Stories for Jahari
I remember stories my father used to tell me on fishing trips and electrical jobs he would take me on before his drinking got out of control. Stories about Grandpap Rankin running moonshine, stories about Papa Caswell and his sister Minerva farming tobacco, stories from forgotten times.
As he carried me though the branches of the family tree (his favorite story type), I would wonder out loud why Great Grandmother Emily’s brothers and sisters all had differed last names, and why so many of the ancestors on my mother’s side all had the same last name (no, it wasn’t incest, that’s for white folks, he would say.).
About the branch of the family that moved to Pittsburgh, the branch that moved to Ohio, the branch that moved to Chicago. About that time he moved to Washington, DC, but there were no jobs in the Depression, so he hopped on a truck to Florida to pick oranges. But he hated it so much he soon returned to North Carolina. You can always go back home, he would say.
I learned from my father the deep structure of slavery, how it was different on small family farms in Guilford County and on large plantations in southwestern Virginia. How some of my enslaved ancestors had very limited freedom, but how others had limited freedoms within bounds. How Papa Caswell would drive the horse-drawn carriage to Greensboro to deposit the master’s money in the bank. How great great grandmother Rhodie kept trying to escape from the plantation, until they shot a hole in her foot. Then she settled down. So the story goes. She jumped the broom with Nelson Keen, they had Sallie Ann (my mother’s grandmother and namesake), who married Tom Douglas Hairston, a full-blooded Indian, they say. That’s where my middle name came from.
How some could read and write, and how others were forced to remain illiterate, by law, but smuggled pages from the Bible to teach themselves and others how to make and use words. How generations kept the family intact despite the daily hardships of enslaved life. How his father Walter would write songs, hymns for the Methodist church in Jackson, words and music notes, all.
Daddy said they thought slavery would never end. But it did. Then they thought Jim Crow would last forever. But it didn’t. During redevelopment people lost their businesses and the electrical jobs started drying up. When he lost his driving license from too many times getting caught “driving under the influence,” the fishing trips ended. Soon there was only drinking, no more storytelling. His world came crashing down and I was too young to figure it out.