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“This is not a story to pass on.” So concludes the freed black community after its brush with the preternatural, as found in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved (1984).

Five years in its composition, the author dives deep for pungent images to express the inexpressible horrors of southern slavery and its afterimage during the Reconstruction, these anecdotes honed from her grandparents’ and parents’ experiences. Through Morrison’s artistry, her characters, no longer silenced, speak.

The setting for this novel is 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. Within this two-story hovel live the protagonist Sethe, her eighteen-year-old Denver, and Beloved, the poltergeist of Sethe’s second daughter. The time is 1873. The narrative follows a circuitous route, with frequent insertions of backstory: Sweet Home, a small plantation in Kentucky where Sethe and five slaves tend the needs of the Garnets, a childless couple; Sethe’s “marriage” to Halle and their begetting four children; schoolteacher’s torture meted out to all the slaves, some escaping, others killed or rendered witless.

At the center of this circuitous route is lodged Sethe’s unspeakable crime that shimmies, beyond all telling. It takes forever to get there: the journey bristles with tension. Indeed, her poetic language crisps the soles of feet, squinches sensibilities, and fuels outrage.

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love is not love at all,” Sethe tells Paul D, an aging Sweet Home former slave. From her perspective, her crime takes on a different hue—countering Evil and provoking questions that itch, badly, in the night.

 

 

 

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Exploitation, violence, the round-abouts of law, and the malleability of religion contributed to the development of the New World, later called the United States of America. Few dare to expose its evil, for centuries ensconced in the collective unconscious, now erupting in our streets.

Fortunate for us, however, one has done so. Author Edward Ball, the sixth-generation-descendant of slave owners and traders near Charleston, South Carolina, combed through copious records of his family’s rice plantations on the Cooper River and produced Slaves in the Family, the 1998 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Through the lens of the author, we glimpse the world of an English rice farmer buying slaves, captured from the West Coast of Africa, to work his water-soaked fields. This all began in 1698 with Elias Ball’s inheritance of the Comingtee plantation. Years of numbing labors, from March through November, eventually produced Carolina Gold that topped the rice market for sales. The resulting profits goaded generations of Ball Masters to buy even more land and slaves until outlawed in 1865, the end of the Civil War.

This annotated narrative also reveals the precarious existence of these slaves, over four thousand of them, perceived as chattel for the fields and as sexual game for their masters. Ball’s meticulous research, including visits to their descendants scattered all over the United States, brings this queasy world to life. Numerous photographs of the Balls and their slaves, of newspaper clippings and maps, and of genealogies reveal even more than the printed words.

Edward Ball and his newly found black relatives found their lives enlarged and enriched through this courageous exchange of stories. They are more than friends.

 

 

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