“I think as more scholars and laymen are courageous enough to tell and discuss these messy stories, the stain will be there although inside a larger narrative. The stain is the multi-layered pain. The stain is also complacency with old stories that rightly emphasize real oppression, although to the exclusion of evidence that complicates the oppression.” -Sharony Green
I am pleased to present the final installment of Dr. Sharony Green’s interview for her recently-released book, Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press; 2015; $24.95; ISBN: 978-0-87580-723-2). Please look at Part One and Part Two here. I appreciate all who have taken the time to learn about this book, read Dr. Green’s insights on this history, and care about the background of women’s lives during the antebellum period in America. I could not have asked for a better way to celebrate Women’s History Month in this country, with this insightful conversation and little-known new knowledge that takes us beyond the usual perfunctory celebrations of famous women’s accomplishments to recognize. Forgotten, marginalized and unsung women who shaped our nation’s history have been honored as well.
Again, Sharony Green is Assistant Professor of History at University of Alabama. Her scholarly inquiries range from this material to explorations of American musical transformations on culture and politics across the decades. She is also in process of making a documentary on her former father-in-law: the late jazz guitarist Grant Green, whose name many do not know but whose music millions have heard. Like Billy Strayhorn, whom I recently profiled the illustrative biography of, Grant Green is one of the most sampled and appropriated American jazz arrangers in popular culture. Dr. Green explored his life in the biography Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar. The film will add Grant’s music, confidantes’ intimate commentary, ephemera, and visual insights into his career.
I was enlightened away from the commonly held myth that it was much better for mulatto women or women of a lighter complexion who could pass into white houses than it was for darker women in the fields. But the psychological turmoil and impossibly constricted comportment expected of many women you found, Louisa Picquet in particular, shows a more empowered life somewhat but certain confusion and even constant “fear of the unknown” as you put it. What of these color politics surprised you, if anything? Which was a better place, in your view?
I am not sure there was a better place. Think of how much negotiating a fourteen-year old girl like Picquet had to do in the six years she lived with an aging white man whose wife had just left him with three children. He had to be pretty bad for a white woman to leave him. Even his own brother said he didn’t pay his bills, and here he is telling her he’d kill her if she didn’t do what he said.
In a recent talk, my colleague Trudier Harris asked: “Under what circumstances does this man become a pedophile?” That’s another question we don’t easily entertain. The most urgent truth is that any space where an enslaved person could thoughtfully manage their response to their condition, without dying before seeing some real improvement in the quality of their life, was the best place—freedom or not. There are various kinds of freedom. Scholars are NOW addressing that.
In the end, even today and with critical differences based on racial progress made since the antebellum period, success lies in how we respond to the pain. What are our weapons? Most of them are mental, if we are lucky. We might sing through it like the field men and women whose hollers inspired later music. We might fight like Nat Turner. We might run away like my she-roe Harriet Tubman. We might run away and return to help others again and again like Tubman. We might stay like many enslaved people even after the war was over. After a recent book reading, I met a woman whose parents were the grandchildren of enslaved people. They said their masters were “good people” and they always felt conflicted about that. She had tears in her eyes just sharing that. There is shame is saying that white people are complicated because of the sheer volume of ugliness then and the kind that exists now.
I was not surprised by anything I saw. My first piece of fiction written after the towers fell took me to what some writing gurus call “beginner’s mind.” I had messy black characters and messy white ones. It was more poetry than prose, I think. I think writing in that loose way with fear hovering over me was a good place to access some bigger truth I may not have had the courage to access if I had only see surviving documents. Before that work of fiction, I only knew what most people know about slavery: the stories that emerged via made-for-TV movies like “Roots.” I hadn’t even read Harriet Jacobs [Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl] yet in 2001. I don’t mean to sound too surreal, but this space of not knowing-but knowing was helpful for me on the front end.
It took me from 2001 to 2015 to tell this story, and I don’t mind saying “story.” Some scholars hate that word. I am not one of them. So when the evidence was found halfway through that journey, I was like, “Well, alright now.”
I liked how you brought up that some genesis of these historical relationships between white men and women of color may have had less vile and punishing roots than always attributed to them, given European white women rarely accompanied colonists on voyages to early America or were allowed out of the house without male relatives. So, often women of color were the only ones around to fulfill the men’s normal needs for female companionship and human sexual desire. Do you think fancy girls will always have a stain on them, or understanding some made real choices?
I think the more scholars and laymen are courageous enough to tell and discuss these messy stories, the stain will be there although inside a larger narrative. The stain is the multi-layered pain. The stain is also complacency with old stories that rightly emphasize real oppression, although to the exclusion of evidence that complicates the oppression.
You ended with the children, and a vivid untangling of white plantation owners’ black clans scattered through the free world and scrambling to survive without legitimate documented parentage or verified entitlement to family inheritances. It is a touching saga showing how blacks suffer on every side of the color line. In this case, these children were victimized for known or suspected white pedigrees and socially-tortured or outcast for advantages above other blacks. Much of what black women did to secure their children in all of this, and all the cooperation required of white men to do it, collapsed into very few actual success stories. How did you feel about discovering this?
Now, that was actually a surprise. Being a dark-skinned African American woman who had older relatives who bought into the “goodness” in fair complexions and softer hair, I had my own baggage concerning the pain of people whose bodies more easily tell the story of shared racial past. This was true even though some of my best friends were light-skinned. Growing up, I found myself trying to be an advocate for one light-skinned friend in particular.
The girls hated her. She used to stand by me on the bus stop. We both liked the Dallas Cowboys. We both wore the latest Nike sneakers. The guys used to joke with her because she was a tomboy! We loved the Cowboys and wore cowboy hats, and on silver and blue bikes we rode through our neighborhood yelling every time Dallas won. This was the early 1980s. So this kind of behavior did not look right on a light-skinned girl who was just supposed to be pretty like her mom and two sisters. Her mom’s hair was so long, she could almost sit on it. Hairdressers gave her grief. But anyone who ever tried to physically fight her got a black eye. Her dad taught her how to box. Her younger sister has longer hair and she will fight you, too.
After going into the archive, and better accessing the pain of women and girls who register as having it easier, I had another way to contextualize my friend’s experiences. We still talk about those old days. She still gets it, too. Still, even this friend recently told me how she is a descendant of people who were better positioned than the blacks around them during the Reconstruction era. In fact, her family could see the hierarchy in their own family and not once did she mention how fair skin figured into it. We never mentioned skin complexion. It was not and still is not easy to discuss. She’s not the only friend I’ve had that has been in this situation.
We just work through that ugliness by being there for one another for as long as we can. Once, one of my friends who is clearly of mixed race met me in a restaurant in South Florida a few years ago. We sat through two shifts! We talked from 1pm to 8 pm in the same booth and tipped the staff well. That’s the beauty in black womanhood. No matter how we look, when we connect, it is a deep connection! We hadn’t seen each other in almost twenty years and we just picked up where we left off.
The last time I had seen her, she’d kept her hair cut short, maybe to not draw attention to the curl in it. But on that day we talked all day, it was long again. I was so proud that the task of being a wife, mother and career woman had made her too busy to worry about what people think. I was just proud to see her not trying to manage her hair. You can tell a lot about a woman via how she handles her hair. Too much handling? We are up to something and usually it’s not good. We’re sorting through some pain.
What is next for you? How has your work built from this research and these experiences for the book, and what projects are you working on now?
I am working on a few things. First and foremost, I am finishing a documentary on my former father-in-law, the late St. Louis-born jazz guitarist Grant Green. I started it in 1994 while living in Detroit and had to press pause for almost twenty years owing to a big legal mess that was, looking back, partly a result of my own lack of information about how the industry works and how contract law works. But that time away gave me time to really think about what the story really is.
Grant Green is one of the most sampled artists by hip hop performers and others. If you have heard Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” you’ve heard Green’s playing “Maybe Tomorrow,” composed by Quincy Jones. There is a real tragedy in how postwar African American musicians had to navigate through bad contracts.
But the glue is my former husband’s rediscovery of his father via the film. He didn’t get to live with him and know him until a few years before his dad died. I hadn’t yet processed the impact of losing a parent because my dad didn’t die until 2012, on the eve of my defending my doctoral dissertation. My grandmother died March 3rd and my present husband just had a near-miss with cancer. Life is precious. I have had a lot of time to think about what makes human beings tick across time while we still have time.
That curiosity shows up in my next research project, which focuses on the migration of people of African descent to, through and outside of Miami, my hometown. My relatives from the Bahamas figure in as do my relatives from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Florida is a peninsula filled with racial and spatial politics. Andrew Jackson didn’t expect the Seminoles to give him such a hard time. The attitudinal ways of the oppressed show up again and again in this project.
I am especially excited about inserting the University of Miami Hurricanes football program, circa the 1980s, into the narrative. I attended the U when we were first winning national championships. I was even a work study student in Academic Affairs for the Athletic Department. So I had this interior look at how young men of African descent from rural and urban spaces negotiate space on this national stage. Yes, that geographical piece is going to be huge in it.
And being here at Alabama while we are winning championships is really an inspiration. I love the U, but I love Alabama football too. I get to see again and again how white and black bodies on and off the field can be on the same team, even if it’s only for three hours. I live for the day when it can be all of the time.
After seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway last November, I’d love to someday mount my musical about the fancy girls. Again, because I wrote it with “beginner’s mind,” there is something fresh to it. The historian in me will be tempted to make many corrections. But I’ll be glad to see the old version first on paper, it’s in storage somewhere, and then in my mind’s eye.
Lastly I want to write my own memoir about the now-closed women’s residence in Gramercy Park [The Parkside Evangeline], where I lived when the towers fell and when I first wrote that initial work of fiction about the fancy girls. I had a tiny room with a bed, a desk, dresser and sink. Most of my fellow residents were elderly women, artists, writers or students, mostly from NYU.
We had Jamaican and Puerto Rican chefs who cooked incredible meals three times a day, meals that we ate on white table cloths with plastic flowers in white dime store vases, and we could not have any male visitors beyond the front parlor where we were overseen by mostly elderly women and a West Indian doorman. The doorman had a good recipe for a cold: black coffee and rum. Talk about the stories in that place! There was a waiting list to live there and you could not get in if you were older than 35, so those older women had been there a long time. It was a great place to read, write, eat, bathe or sleep. Nothing else. But you were in one of Manhattan’s sexiest neighborhoods. Who cared!? We also had eleven keys to the last private park in Manhattan.
Because most of the black women in the neighborhood were nannies or housekeepers, I was never racially profiled. People just assumed that I was “the help.” So I could walk anywhere I wanted. It was a magical time and a very political space. The building is now a fancy apartment house. I’d love to recount that story. It was a time when I, and the world around me, made a critical shift. When I moved in, there was no TSA in airports. When I left, “Homeland Security” was a social fact.
To keep up with this important story and part of women’s history, please follow the Remember Me to Miss Louisa blog. For more on Dr. Green’s work, visit her at www.SharonyGreen.com, on Twitter @SAGreen1913 and on her scholarly blog Catalogue.