Monthly Archives: January 2013
This memoir is like reading chocolate mousse or whatever you adore consuming, while at the same time, being forced to realize the utter fragility of life. Language and love combine in every sentence. A dictionary is helpful because Diane Ackerman and her husband Paul West’s vocabulary is so extensive one must keep up. Their knowledge and use of words is dazzling, essentially out of the realm of a computer’s dictionary. Both are well-established writers in love with writing and one another, and they are truly witty wordsmiths.
Memoir is a genre of non-fiction that offers a slice of the author’s life, a theme or a thread vs. an autobiography of their whole existence. If we consider memoir’s lineage, Gertrude Stein wrote the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 when really it was Gertrude’s own story she told. Toklas was a front (indeed, she always took care of Gertrude). I mention Stein because she set a precedent. She told her story through her interpretation of Alice’s eyes. In One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir, Ackerman does the same.
That is, she writes as witness. She writes of her husband’s stroke and the devastation of the man she once knew, and of his heroic resurrection and recreation. His story is her story as she too is recreated. She is forced to shift from playful mate and writer, to caregiver-mate and writer. Many women become caregivers as soon as children arrive. Ackerman and West produced volumes of prose and poetry rather than bundles of baby. The care giving was not parental but that of adoring partners, creative colleagues and muse.
The wonder here is how Ackerman realized that traditional therapies to coach and coerce West’s brain to language were not sufficient. She besieged West, a British Oxford don, with incessant conversation and relevant fill-in-the-blank exercises, thus bombarding his global aphasia with words and stimulation that would arouse his curiosity. She encouraged him to write about his experience, and he accepted the challenge. That, and a swimming pool and patience were the healing combination. Ackerman learned to listen, knew her husband well enough to decipher his meaning, listened and loved him enough to laugh with him as his words danced with a new twist. He could remember language learned as an adult –words so obscure even Ackerman had to look them up — but not the immediate ones most of us use daily.
West’s memoir of his early aphasic months, The Shadow Factory, was published just two years after his massive stroke. He describes the indescribable—suddenly being globally aphasic. “Mem, mem, mem” (the only thing he could utter at first) is an excerpt available in The American Scholar (Summer 2007) (http://theamericanscholar.org/mem-mem-mem/). I have to suspend my inherent demands for logic while reading his essay, just go with his existential, poetic free-reign, and I’m rewarded with insight into an otherwise unfathomable realm.
Ackerman’s memoir is divine linguistic artistry, word combinations as beautiful as any rainbow, any recipe for a dish that melts in your mouth (oh mousse). But the story is as astounding as the prose. The brain damage is so severe a doctor reading CAT scan years later is in awe West wasn’t in a vegetative state. Having listened to Ackerman’s descriptions of West’s accomplishments, that doctor said “I’m so glad you told me this about him. It’s important to know what’s possible” (p. 294).
Diane Ackerman writes as a guide to the intimate universe of a stroke. Her husband is speechless, a wordsmith without words, who utters only “mem” with a variety of tone and inflection. The relearning of language and physical skill is tedious, repetitive, ceaseless and also joyous and funny. The word mistakes heard with loving ears, sheer poetry. For instance, “No, a tiny zephyr roamed through the yard for about a minute and a half and it felt good,” meant the breeze was nice (p. 141). But the poet in Ackerman is delighted, which sustains her commitment to his recovery and their life together. The woman West calls, “Lovely Ampersand of the Morning” has written the ultimate love story of her husband’s recovery. It was only with her intimate knowledge of brains (she was on tour with The Alchemy of Mind when a health crisis prior to the stroke brought her home), her insight into language and her dedication to finding creative therapy for West that kept her spirits and self intact for the long recovery.
“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet” (90).
Life is an improbable adventure. Ackerman, and West, provide intimate insight into the fierce world of caregivers, global aphasia and poetic passion, the latter illustrated by a terrific list of one hundred endearments so generously offered at the end of the book. I’ll try one here, then I think I’ll send it to my own sweetheart: Hi Honey, my “Baby Angel with the Human Antecede Within,” how’s your day been?
Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan (2012).
I had to close this book frequently due to an eerie unease and a desire to deny. I stomped into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and later stomped back for tea. But the book is just as intriguing and captivating as it is unsettling, so I headed back into the pages until I had devoured every one.
In her memoir Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and The Mother Who Gave Her Away (2006, watch for a later blog entry on this one), June Cross writes, “I was descended from a slave, a slave trader, and an abolitionist. The American Trinity” (p.297). DeWolf and Morgan search the depths of this trinity in their epic exploration, Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. They are utterly accessible writers and bravely honest as they breach each wall of silence regarding the complexities of slavery in the United States.
DeWolf and Morgan met at a Coming to the Table Conference, where black and white folks gather to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream come true:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood (August 28, 1963).
The authors follow this model as each one takes the other to meet family, building real knowing of one another before they try and come to terms with the power, privilege and despair of the legacy of slavery. They spend three years traversing 100,000 miles in the United States and overseas. One May they drove 6,000 miles through 21 states visiting plantations, museums, cemeteries, and archives.
Even generations after the ships carrying human cargo, the treatment of humans as chattel, and the fortunes made and lost with the labor of workers from Africa, Americans are living on this foundation. Our country was founded upon slave shoulders and land stolen from Native Peoples. The labor and love of generations born of many drops of blood from many cultures has built the infrastructure of this country. But slavery happened so long ago that many have wondered why it still matters. It matters because we haven’t understood the consequences, the ever-present privileges assumed or denied; the constant and present reiterations of denigration and denied access. And who wants to? Who wants to allow all the truth of this legacy in?
The history of slavery in the United States isn’t pretty. It isn’t heroic and it doesn’t fit the myth of the individual pulling up bootstraps to success, or that hard work and perseverance will get you the gold ring. Slavery proves the lie of every single slogan. I’ve had middle age students who cry with fury when they learn, for the first time, of the lynch mob hanging of Jewish-American Leo Max Frank in mid August, 1915, Emmitt Till’s late August, 1955 murder, Japanese internment camps and the initiative to brand gay people who are HIV+ in the early 1980s. This is a hug part of America’s multicultural history. My students are furious when they understand the depth of the silence, the lies, the knowledge denied them until now.
We need to know that facing the truths will allow us to understand the fuller picture of our history. Without all the pieces of this puzzle that is us (U.S.), we are held back, kept in a perpetual, peevish childhood of ignorance. We have to go right through the pain, know it, accept it, and integrate it. Only then the wounds can mend and we can all grow into mature Americans together.
Gather at the Table is a book for all of us. DeWolf and Morgan want us to figure out how to recover and heal from these fundamental founding injustices. Sharon Morgan allows us to know her frustration, distrust and even ambivalence at starting such a project with a white man. She is born of white and black families. She has lived her life paranoid and mad at white people. And she rages at the perpetual, everyday racism she encounters. Tom DeWolf has a famous captain of slave trader ships in his family tree. He has abolitionists too. He wrote Inheriting the Trade (2008) and participated in the POV/PBS documentary Traces of the Trade (2008) before embarking on this even more personal project with Sharon Morgan. His demeanor is more concern than anger.
I’m especially emotionally connected to these complex family-of-origin descriptions since a history of families of North Carolina, including mine, recently arrived from my Southern cousin. This particular tree begins with a soldier in the American Revolution and a deed of 1819 that includes “…in absolute legal right and title in and to the following negro slaves…” Here it is: officially and undeniably. I have to accept the slave owners when I only want to acknowledge the triple great uncle who was hung, in effigy after he publically criticized the KKK in his newspaper. I only want to acknowledge the Canadians who moved down from bitter cold Ontario to North Carolina in 1872. Those Wakefields married into the Southern legacy. The slaves were gone by then, but not the system of “just the way things are” dissymmetry of segregation.
Every time I closed Gather At The Table I pouted as I hustled to the kitchen, mumbling to myself that slavery was so long ago, why does it still matter? There has always been this kind of treatment toward women. And gay people. And Jews. And people with disabilities. What about the British, French, Dutch, Spanish and all their colonializations? The Pilgrims came to America to escape. There were white indentured servants. The Holocaust. Rawanda. The Congo. There are more slaves now around the globe being trafficked than ever came over in the Middle Passage. Every war, every conquering nation, claimed the defeated as slaves.
American slavery is deeply embedded in the American psyche. The racism is blatant and insidious and it is everywhere. Especially in the not-knowing or caring about history or lineage. Not-knowing our history is detrimental to black and white kids who don’t know the struggle for the vote, or black inventors and writers. Popular culture is perpetuating self-demeaning stereotypes and myths (consider my earlier blog piece on Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams). Few schools are willing to teach the full history of slavery. So much has been hidden about the past.
Sharon Morgan is an ardent genealogist, so she and Thomas DeWolf include graveyards and archives in their itinerary. They even literally turn a gravestone over together so Sharon can verify an ancestor. Sharon encountered many dead ends as she combed records for former slaves and found much information incomplete. Thomas could trace and connect more and more lines of relations. Whole counties pledged some level of kinship.
Now I understand Sharon Morgan’s dilemma and frustrations. How could anyone find the story of Sarah, George, Heat, Daniel, Allen, Jenney, David and Moses from Hillsborough, NC of the 1819 deed cited in my family’s book? Or the seventeen year old Caty and her child Nancy who were purchased as nursemaid for George Meredith Adams in 1829? How will their ancestors find them? No last name. No place or date of birth. They were not deemed human enough to warrant these dignities, and their descendents’ humanity continues to suffer. This is another leftover of slavery, reaching through the generations to confound Morgan’s search.
Sharon Morgan writes with such pain (the source of so much anger) and clarity about her everyday encounters with bigots, her caution in encounters with white people, and personal loss. For instance, her very first entry begins with an expletive shouted at her about President Obama by a white man in a truck as she exits the post office. Mr. DeWolf writes of learning to listen, staying in the conversation, seeing the everyday lives of Ms. Morgan’s family and her reactions to his family. Morgan and DeWolf explain what they see, in themselves and about one another, as they travel together. They step right on the divides that have kept us from understanding one another, understanding the humanity of us all. After all these years of considering slavery from afar, Morgan and DeWolf invite me to cross the divide of denial too. I come to understand the persistence of the haunting slave legacy, our particular aspect. Morgan and DeWolf say it this way,
“In America, more perniciously than anywhere on earth, slavery evolved into something quite different from other types that existed before–in treatment, length of servitude, and how the enslaved were viewed by their owners. Europeans created a new paradigm” (p. 106).
The truth is, we’re all twisted by the tenacious tentacles of this everlasting racism. We have left too little of this way of being cruel and devastating behind. “…violence, just like racism, is something we inherit” (p.116). We have inherited racism and the violence that goes hand-in-hand with treating other human beings as “other” rather than human beings. Dr. King’s dream of everyone coming together—from garbage men to Presidents—to work for a greater justice, will require us to disinherit hate and violence, and our propensity to dehumanize each other.
The slave trader and slave, economics and power dynamics prevent people from knowing one another and caring about one another as human beings with spirit and creativity, foibles and flaws. We are prevented from knowing one another by assumptions, unfounded bias. Borders are erected both real and imaginary through education, real estate, media, and legal systems that prevent interracial contact or pluck generations of young men out of their communities and funnel them to prisons for profit. We’ve got the ghosts of slavery leading policy, guiding the ever-present hand of oppression everywhere.
Gather at the Table encourages us to negotiate and acknowledge the past demons and welcome the present, for there is much work to do. DeWolf and Morgan put their intimate hesitations, confusion, anger, fear and trepidation right on the table for us to see. Their willingness to stop being polite, honestly ask questions and explain real experiences offer us a model for conversation. They go to the most painful places where slaves departed Africa, were sold at auction, were held for shipment. They listen to docents in museums tell truths about the conditions for slaves on the plantation and those who continue to perpetuate the fantasy of happy slavery. They describe a very young man leading a tour at a former plantation. His whole script drips of the romanticism of Gone With the Wind. They are astounded that the lies are being so blatantly perpetuated. Together they build a bridge to a more true awareness and acceptance of this American legacy. The bridge—remember the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama? It took several attempts and much blood to cross that bridge for greater equality.
I am deeply humbled. None of this is new. But there are things I still don’t want to accept. Despite my life-long reading, research, teaching, and life-decisions, I dwell so perfectly in my white privilege. This book is terrifically discomforting; taking this journey with Morgan and DeWolf has made me more honest and more willing to continue to walk in the complexity of my daily life. Getting uncomfortable is a sure sign of new learning. We all have a place at Dr. King’s table and there is still plenty to do.