The Drinking Gourd: Three Tales

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Creative non-fiction, Narrative essay
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First published in the anthology Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out (Eds. Adebe DeRango-Adem & Andrea Thompson, Inanna Press, 2011).

Watch me read from this piece at the Other Tongues launch here.

When the sun comes back, and the first Quail calls, 


Follow the drinking gourd;

For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom


If you follow the drinking gourd.

         -Spiritual

Rufus

My journey could begin in several places: it could begin with the 1910 exodus of between one and two thousand Blacks, who escaped the Jim Crow South by emigrating to the Canaan Land, Heaven, also known as Canada; it could begin 48 years before, with 6-year-old Rufus, my great-great-grandfather, being kidnapped along with his two brothers from their Arkansas home and taken to Texas by slave traders. The story goes back farther still than that, but I suppose the real beginning – and ending – is with me, nine or ten years old, and my grade five class’ First Nations study project.

At the end of the unit on First Nations art and culture, we were asked to write our own First Nations legends. I wrote about how the night sky is a beautiful woman who wears a cloak of many colours when she goes out walking, and how it shifts in purple and orange and becomes the Northern Lights. I loved the sky stories best, because they belonged to everyone. You don’t see much of the Northern Lights in Alberta, I’ll grant you, but everybody in the world looks at the stars. In those days, I was beginning to consider myself something of an aficionado of world mythology. The Greek and Roman myths were my particular interest, but I was also being exposed to the Norse, Egyptian, and West African traditions. I think I lived more deeply searching the sky for the story maps laid out there than I did here on earth.

Our next assignment was to share a legend that came from our parents. My parents both grew up in Bowness, a district of Calgary nestled against the Bow River that used to be its own town. Now, there are so many suburbs stacked like shingles way out in the Foothills, Bowness is almost considered “city centre.” But in my parents’ minds it’s still dusty and rural, with the river valley and train tracks for its playground.

My father’s stories all began the same way: “I grew up in a grey house with a blue roof, and I had three brothers – Nic, Liv, and Ben. And we had three pets – Sirius the dog, who was black as night; Nosey the bunny, who was white as snow; and Smokey the cat, who was grey as a puff of smoke.” The stories were word-perfect each time, and soothing as a litany. My mother’s stories were different. They tended to be longer than they at first appeared, because time and an interweaving cast of characters attached them to one another. You pulled one end of the scarf from my mother’s pocket, and out came yards and yards of story.

She was the third-oldest child in the family but the oldest girl, which meant the de facto caregiver and second in command to her mother, my Nana. She was – is – also the primary storyteller. It was my mother who first instilled me with the knowledge that I was half-Black, and that my ancestors had emigrated from the States in 1910 to found communities in the “Last, Best West,” the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

I knew I was half-Black years before I was even aware of differences in skin colour. My mother, never one to miss an opportunity to tell stories, is the pre-eminent historian of Alberta’s Black pioneer community. My knowledge of the 1910 exodus goes back further than I can remember. I also knew my father’s parents were German and Franco-Italian.  It didn’t seem all that complicated growing up. My maternal cousins, most of them half-Black as well, varied in colour from “darkish-white” (a phrase I coined to describe my own shade at around the age of three) to the creamy coffee brown of my mother, aunt and uncles.

The concept proved difficult to translate to others. When we were little girls, my best friend overheard one of her parents refer to me as half-Black. She spent the next several months wondering which half of me they were referring to. When no one was looking, she would examine my arms, legs, neck and face for some sign of my blackness. She eventually gave up looking and assumed it was the part of me that was covered by clothes.

It was my half-Black-ness that led to the difficulty with the project. I could write only one myth, which meant I would have to choose between a story from my mother and one from my father. My father, as I’ve mentioned, told mainly boyhood stories, detailing the adventures of his pets and his brothers as they hiked through the Rocky Mountains. If I chose one of his, it would definitely be the one about the time Smokey gave birth to a litter of kittens on my dad’s chest. If I elected to tell one of Mom’s stories, it would have to be that of my great-great-grandfather Rufus, but where to begin?

In 1862, when he was six years old, Rufus and his two brothers were taken from their home in Arkansas to work on plantations in Texas. Rufus was unaware that as he was entering captivity, the Civil War was raging around him. The family Rufus worked for saw no need to tell him when the end of the war finally came. He had been a slave for four years when he overheard that the law had set him free. Shortly after making this discovery, he hid in the field until he was sure all of the inhabitants of the house were out of doors working; snuck into the house to steal onions and a few scraps from the kitchen; and made a dash for it.

Too old and feeble to chase a healthy, work-hardened ten-year-old, the master sent Red, the snarling family dog, after the boy. The master had forgotten that Rufus had raised Red from a pup, and the two friends made their escape together. When he was 18, Rufus returned to Arkansas and found his mother and aunt still living there. He found his younger brother Billy by chance many, many years later, at a travelling circus show.

Isn’t that perfect? Couldn’t it be a page out of the 1001 Arabian Nights? I’m not sure why I decided in the end to tell the delightful but less emotionally resonant story of Smokey and her kittens. My best guess is that I was afraid Rufus’ story was too complicated, that it had too many layers and would take too long to adapt for a grade five-level laminated picture book. Part of me wonders, though, if I shied away from it because I felt it wasn’t mine to claim; that Rufus, wanderer, adventurer, was too far away from my world, which was small, and sheltered, and darkish-white.

By grade five I was already awakening to a new fact: my mother told one story and my skin told another.

 

John

My education from that point on was, consciously or unconsciously, bent towards finding a point of entrance into my self. The next foray into my mixed race identity was a grade seven Humanities project, for which I presented on African American culture, starting with food. I made cornbread, and wrote a paper about how the slaves in the U.S. took the worst cuts of meat (the only cuts they were allowed) and used them to make button bones, the pungent and sticky dish of tiny, meaty back rib tails. The cornbread smelled at home in my kitchen when I baked it, and the button bones were already a part of me – they had been taken straight from the best meals of my childhood. Button bones meant family, noisy joviality, a hot cramped kitchen. Button bones can now be purchased at Safeway. They’re no longer dirt-cheap because, well, it’s pork, and because white people eventually caught onto the decadent nature of ribs slow-cooked in barbeque sauce and brown sugar. I recently gave up pork, after an ill-timed screening of the film Babe and the discovery that an adult pig can play Pong. Still, from a distance I see a little bit of myself in those foods.

For the next unit – language – I researched urban ‘Ebonics’. I was fascinated to learn that entire English sentences can be translated into Ebonics and be almost unrecognizable. “For example,” I wrote, “Instead of ‘I’m going home,’ say ‘I’m coppin’ my trill to my pile of stone.’”

What am I doing? I thought, even after Ms. Elliot gave me an A+. It felt a little like bringing a cool uncle to school on Parents Day. I don’t know if what I was talking about was real to someone else, but it certainly wasn’t me I saw in there. Even though I was 12 years old and not yet well-versed in the ethical issues associated with white scholars going into Black ghettos to “document” their lifestyles, I instinctively felt that the assignment was cheap, exploitive.  I needed a new story.

So, I tried again. In grade eight I went back further, to cowboys and ranch-hands, some of them freed slaves who found their way to Canada from the South. I gave a presentation on John Ware, the cowboy, the great Albertan legend – one of the only true legends to come out of Alberta. It’s believed that he was a slave in South Carolina; after the Civil War, he ended up working on a Texas ranch and came to Alberta on a cattle drive in 1883. Once he was introduced to the Big Sky Country – the clear blue eye that hangs above the Rocky Mountains and the golden sea of prairie grass rippling over the hills – he started to wonder if a Black cowboy might do better to settle here than in Texas.

He stayed, and the rest is breathless movie poster fuel: He was never tossed from a horse! He could lift an 18-month-old steer clear over his head! Like Davy Crockett or Robin Hood, he has taken on the character of the land to become something more emblematic than human. The myth-starved little girl I still was responded to the larger-than-life stories that were tied to his legacy.

I say he fell in love with the land; he stuck mainly to the vast rural expanses and rarely travelled into the city. Non-natives don’t realize just how big a country Canada is. The travel time between urban centres is generally one of about three hours minimum. In John’s time, it was more like two days, if you were in a hurry. In the countryside, John was free to roam about and feel the pull of the Big Sky all around him. When yours is the only face for miles, it’s easier to believe that you’re your own property.

When John was forced to do business in Calgary, the weight of being a person in the world, a Black man at the turn of the century, came rushing back to drag his solid form to the earth. He was one of the city’s most lauded men; his funeral was the best attended in the young city’s history, but to his death he was known “affectionately” as Nigger John.

“Did his Black friends call him that?” I asked my mother when I came across this tidbit. I was at the dining room table researching my report while she was cooking dinner.

“Oh no. Of course not.” She made a characteristic face, pursing her lips and looking into the middle distance. I immediately felt it had been a stupid question. After all, those were different times. No doubt his white friends assumed he didn’t mind, or else they thought so little of it that they imagined he never thought of it either. It was just his name: Nigger John. They couldn’t know that he heard what every other Black man hears: Worthless John. Brainless John. Third-Class Citizen John.

I think that was the moment John Ware’s legendary life lost its glamour for me. The truth is, no hero’s legacy is entirely without taint. Secret prejudices and rancid thoughts have the power to infect even the most hallowed memories.

An old boyfriend of one of my cousins was around my family a lot a couple of years back. His desperate desire to be Black himself caused him to spend as much time around my family as possible. One of the first times he was at my parents’ house, he noticed a picture taken of my sister and I one Halloween. My sister, a genie, was smiling her serene smile, her cheeks perfect pink apples in a golden face. I was a princess for the third year running, and my golden hair made an angelic frame for my round blue eyes and little pink lips. (It would be 11 years before I started dyeing my hair a deep, dark brown.) The natural light of the picture caught everything just right. We looked like a couple of dolls in our plastic costume jewellery, holding onto each other and grinning. “That’s got to be the whitest thing I’ve ever seen,” the boyfriend laughed, snorting. The picture still sits in the same place on the side table in my parents’ living room, and I can still see on it the speck of shame from that moment.

I would have loved to claim John Ware for my mythology, my extended family, but Nigger John kept getting in my way, forcing my own shameful thoughts upon me. What no one knows: I secretly crave to be Nigger to someone; to have the foul word thrown at me, or anything that would ignite a righteous fire in me, that would let the Black part out, give it reason for being. I hate the desire – I cringe to feel its presence in me – but it’s there for all that. I imagine vivid scenes in which I’m coolly chewing out some faceless, ignorant bigot for a comment that slipped out in my presence. Playing the race card, I believe it’s called.

Outside of my elaborate fantasies, I’m hardly so hostile. I rarely have reason to be. The most I have to deal with is the occasional cousin’s boyfriend, or else having to explain to my incredulous Australian roommate that mulatto means mule: half-donkey, half-horse. I don’t deal with “racism” as it appears in Public Service Announcements. Instead, I defend and re-defend my territory in the fracturing world of racial categorization to people who are just as Franco-Italian and German and English as me.

I’m not great at dealing with these situations. When my roommate, a cheerful redhead, saw the discomfort telling on my face, she quickly defused her comments, laughing and hugging me. “Don’t be offended,” she said. “I’m just jealous I don’t have your beautiful tan.”

My skin. The emblem of either my whiteness or my Blackness – or perhaps more accurately, my Otherness. In the eyes of an observer, I take on whatever Other they want me to be: Latina, Filipino, Italian. My mother and I went into a church in downtown Calgary the other day to get directions. The man who greeted us at the door asked if we were Portuguese. Normally I’d put up my defences at such a question, but I got the sense that the man wasn’t about to ask us what island we were from. When we told him we were Canadian, he didn’t look embarrassed; only a little sad.

“No? You look like you Portuguese, or Latina, you and your daughter. Pretty girl.” He sighed and smiled, and led Mom to a phone book. After we had thanked him and left, Mom said he had told her he was a recent immigrant from Portugal and had very few contacts here. Perhaps he was hoping that we’d be able to hook him into some sort of community. I felt bad to have disappointed him. In a lot of ways it would be easier for me – and other people – if I “passed,” if I pretended to be Latina or Italian or Portuguese. Some community where my deceptive, chimerical skin would be an unquestioned VIP pass.

But I can’t pass, because at the end of the day, in the immortal words of Popeye, I am what I am. And what I am, I realized in grade eight, doesn’t allow me to share hardships or skin colour with my ancestors, for good or ill. I decided that John Ware’s story wasn’t mine after all. It was close to me, but it wasn’t inside of me. He was like the evening star: the more earnestly I reached out for him, tried to be a part of him, the farther he seemed to retreat from me into his distant realm of make-believe, of steer riding and steer lifting and never being tossed from a horse. His story wasn’t the home I’d been expecting.

Better to let the dead rest.

The Gourd

My mother read the original draft of this piece and said I had gotten only one thing wrong, when I said I didn’t share my skin with my ancestors. “Haven’t you seen pictures of Grandpa? He was exactly the same colour as you.”

How could I have forgotten about my great-grandfather? George Smith had nappy hair from Africa, the “bad” hair, as Nana calls it, but he was extremely light-skinned and endured glares and looks of pity or confusion when he was seen sitting with Coloureds in restaurants.

This reminder brought a hundred similar examples crowding into my mind. Rosa Parks, herself light-skinned, wrote in her memoirs about how her grandfather’s straight hair and light complexion allowed him to pass for white. He used this to defy Jim Crow etiquette, shaking hands with white men and neglecting to address white acquaintances as “Mister” or “Miss.” The Incognegros, figures in the early Civil Rights push, also famously used their ambiguous colouring to do dangerous work for the movement. Rufus, the escaped slave, was of mixed race, another mulatto, but this didn’t protect him from being enslaved for four years.

Of course, I’m not the same person I might have been if I had been born one or two generations ago. Is anyone? There’s no Civil Rights movement for me to join these days, and I don’t share skin or experience with most of my ancestors, but their memories are mine by right. Three generations after Alberta’s first Black communities moved to urban centres and the wild pioneer story came to an end, I can only identify my family by the voices that whisper their stories to me. I listen intently and scribble things down when I can, but I’m not a perfect scribe. I’m too much of a dreamer; I’ll always want to mix my history with myth and high adventure to make it more palatable.

But sometimes history needs no embellishment. When slaves sought the freedom of Canada, they sang a song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – ostensibly a Spiritual, in fact a detailed map of the Underground Railroad. The refrain instructed them to travel in the direction of the North Star, the bright one at the tip of the Drinking Gourd. There is a reason humans have always looked at the stars. For the escaping slaves, they made a bridge to home, one that went on forever and ever into a rarely-illumined dark.  I take great comfort knowing that for all of the great chasms between us, we – John Ware, my mother, my great-great-grandfather, and approximately two thousand African American emigrants – we are all looking up, together, at the same map to freedom. This is the beauty of the stars: they are, in a sense, everyone’s home.

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