By Kate Savage
1. ON INSURANCE POLICIES:
Rebecca Hall reads old insurance documents. It’s her way of solving a cold case, follow a paper trail to the unspeakable past. The ‘objects’ insured are slaves and slave ships. When you rip thousands and thousands of people from their home and stack their bodies in boats like cargo, this is the mark left on the record books: an unforeseen incident precluded the proper delivery of cargo. Though we followed best practices, commodities were destroyed.
When slaves on a ship mutiny, the insurers report an “insurrection of cargo.” Because mutiny, after all, is something people do, not goods-for-sale. In one in ten slave ships, the cargo insurrected.
Rebecca Hall finds one pattern in the thousands of cases of slave uprisings on ships: the more women captured and enslaved, the more likely a revolt. Women on the ship made it more likely some insurance agent somewhere would be later reading some claim of cargo-insurrection.
It didn’t make sense to any of the scholars: women are never cited in violent slave revolts. They might coyly poison a master here or there, say historians, but we all know it’s the men who do the big stuff.
Rebecca Hall reads the dry how-tos and ‘best practices’ for kidnapping and enslaving people, and finds that while men were usually chained below deck, women were kept with the crew, who would rape them during the passage. Even under the constant threat of rape, women used their access to keys and weapons to organize and carry out revolts.
But the insurance documents record only confusion. A head-scratching riddle over how the property stored below-deck managed to break loose. Rebecca writes:
“these documents also show the failure of these men to see what was literally in front of their faces: African women captives, unshackled, repeatedly planning and implementing revolt. Why would the men engaged in the slave trade continue a practice that made no economic sense? Because the owners, captains and crews of slave ships were often incapable of seeing women in this role.”
Rebecca calls this the “Attack of the Invisible Woman.” But historians studying slavery and revolts scratch their heads in the same way, she says. They misread documents, excerpt and occlude, until each draft of slave revolt history skews increasingly more male. In the end she calls it an ‘exorcism’: to cajole out the demon of rebellion from the black woman’s body — simply by being blind to her.
2. ON JOY:
Alice Walker says Resistance is the secret of joy. And they all say also Joy is the secret of resistance. Queer dance party blockades, marching bands swelling the streets, tar sands strip-mines invaded by giddy kids sowing native seeds.
Resistance and Joy. They want me in on this tautology, when I know well that my joy bubbles up easy when nobody is trying to grind me into dirt, and resistance is unnecessary.
Isn’t it just when small people are free that there is joy? Sign me up on the side of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, squeezed in the vice grip of Stalinism:
And I could have whistled through life like a starling,
eating nut pies . . . .
Or . . . are they right? Maybe if Mandelstam were free to eat nut pies he would have had a small rivalry in the neighborhood that would keep him awake at night grinding his teeth as well as any dictator. He would struggle instead with the awful noise coming from the road, that tone of voice the wife uses, boredom.
Maybe one way or the other, the nut pie isn’t allowed, and there’s no call for nostalgia.
Maybe this is the only way you learn to whistle: you steal a nut pie out from under Stalin and eat anyway.
3. ON CHICKENS
I’ve heard that the marshes of Dorchester County, Maryland are so spongy with water they sink and sway underneath you like a waterbed mattress. Harriet Tubman walked along this sponge-land as an enslaved child, forced to check muskrat traps for a planter. Where the marsh dries enough for tree roots and the forest starts — that’s where she first saw people escape. Once she watched a black man race to the forest while a white man shouted to chase him down, tackle him. She stood still, watching the black man run pass. The white man threw a brick — he said he meant it for the running man but hit the unobeying child instead, cracked her head. Gushing blood and knocked unconscious, she says her life was saved by a thick head of hair “which had never been combed . . . and stood out like a bushel basket.”
They carried her to the man who ‘owned’ her, who left her unconscious on the seat of a loom without calling a doctor. After two days on the hard bench, when she didn’t die, he forced her back out to work in the fields. She couldn’t see through the blood running over her eyes. The man said Harriet “wasn’t worth a sixpence” and tried to sell her off. No one was buying.
From then on for the rest of her life she had epileptic seizures and debilitating headaches. Also dreams, visions, voices. Bright lights and auras of color, trances, waves of deep anxiety followed by fearlessness. She said she heard the voice of God; she said she saw the future.
Her future: leaving one night through the forest. Working odd jobs, and then returning to the thatched grass of the marshlands again and again, leading family and friends through swamps and thickets to something freer. She moved in plain sight, 5-foot-nothing, hair tied down in a handkerchief. She hid a revolver in her skirts, but passed right by her old ‘owner’ without him seeing her. He couldn’t see her. When she was his property, his eyes had never learned to focus on her eyes, never understood her eyes were placed in front of a mind, which looked out from the perch of her own neck and saw the village and marshes, and held opinions.
She carried live chickens as she walked. At houses along the underground railroad, she swept porches. A woman with chickens or a broom is a woman unseen.
When human property started disappearing through the forests, the enslavers looked for a white man. Some abolitionist from the north, a do-gooder white savior. Rumors said John Brown himself was stealing their slaves. No one watched for a black woman with chickens and a crack in her head.
Then there was war, and the curtains of History slit open for one second and let a small black woman slip onstage. An Attack of the Momentarily-Visible Woman: the one who wasn’t worth a sixpence lead troops and steamboats around mines on the shoreline where she once had gathered dead muskrats from traps. She commanded the mission that liberated 750 people.
This is the now the realm of Military History, armies and battles and a field of tall white men bright-chested with medals, chins held high. While the men pontificate to each other, Harriet Tubman looks left and right. She re-ties her head-wrap. She swings a broom over her shoulders and walks again to the forest, unseen.
4. ON NUTRIENT CYCLES
The Mysterious Fall of the Mayan Empire, is what the TV programs call it. We widen our eyes. Maybe they’ll bring in that wild-haired man to say most likely it was aliens.
Or we can turn to the serious historians, who posit drought, carrying capacity, land overuse. The simple math of nutrient cycles, with so many people in a city and only so many hectares to slash and burn.
The Mayan Empire fell, and either it was inexplicable or it was inevitable.
What does it mean to fall? Move downward fast and without control. But what falls here when the Empire collapses? It means no longer building massive stone monoliths and carving thereon some head-honcho’s name. It means moving back to the countryside to grow your manioc. It means an end to human sacrifices.
Some Mayan people in southern Mexico, fighting their own empires, hint at a different story for the Fall. It wasn’t inevitable, it wasn’t a mystery, it wasn’t aliens. This ‘Fall’ was a Rising, only the ones who rose weren’t recorded in stone or even insurance documents. Names in mud and manioc, names vibrating one moment in the air, and afterward nameless.
The Mayan creation text, the Popol Vuh, says there were once people of wood who had no hearts. They were finally killed by their own utensils and tools, cooking pots and corn-grinders. They were torn up by their own dogs. The heartless lost to an insurrection of cargo.
Heavy now under the weight of elites, sacrificed to drug wars and the grind of extraction and export, the modern Mayans of Chiapas say: We’ve seen it before. We have ideas about what to do with people of wood and kings carved in stone.
5. ON POTATOES AND HUNCHES
Maria Mies once sat on a panel with Smart and Important Men (SIM®) who told the audience the world was ending. Nuclear weapons, climate change, the death of the future. She sat quiet with her dowdy haircut and frumpy clothes while the SIMs held forth. Then the bleak, strained faces staring at the stage — kids who came here on a Sunday morning to learn they had no future — pushed her to say something:
“Please, don’t forget where we are. We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire. An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world. But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome. The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne. On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had grown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.”
Maria Mies says life doesn’t just go on by itself but life also can’t be controlled. And maybe resistence is the same, alive in small and muddy moments, unseen by SIMs, not even wholly knowable to the ones who pay attention. That means something about the people who resist. It takes more bravery if you know your name will be eradicated, never in a history book.
Ursula Le Guin writes that revolution is the task of no-account people. This is one of them:
“she, and the other kids, and her parents, and their parents, and the drunks and whores and all of River Street, were at the bottom of something — were the foundation, the reality, the source. But will you drag civilization down into the mud? cried the shocked decent people, later on, and she had tried for years to explain to them that if all you had was mud, then if you were God you made it into human beings, and if you were human you tried to make it into houses where human beings could live. But nobody who thought he was better than mud would understand.”
When I write about resistance I write out of my depth, I write in mud, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m a small white woman avoiding wage labor. I’ll learn one thing and have to change every word I’ve typed. But the hunch I have when I hear an impressive word like ‘resistance’ is to look to the unimpressive. Unimpressive hair and clothes and cadences in their voices.
Even James Baldwin told a French poet: “I’m a black, funky, raggedy-ass shoeshine boy. If I forget that, it’s the end of me.” The shoeshine boy sneaks a look at the face of a white customer who doesn’t see him back, who thinks the rag moves itself along the leather. Forget this and it’s the end of you, because down by the shoes, yourself unshined, you are the source of something, closer to the secret of both resistance and joy.
The hunch I have is the meek might inherit the Earth, and the ones who leave it to them will die under suspicious circumstances.
Later, someone will find the granite buildings and stone kings, vines rooting into narrow noses and delicate hands, words and mouths each filled with moss.