State of Marshall Plantation
In Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men, Johnny Paul finds himself reminiscing about an old memory when he notes:
Thirty, forty of us going out in the field with cane knives, hoes, plows--name it. Sunup to sundown, hard, miserable work, but we managed to get it done. We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other (91-92).
This memory encompasses a past that Johnny will never be able to physically feel again. The possibility of the comforting aspects in this memory returning to stay are gone. Drawing from Dionne Brand's A Map to the Door of No Return, Katherine McKittrick's Demonic Grounds, and Kamau Brathwaite's Tidalectic method, I assert that Paul's memory materializes into a nontraditional map of an 'imperative perspective of black struggle' that continuously haunts him throughout its recurrence.
As he looks beyond the weeds in front of Mathu's house, Johnny covers sights and sounds of smiles, songs, prayers, and religious auras that you had to experience to "see" and "hear." His verbal plights become visual and audible maps of pain and labor that mirror generations of antebellum absence and abuse. Black slaves were forced to produce back breaking tasks with plantation technology from sunup to sundown in cotton and sugarcane fields. Choosing to "see" the anguish of the mother who wipes sweat from her forehead as she bends her back to chop sugarcane awards agency and texture to black cartography that acknowledges and forms distinct lines between white privilege and black trials. Dionne Brand states:
To the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location. It is also perhaps a psychic destination. Since leaving was never voluntary, return was, and still may be, an intention, however deeply buried. There is as it says no way in; no return (No Return ).
Brand's commentary on "spiritual and "conscious" maps vividly frames Paul's journey of black remembrance. He is not "voluntarily" pulled away from the sensitive memories of his past and will lose what he knew to be a loving familial atmosphere. His safe haven has been manually destroyed by a new set of white tools. Paul details this sentimental cartography noting:
Like now they trying to get rid of all proof that black people ever farmed this land with plows and mules--like if they had nothing from the starten but motor machines. Sure, one day they will get rid of the proof that we ever was, but they ain't go'n do it while I'm still here. Mama and Papa worked too hard in these fields. They mama and they papa worked too hard in these same fields. They mama and papa worked too hard, too hard to have that tractor just come in that graveyard and destroy all proof that they ever was. (92)
Johnny's lineage on this black map links a continuous line of family members to black inferiority. His audible narrative inheritably marks this black space as an archaeological site of oppression.
The debt/depth of this map is now layered with emotions, bodies, spaces, and places. The black bodies of "mamas" and "papas" are labeled as lived geographies where black parents toiled grounds in jeopardy. Katherine McKittrick cites Dionne Brand's views on geography:
Brand's decision, to give up on land, to want no country, to disclose that geography is always human and that humanness is always geographic--blood, bones, hands, lips, wrists, that is your land, your planet, your road, your sea-- suggests that her surroundings are speakable. And this speakability is not only communicated through the poet, allowing her to emphasize the alterability of space and place, to give up on land and imagine new geographic stories; in her work, geography holds in it the possibility to speak for itself. (ix)
Their places (social status of mamas and papas) are unacknowledged and marginalized based on their economic and social status. Black sharecroppers are beneath white farmers and receive the worst sections of land. The black women maintain demeaning domestic roles and the men produce the lowest level of intense work. Black spaces in this novel are synonymous with traditional stereotypical racialized areas: kitchens, bedrooms, fields, etc. Johnny's attempts to "alter" his geography by confronting this man made misery with "desired" spaces of "respect" and "love" brings a preferred "speakable" geography for black men/sharecroppers to the forefront.
Johnny's memories-- like the tide of an ocean--consistently enter and exit his mind. Brathwaite notes the following about Tidalectic methods:
Why is our psychology not dialectical-- successfully dialectical--in the way that Western philosophy has assumed people's lives should be, but tidalectic, like our grandmother's--our nanna's-- action, like the movement of the ocean she's walking on, coming from one continent/continuum, touching another, and then receding ('reading') from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future. (34)
In a Gathering of Old Men, Beulah's suggestion to Mapes on behalf of the group of sharecroppers reiterates the recurring storm of discrimination stated earlier by Johnny:
Black people get lynched, get drowned, get shot, guts all hanging out--and here he come up with ain't no proof who did it. The proof was them two little children laying there in them two coffins. That's proof enough they was dead. Least to black folks it's proof enough they was dead. And let's don't be getting off into that thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago stuff, either. Things ain't changed that much round here. (108)
Story entrances about "lynching" and "murdered children" drift reality into range. Occasional waves of stillness in the cemetery, the soft appearance of the 4-o-clocks and Palm Chirstians disrupts, but does not wash away, injustice. Lessons arrive and depart according to the laws of this "black sea."
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Penguin Random House, 2011.
Brathwaite, Kamau. Conversations with Nathaniel Mackey. We Press, 1999.
Gaines, Ernest. A Gathering of Old Men. Random House, 1983.
McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.