTS TO THREE MINUTES. John Gottman of the University of Washington found that the most important points in any argument can be found in the first three minu–
I’d LOVE that! I’ll hold up three fingers to signal time’s up and you have to stop being pissed.
— after that people often repeat themselves at higher decibels
.
*Guffaw*


Do you ever get tired of hearing that you’re right?
No.
Because I get tired of saying it.


If you missed Car Accident – in the Garage, one of the first posts on the Holistic Journey, don’t enjoy the prequel to the latest mishap too much. In a hurry getting out of the house last week, I somehow backed out of the garage before the door had rolled all the way up. The damage wasn’t as horrifyingly extensive this time but the door has a new, shall we say, design. A mold of the back of the minivan.

I’ll need to fix it with somebody. The bump is too big to tackle alone and we have to keep mice and cats out.
*Hardly able to get the words out in the laughing* I know how we can fix it.
How?
Ram it from the other side.
*Laughing along* “That is really funny. And logical.

 

Actually, you are the perfect opossum. It looks cute but when you get in its face, it is one scary mother.
How do you know this?
I ran into an opossum once. When I was a security guard. I was patrolling the grounds at midnight and thought I saw a cat, thought I’d chase it away. When I reached it, I saw it was moving too slow for a cat. I thought, this is no cat. It’s an opossum. It bared its fangs at me.
What did you do?
I slowwly backed off, saying, “Whatever you want, honey. You win.”

possum4

 

A Million Signatures of Friendship

I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. T’s breathing had a restless purpose and he contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?

You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. I was the bathroom monitor during lunch in fourth grade and we still get a kick out of the way I told the girls in line to get in size order – because you were short.

Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between your place and mine, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals. They are the muscle and fiber of a childhood.

If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean moms. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls into my science lab and think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.