Poetry

Section from a New Work by Lauren Russell

Our poetry editor, Joe Pan, has selected a section from a new work by Lauren Russell for his series that brings original poetry to the screens of Hyperallergic readers.

Our poetry editor, Joe Pan, has selected a section from a new work by Lauren Russell for his series that brings original poetry to the screens of Hyperallergic readers.

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Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 12.01.45 PM
Kiki Smith, “Untitled” (1992) (one of two), bronze, at Pace/MacGill Gallery’s booth at the ADAA Fair, 2016 (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino for Hyperallergic)

 

HEAD-QUARTERS, DISTRICT OF TEXAS
GALVESTON, TEXAS
JUNE 19, 1865

 

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with the proclamation from the executive of the United States, all Peggies are free. This involves absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former Roberts and Peggies; and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between redbeard and hired whippoorwill.

The black bottoms are advised to remain quietly at their homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either here or elsewhere.

2nd: As a result of said liberation, persons formerly Peggies are guaranteed the right to make songs disposing of their services to their former Roberts or other parties, but with the distinct understanding that they are blue bandannas and shall be held responsible for the performance of their part of the song to the same extent that the redbeard is bound to pay for the consideration for the whippoorwilling performed.

3rd: Unless other regulations are promulgated by the Black Bottoms’ Bureau, the amount and kind of consideration for whippoorwilling shall be a matter of song between redbeard and blue bandanna.

4th: All colored persons are earnestly enjoined to remain with their former Roberts until permanent arrangements can be made and thus secure the crop of the present season and at the same time promote the interests of themselves, their redbeard and the Commonwealth.

 

 

In the 1880 census, my great-great-grandfather Robert Wallace Hubert, called Bob, is living with his former slave Margaret, known as Peggy. Peggy, my great-great-grandmother, is listed as his servant, and their six “mulatto” children are identified as his. Peggy is only thirty, younger than I am as I sit writing this. She had started bearing children by eighteen. By 1880 Peggy could read and write, but her sister Priscilla, listed separately as a head of household not far away, could only read.

 

1880 census

 

In 1883, the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas protested a miscegenation law that punished interracial marriage but not interracial sex. Its purpose was clear. “A careful consideration of the operation of the law convinces all fair-minded persons, that the law was intended to gratify the basest passions of certain classes of men who do not seek such gratification by means of lawful wedlock.” The Convention recommended an amendment to the law “that will punish as rigidly for all carnal intercourse between the two races, unlawfully carried on, as it punishes them for intermarrying.” Of course no such amendment ever came into being.

 

imagetwopoem

 

Double standards between men and women’s sexual behavior were not lost on Bob Hubert. In 1892 he copied two poems on the subject from magazines he’d read. One is called “The Prodigal Daughter,” the other “Two Sinners.” And the boys will be boys, the old folks say./ And the man’s the better who’s had his way. In a bed? On the floor? In a cornfield? Or an orchard? In the henhouse? Or the woods?

In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Herbert Gutman writes, “Ex-slave women everywhere dealt with a legacy that viewed them as dependent sexual objects.”

 

two sinnersjp

two sinners2

 

I meet a distant relative on an online genealogy site who has been researching the Huberts for years. She shares a story I have never heard. I call it the myth of the slave savior. In this story, Hubert, a Confederate captured at Gettysburg, is in a prison camp when he asks one of his female slaves to come help him in a time of great need. The distant relative who tells me this story has heard it from a descendant of Priscilla, but concludes that Priscilla was too young at the time, and either her mother, Dinah, or sister, Peggy, must have been the “slave angel.” (I imagine this character as a Disney heroine, the slave savior with a long neck and twig of a waist, decked out in perfectly tailored scraps, with her faithful sidekick, perhaps a whippoorwill, riding stoically on her head.)

Needless to say, I am skeptical. I have never heard this story, and why would a slave woman travel thousands of miles to Union lines without taking her freedom? Records show that Hubert spent nearly two years as a prisoner of war at Johnson’s Island in Sandusky, Ohio.

 

Page 37

 

A historian at Johnson’s Island Preservation Society reports:

I have heard that five of the prisoners captured from Port Hudson, La. brought servants with them to Johnson’s Island. I have not heard that any of the Gettysburg prisoners bringing slaves or servants. Under normal conditions no prisoner could receive visitors unless severely ill and then only with the doctor’s OK. I find it highly unlikely that a slave (or former slave) would be allowed to visit.

My relative is not convinced, says it could have been one of the prison camps in Delaware and Maryland that Hubert passed through briefly, staying for a few days or a week at a time, that he could have sent word ahead of his arrival. I wonder why she is so intent on believing this.

In the myth of the slave savior, she (Peggy, Priscilla, Dinah) is an actor, rather than acted upon. I picture her arriving at night, exhausted from the journey, covered in muck. She knows what she is doing when she pulls off the kerchief, lets down her hair. And when she puts it up again.

Or she doesn’t know. When is the last time any of these men saw a woman, white or colored? She is trembling as she wades among these armies of men, feels the thin fabric of the dress sticking to her thighs, her breasts. She is as sweaty as the prisoners who call out lewd suggestions, egged-on by the guards. Both Rebs and Yankees tug her skirt, her tattered shawl. When a general reaches for her, her skin goes clammy. She’s swallowed her voice like a seed. 

We want to believe she is a heroine here, that she has some agency, that for once in her life she was given a choice.

 

 

 

Peggy:

The night before my water broke I dreamt
I bore a chimney babe into the world.
The cord it swung from her brick neck and ash
was streaming down her leg. Flames swaggered, reared,
charred her skin, hot poker hands unwound
her shift. I woke ablaze, my petticoat
drenched, roped his stiff beard round my neck,
and “She won’t work in no white man’s damn kitchen,”
I said. That beard reeked gunpowder, whiskey, Pris.

 

 

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The winter she learned about Priscilla, she kept her lips pursed, her hands busy with the corn or collards, or wrapped in one of the children’s hair. But at night he would wake in a sudden stab of pain, her knee jabbing into his old war wound in what she pretended were the throes of a nightmare, and he who had been the master would allow this transgression—a brief reproach before jerking the knee away carelessly like an errant bale of cotton fallen into his path.

 

12-pt

 

 

A slave and a white man fell into a well.
Who do you think the master rescued?
Bob asks Plunk on the way to Chester.
It wasn’t my place, mind, he adds, cradling
a curl on the boy’s head. This was back
in Georgia, long before the war. Plunk shivers,
running through times tables, whole ledgers
of dollar signs he cannot multiply. Sir,
he says, clutching the wool he’ll sell from sheep
he’s shorn himself. What happened to the white
man, deep in the well, once they hauled the slave
out? Did he poison the water for years,
free and slave alike strangely ill, drinking
his unsalable decomposing flesh?

 

faired off a thin shade
Bob’s bogged down in the gin way
fault pulling fodder

right smart ache o’clock
pin raceknife half-chain survey
Peg stain or Pris shade

making a bed tick
found her complaining and went
kin split a shade singe

whippoorwill freight ague
a norther sang coughing cane
split member engine

cane stripped all hands bent
carried to brought from went down
July ground gin town

into the branch she
fair went down a shade too tan
Bob’s song a noon drown

cat-eye salt her spine
cork tight branch bottom July
“shame upon me I—”

 

 

Note: This project began when I acquired copies of Robert Wallace Hubert’s 1889-1894 and 1917 diaries. I was fascinated by his omissions and determined to write into the space of what is missing. The first part of the manuscript-in-progress appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and can be read online.

 

“Headquarters, District of Texas” consists of the text of the Texas Emancipation (Juneteenth) Proclamation with “Peggies” substituted for “slaves,” “readbeard(s)” for “employer(s),” “Robert(s)” for “owner(s)” and “master(s),” “song” for “contract,” “whippoorwill” for “laborer” and “whipoorwilling” for “labor,” “blue bandanna” for “employee,” and “black bottom(s)” for “freedman/men.” Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas, Held at The City of Austin, July 10-12, 1883 (I.B. Scott, Secretary) was published in Houston by Smallwood & Gray, Steam Printers, 1883. Herbert G. Gutman’s classic, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925, was published by Pantheon Books, New York, in 1976. Compiled service records of Confederate soldiers are available from The National Archives. Thanks to Sheryl Powell for telling me the story of the “slave angel” who supposedly visited Robert Wallace Hubert at the prison camp, and thanks to Don Young of Johnson’s Island Preservation Society for answering my questions. The strange story of “the slave and the white man” who fell into a well is from my late grandfather, Lewis Vivian Russell, who was a grandson of Bob and Peggy.

 

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Lauren Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in 2017. She is the author of the chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press), and her poems have appeared in Better, boundary 2, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, PingPong, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others. A Cave Canem fellow, she was the 2014-2015 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and was the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School. She is Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

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