from Descentby Lauren Russell
It matters that there are holes in a family history that can never be filled, that there are secrets and mysteries, migrations and murky blood-lines. These stories speak to human history.
—Eleni Sikelianos, from The Book of Jon
What happened between or out of or in the holes of the story is the real story. What cannot be filled in with sod or whisked away with dust. Because history is neither the truth as it happened nor necessarily the truth we most want to believe. When I look at the family tree I see so many faceless names skewered on ascending boughs, making whole orchards of molding fruit, a hodgepodge of known or estimated dates, origins, migration patterns. I can imagine these known and unknown ancestors in graveyards reaching out across the oceans—to West African villages where someone was kidnapped venturing too far from the fold or was captured in battle, enslaved, sold; to the farms and teeming cities of Western Europe, where a “heretic” fled for religious freedom, or a younger son got dizzy on the rumor of fortune, or men and women left in ones or twos or whole families trickling in on steerage, to escape the farm, the shop, the lord. Most of their stories I do not know—but I see these faceless, often nameless ancestors arriving at a harbor (Charleston? Baltimore? New York?)—free and ecstatic or subdued by the prospect of endless work, the unknown land; or staggering onto a deck with shackles boring bloody welts into their skin, stunned by the sudden light, their languages ricocheting off each other, and when forced to bend to the master tongue, still maintaining some of their posture. In the centuries that follow, occasionally someone leaves a diary full of holes, and you glimpse a personality, a record shaped, curated for “posterity.” History belongs to the victor? Perhaps to the one with the loudest pen. (So forced illiteracy has historical ends.) Mythology grows in the distance between record and memory over several generations so that a farm becomes a sawmill and a slave woman embarks on an unlikely thousand-mile journey (declining a chance at liberty) to visit her master, a Confederate prisoner of war, who promises a great reward.
What I know is this: Sometime before 1746, Benjamin Hubert, a French Huguenot, arrived in the “New World” with his desperation and his faith. But the path from persecuted to persecutor is as narrow as the slave trader’s whip. In his will, recorded in Georgia in 1793, Hubert left his youngest son 100 acres, including a plantation, and “one negro boy named
Rob.” Half a century later, Benjamin Hubert’s grandson William was still in Georgia, the owner of a plantation and the fifty-six human beings whose labor supported it. William Hubert’s daughter, Martha, had married J.A.S. Turner, a wealthy Georgian whose family’s plantation, Turnwold, and it slave inhabitants, were the source of the Uncle Remus stories.
Turner had taken a fancy to Texas as a Captain in the Mexican War, riding hard on the heels of Manifest Destiny. His own destiny manifested in the form of an exodus. When the Republic of Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836, it used land as currency to pay soldiers and encourage settlement, and after it was annexed to the United States in 1845, Texas continued to dole out land at about 50 cents an acre. By the mid-19th century, white settlers were invading the state like an Old Testament plague. But the Native inhabitants they drove away weren’t headed for any land of Canaan. In 1854 the State of Texas purchased the land of the Alabama in Polk County and settled the tribe onto a thousand acre reservation that became even more crowded once the Coushetta were likewise dispatched there in 1859. That year the rest of Texas’s Native inhabitants were banished to Oklahoma, opening their land for white settlement. By then the Turners had already headed West, and out of family feeling or an itch for land acquisition, the Huberts had decided to come along. Among the many human possessions they brought to Texas was the slave Dinah Alford, a mother of twenty. Three of Dinah’s daughters—Peggy, Louisa, and Priscilla—would have children by one of the Hubert sons—Robert, called Bob—after his return from the Civil War. One of those children was my great-grandmother.
I am not writing a history of what happened, which I cannot know. I am writing into the silences, the omissions, what has been left out either deliberately or because by its nature it resists visibility. I am writing into the space where one story trails off and another begins, oddly muddled, or between what some might have thought and what they dared to utter, or beyond what no one was sure of but everybody recollected, or within what only I imagined, bent over a photocopy of a photocopy of my great-great-grandfather’s diary and a stack of books and records, trying to fill in the letters between H and P. This is not a history or a fiction. I would like to invoke Audre Lorde’s term “biomythography” and puncture its seams, pull out its hem, and make “biomythology” from the swaying threads. Thus there may be several versions of the same events. None may be true but all could have been—climbing a web of omission, legacy, myth.
Dear Robert, Dear Redbeard, Dear Specter of the Great White Father, Dear Slaveholder, Dear Confederate Captain Captured at Gettysburg, Dear Dispenser of Land Favors Semen, Procreator of Twenty Children by Three Sisters Simultaneously, Dear Father of the Negro League Pitcher, Dear Farmer Schoolmaster Landlord Hired Hand Grave Paler Log Roller Surveyor and Manure Shoveler, Dear Singer, Dear Churchman and Circus Fan, Dear Reveler at Brigade Reunions, Dear Collector of Sentimental Poems about Loneliness and Redemption, Dear Pointy Eared Like Lucifer and Bearded Beyond Rasputin, Dear Mythical Jim Crow Defier, Hero of my Grandfather’s Childhood, Who Took Him on the “Whites Only” Section of the Streetcar (He Claimed This Really Happened) Proclaiming “These Are My Grandchildren & They’re Sitting With Me!”, Dear Diarist, Dear Widower, Dear Lonesome Hunger, Dear Admirer of Well-Formed Women, Dear Inscrutable in the Tintype Beside Your Favorite Half-Claimed Child, Dear Tallier of Payments Debts Work Days Weather Conditions Neighbors by Name and Race, Dear Borer of Wells, Dear Master of Omission,
Were you a tear in her life, the kind
that starts with a moth hole and rips
to the seam overnight? She was sixteen
and newly freed, your cook and once
your slave. Was she peeling potatoes, shelling
peas, bent over an open flame in some back-
house kitchen when you came from behind
and prick!—your beard like brushfire
at her neck, how in battle exploding shells
set the wilderness and shrieking wounded alight.
Heard a whippoorwill holler this morning for the first time this spring. Heard a whippoorwill holler. All hands choking cotton. Heard a holler, a whimper. Heard a will whip her. Will heard a whip. Whip or will. Will heard. Herding hers. Whipping herds. Sowing oats. Whipping whores. Stripping cane or— whelped her willed her a well and a hold. Dank of the dark of the hell of the hold. Choking cotton. Caught in. A yoke and a pull. Stripped and caned for— Heard her holler, caught her, held her hand to the— whipped out your— held her head to the— whipped out the billfold. Heard a whimper this spring. Choked or— heard a holler, a hollowed-out hold, whipped to a wheelbarrow, hell-bent toward a hole, ripped from a wrapped in a gutwrench sugarhold.
Q: So how did the women feel about this?
A: Don’t guess they had no say.
They carried us to Texas ’fore I knew
the horns of Sumter County from the tail
or how to tell directions from the way
moss creeps along a tree. If Mama thought
of running, she said nothing. She’d one day
have twenty children, every one a slave,
so she’d have been prime merchandise if they
had been inclined to sell, but luckily
for those who lived they moved the lot of us
in ox-drawn wagons, chained men following
on foot like livestock. Massa Bob then he
had thirty slaves the year we came, and by
the time he left for war, still more. Freedom
was more but less than a word, when he came down
home, banged up prisoner of war, flown. I
was cooking grits when he crept in on me,
tobacco stench. I was just sixteen in ’66.
I used to teach critical inquiry to freshman composition students. You don’t begin with a thesis, I told them, but through the process of seeking, discover the questions that have never occurred to you before. My father’s cousin Bryant is eighty-two and partly deaf, so sometimes he answers a different question from the one I intended to ask. This time Uncle Bryant told me what I already knew—that while still having children with his cook (and former slave) Peggy, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Wallace Hubert, had taken up with Peggy’s sister Priscilla, too. I asked what the two women thought of this arrangement. “Don’t guess they had no say.”
Last night I read a Smithsonian article about PTSD in Civil War soldiers—then often mistaken for weakness, immorality, a failure of will. Recalling his experiences in a diary written fifty years after the war, Hubert never mentions the two years he spent in a Federal prison camp, nor much about the battles beyond a few facts and a brisk “I was in this campaign” before returning to his daily weather report, his rundown of the day’s visitors and completed tasks.
I have lived in five regions and feel like an outsider everywhere, even in Los Angeles where I was raised. Here in Maui where I’ve landed days before my brother’s wedding, I have just shed my family to stare at the beach. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” One autumn in New York I was so excruciatingly lonely that I could imagine loneliness driving a person to do something desperate. Loneliness a kind of agony. The last lines of a magazine poem Hubert copied into his diary: “What is home with none to meet,/ None to welcome, not to greet us; / Home is sweet, and only sweet,/ Where there’s one who loves to meet us.” I want to tell him to get a cat, as I have. The purr and upturned belly. He had lost all or nearly all—wife, infant children, fortune (given that in 1860 his net worth consisted mostly of human beings), and, of course, the war. His loneliness crackled and burst into flame. What did it burn toward? And whom did it singe?
Now sunlight casts a shimmering vertical path across the waves. Beneath, I know from one hour on a submarine, there are sharks and eels and schools of beady-eyed fish who swim by, torqueing their bodies with enviable grace. There is a ship lurking on the bottom of the ocean, sunk intentionally to create a coral reef. Is this what we loners will become, a habitat for bottom feeders, when our minds come loose from their hinges and we can no longer think?
Recently my therapist told me that trauma can alter a person’s gene expression, so effectively we are all still paying for our ancestors’ pain. I was skeptical. “But most of human history is trauma,” I maintained. Later I repeated the theory to a retired psychologist at a dinner party. “That can’t be,” she said. “As a species we had to have been more resilient than that just to survive cave times.”
Still I wonder at my solitary life—how I’ve blown myself to the four winds without a map or compass just to be a woman who owns her own person. Never have been anyone’s girl. Is this what Peggy would have wished for? Could she even have imagined such an unchained way of being? The Smithsonian article warns against viewing 19th century Americans through “too contemporary a lens.”
Another article in the same magazine suggests that time may not exist. Do moments build, or do they amass? “At issue is whether each subsequent moment is brought into existence from the previous moment by the passage of time. Think of a movie, back in the days when most movies were projected from actual reels of film. You could watch the movie, see what happened and talk sensibly about how long the whole thing lasted. But you could also sneak into the projection room, assemble the reels of film, and look at them all at once.” I read this fifty minutes after toasting a new year, four hours before I would wake up with a hangover, two days before my brother and his fiancé will finally say “I do.” Is Bob Hubert hovering here in the corridors of a resort on a Hawaiian island he might have read about in one of his magazines, before or after its annexation? Is Peggy waiting in the wings, keys suspended from her apron strings? You can watch time unfold one scene after another, or you can take it all out at once and unfurl it across the beach. “The anti-time perspective says that the best way to think about the universe is … as a collection of the frames.”
When I get back to Wisconsin, I will start a Faulkner book club. We will meet a couple times a month and complain about the cold. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Here the ocean is bluer than the sky. In the distance a mountain dips into the bay.
--Maui, January 1, 2015 .
For two years after Jenny’s death, Bob would often wake suddenly, her breath hot in his ear, her fine hair bent against his eyelids and lips. He would wriggle into his army coat with her taste on his tongue,
how salt and sweat mingled with lye lingering beyond the soap—on her neck,
her earlobes, the crook of her arm, even the corset laces she winced
against, the hoop skirt that made him think of a bell (ringing in his chest
in his groin in his gut), giddying at her touch, the lilt of her voice, her shy
kiss burning in him like rum, the night of the hop when suddenly
they were spinning, whizzing—and later that day in the belfry, just before
dark, taking her white gloved hand, he asked and asked again louder, his heart
pounding behind the boots of the Fifth New York Zouaves and twice as fast, when the memory of Jenny overpowered even the stinging stench of powder. He crammed a minié ball into the Colt, aimed, and—
one of the Zouaves, shot
in the head, summersaulted
in midair, the tassels of his red
fez waving before it hit
the ground, just ahead of the man—
and Bob, in a daze, looked instinctively down, saw
the rent in his own gray pants, and—
After the battle, after they had chased the New Yorkers through the branch, the Zouaves bogged down by their soaking blouse pants, some pant legs so riddled with bullet holes they spouted water with every step—he lay in a hospital tent naked at the hip, and as the doctor fumbled for the ball, Bob reached for the press of Jenny’s small palm but—
I have many a time been actually and painfully thirsty, and yet in sight of an ocean of fresh water.
--Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, Escaped POW
Sketch from the autograph book of Confederate Captain C. W. Fraser
Johnson’s Island/ Winter 1863-64
That winter the pipes froze and no longer brought water in from the bay. The guards ordered the men to dig two holes about eight feet deep. They installed pumps, but the water was always exhausted within an hour of reveille. He has forgotten to change his socks, and his toes are freezing in their own sweat. The wind claws at his eyelids and lips, the ice is driving at him in spikes—fearsome, and for a second he thinks the wind is hammering nails into his face, that God Almighty is bent on paling his grave. But no, he is grateful for the warmth of the beard, ought to wrap it around him like a scarf (it is almost long enough), his thirst gravel in his throat, his ears tingling and then suddenly numb.
Heard a whippoorwill holler. Heard
a holler, a whimper, a whirlpool,
a snicker, heard a stag kick her.
Long hours between roll call and roll call, he tries to rewrite his own history, to erase the moment his ears popped charging a Pennsylvania hill—
Whip ’em, boys. Whipped or— not whipped
yet. (How you begin to doubt your own head—
a shell exploding so close that even the screams of the man beside
you are muted, like cries from the shore when you are holding your breath
underwater—fall back and reform again, the rebel
yell issuing from your own spent breath though you cannot hear but
for a moment think you will make it to the top despite gunfire hailing
down, the forest a dizzying maze of smoke, and half-blinded, retching,
you run headlong into a tree before you are taken (how?), see yourself relinquishing
your revolver to a first lieutenant from New York, some retribution
for Second Manassas and the blue columns at Fredericksburg melting away—)
Look away, look away. The boy who disarmed him was younger than he, had curious auburn eyes that reminded Bob of some dogs he’d seen.
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 family tree is compiled from information in the United States Census, death certificates, Willa Mann’s unpublished genealogy (of the black Huberts), and (for the white Huberts), Sarah Donelson Hubert’s Genealogy of the Family of Benjamin B. Hubert, A Huguenot (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing, 1897). The will of Benjamin B. Hubert may be found in the Warren County, Georgia, Will Book 1 (1798-1808). The quote from Decimus et Ultimus Barziza is from his memoir, The Adventures of a Prisoner of War 1863-1864 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, originally published in 1865). The two Smithsonian articles I mentioned are from the January 2015 issue: “No Year’s Eve?” by Sean M. Carrol, and “PTSD: The Civil War’s Hidden Legacy” by Tony Horwitz. C.W. Fraser’s sketch of the prisoner-of-war depot at Johnson’s Island, and more information about the prison, can be found on the Johnson’s Island Preservation Society’s website. Compiled service records of Confederate soldiers are available from The National Archives. The many sources I consulted on the history of Polk County, Texas, lives of enslaved people in Texas, and Hood’s Texas Brigade in the Civil War are too numerous to list here.
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, jubilat, Ping-Pong, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others. Her reviews may be found in Aster(ix), The Volta, Jacket2, and elsewhere. Russell has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and Cave Canem, and she was the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School. Starting in June, she will be a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there.