History as Story

My father used to complain that in my mother’s house, he walked on flowers, sat on flowers, ate on flowers and slept on flowers. My mother must have taken this as a compliment because she never changed the decor. It was equally true of him that he talked history, walked history, ate it, and no doubt dreamed it. Since he taught it as well, at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, his passion for the past seemed insatiable.

And also skewed. Recently I’ve been discussing the telling of history with my students. Especially African-American history. The amount of history that rises above the ocean of drowned daily incident tends to be pushed there by the people with muscle, brains, and dough. For decades, white people told the story of slavery. It was a kind of whitewash. Forgive me, but it largely went like this: happy darkies blent their blood, sweat and tears with the rich loam of American plantations, and in payment were Christianized and civilized because, of course, they came from darkest, barbaric Africa. Then along came Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to flip that story on its ear and display the ugly fact that white owners and overseers committed far worse barbarism than any imported from the dark continent.

Fast forward to the last quarter of the 20th century and the present. Here’s another truism: sometimes fiction can get at complicated interactions from the past with greater nuance and precision than even enlightened history. Item: we just read an amazing piece of short fiction by the African-American writer Sherley Anne Williams. “Meditations on History” (1976) collected in Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds (1975-80). I know, some thirty-five years have passed since this story was published, but for my money, that does not mean it’s outmoded, simply perennial.

The story opens with two main characters in a slave community–the gardener Kaine and the field hand Dessa who are lovers. Their talk and love-making shimmer and shout from the page until Kaine is killed by the master, and Dessa, great with his child, sold to a slave trader. This is now related by a white historian, probably from the north, intent upon capturing the truth about Dessa and others in the coffle who’ve staged the murder of one of the white traders, and allowed some in the coffle to escape. The historian finds Dessa confined to a root cellar, and at first she refuses to talk to him. He cuffs her for her hostility, then backs off, chastizing himself for descending to cruelty when he must keep a sane attitude toward her if he is to get the story from her.

This is one of the story’s first ironies and comments on making history. History is made from outside the black community, item number one. History transgresses across the line of civility to get that story, item number two. And as the relationship between Dessa and the historian develops, and she begins to relate what happened to her and Kaine, to her in the coffle, the historian’s prejudice and her mistrust soften until it appears that they both see each other simply as humans, and we readers begin to think maybe what he’s reporting is coming closer to what really happened.

Interspersed with her bits of conversation, Dessa sings. This annoys the historian. What good are songs when he is after facts and motivations? He is intent upon writing a guide to help slave-owners avoid slave rebellions. Then comes the day when the historian is distracted, heads off with local whites after a group of “maroons,” which is what hidden escaped slaves are called. These fugitives lead the whites on a wild goose chase, never revealing themselves. When the historian returns, he finds the unthinkable has happened: Dessa has escaped. By then we have picked up the message contained in her songs: “Oh, it won’t be long. Say, it won’t be long….Soul’s gon’ ride that heav’nly train.”

Like the quilts made by slaves, their songs carried a message of flight and hope for freedom, which most whites like the historian here, never grasped. This is a cautionary reminder to us who attempt to penetrate histories for which there is little written record from both sides of the power divide. Sometimes what families pass down and what later generations fashion into story penetrates closer to what may have happened than any notebook created by the dominant, self-assured partner. Yet, the story and the history of slavery are told by both parties, both races. We must exercise caution, humility and irony in its pursuit, suggest Sherley Anne Williams.

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