Monday, August 13, 2012

Topsy Drunkard Turvy Unexpected Joy

     An acquaintance-becoming-friend of mine is an Antiochian Orthodox Christian priest who invited me to a Summer Institue Lecture a couple of weeks ago.  I thought it was going to be something about orthodoxy in general; apologetics or ecumenical concerns, sacraments or canon law or things of that ilk.  I'm always open for an evening of education.  It was kind of a rainy night and the idea of meeting in a basement fellowship hall with friendly people and snacks seemed appealing, especially as it's a beautiful drive out there and the church community is enclaved in valley-type environs.  Peaceful, protected and retreat-like.

      The guest lecturer was Fr. Moses Berry from the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Church in Ashgrove, Missouri.  He is also the curator of the Ozarks Afro-American History Museum, "a place where people of all races and nationalities can together honor the contributions of our ancestors - a shared heritage."

"In 1872, William Berry bought a farm in Ash Grove, and the Berrys have been a constant presence in the town since that time.
The family has preserved priceless artifacts from slavery times, including the lock from Wallace White's shackles, but also photographs, paintings, clothing and other unusual items that testify to the rich and productive lives he, his ancestors, and many others lived in the Ozarks."

The Berry family also owns the historic Berry Cemetery "dedicated for the burial of slaves, paupers and Indians."  Among those buried there are Mother Charity, an underground railroad worker and associate of Harriet Tubman and Frank Lewis "Fireball" Yokum, who played basketball with the Monarchs, (Kansas City Negro League Team.)

     Fr. Moses brought with him these artifacts from the museum.  It was unsettling to me.  I don't think I've ever even seen these kinds of leg and neck irons in my whole life.  Hollywood renditions in movies.  Possibly pictures in books, but I don't remember.  I think I must have assumed they didn't even exist anymore.  But here they were--real shackles and iron balls and a neck iron with lock and chain--laid out on a quilt right there on the table.  I couldn't take my eyes off them and I couldn't stand looking at them.

When I was a youngster and saw movies about slaves and slave-trading and people being stripped of independence and freedom, I experienced such a visceral reaction to scenes such as someone standing upon an auction block with these instruments locked on them, that it was difficult for me to remind myself that it's only a movie and de-humanization is not really happening right before my eyes like that.  Do you ever get that scary-heat spreading in your breadbasket phenomenon that threatens to consume you from the inside out?  What do you do with that feeling?!

     Fr. Moses put this neck iron on his own shoulders, locked it and attached the very heavy iron balls that necessitated the wearer to hold them in his hands at clavical height so as not to pull the neck down.  This was designed to inhibit mobility, of course.  I hated it when he did that and he did it more than once, in a casual way, as a matter of fact, as he told his stories about the quilt from the underground railroad, the topsy turvey "mammy doll," and the scores made in the iron bar by the blacksmith to facilitate bending the bar into shape.

     You can see those score marks in the picture.  Fr. Moses explained that the Christian slaves incorporated them into their faith because they looked like the bones of a fish.

     He said this quilt was "from the underground railroad," which intrigued me more than just a little bit.  I didn't have a chance to ask him about it because immediately after the lecture someone wanted to take pictures and do an interview with him.  I waited around for a while, but others were waiting for me.  I've read that coded quilts were draped over fences, etc., to give messages to people escaping slavery.  The quilts would need to have been coded as most of the people enslaved during that period could not read.  This quilt pattern is most commonly called "Drunkard's Path" and it's said to have warned the run-away to travel in a zig-zag fashion to make capture more difficult.

     I've also read that there is no proof or surviving documentation to support the theory that quilts were even used for that purpose.  Researchers argue that:
  1. Someone running away would not need a quilt to tell them to travel in a confusing direction to avoid being caught.  That would most likely have already been taught to everyone running away if they hadn't figured it out themselves.
  2. Most people ran under cover of darkness, so would not have been able to see the quilts. 
  3. There would have been no time to make a quilt to warn specific individuals along the journey, and
  4. It seems unreasonable that households would have the right quilts all ready and waiting, in the cases of the many other reportedly coded patterns of quilts. 


      This is a picture of my own Drunkard's Path quilt.   If you look closely, you will see that it is a different pattern than the one in the other pictures.  There a lot of variations of this particular quilt.  I have searched for years to find one that looks like mine (which I didn't make, but it's a family quilt in my possession. I don't know who made the quilt top.  I found it overlooked in a bunch of things like towels that somehow drifted into my mother's linen closet one day not long after her Aunt Martha or Aunt Mabel had died.  I kept it for years until I finally asked my mother and her quilting group in New Mexico to quilt it for me.  No one seems to know who made the top.  The family doesn't think Aunt Martha would have been so inclined, herself.  It could have been Mabel or her mother or a sister, maybe, but I just feel like I might never know.)  I finally found a picture of one that looks like this, but the messed-up website won't let me look at it for longer than a split second.  It keeps popping back to something else.  Anyway, here's a picture of the pieces used to make the quilt:


     Fr. Moses also expressed his views that the "topsy-turvy mammy dolls" and black lawn jockeys have a place in his life, home and yard, rejecting the notion that he should be offended by these "racist" artifacts.  They tell his history (our history) as much as the pictures of his ancestors and the other artifacts do.  The doll he showed us was made in the 40s or 50s, he said.  His family had a much older one that was owned by his grandmother, who, by the way was descended from Daniel Boone, but it got accidently sold at an auction and couldn't be retrieved.
      The topsy-turvy doll flips over to reveal another doll underneath the skirt.  Many of them have a little white child as the other doll, leading some to speculate that they were made and named for the character Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Personally, I think that's a stretch. The doll in these pictures flips over to reveal not a white child, but a black Carribbean woman and I've seen nursery-rhyme topsy-turvies.  Here's an etymology I read of the word topsy-turvy [Probably from top + obsolete terve, to overturn (from Middle English terven).]

      As interested as I was in this presentation of facts, suppositions and tidbits, I couldn't really shake the discomfort of seeing those shackles.
     Hoping not to make light of it all, I will say that walking out into the night again after the lecture, I took a picture of these flowers which greatly lifted my spirits again.  Maybe making "light" of things could mean more than rendering them insignificant.

     I eventually did shake the feeling, of course.  Leaving the enclave, I realized I live a protected and peaceful retreat-like life, even if that is all just in my head, which...maybe it is maybe it isn't.  It certainly feels charmed.

1 comment:

DeEtta said...

Very interesting. I felt like I was there feeling your discomfort. We do live in a protected and peaceful retreat which I am grateful for.