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"State of Marshall Plantation," by Delicia Daniels

Jordan Richardson -- Wed, 10/07/2020 - 8:47am

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 comforting aspects in his 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 Braithwaite’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.


Black Maps

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, mirroring generations of antebellum absence and abuse. Black slaves were

forced to produce back breaking tasks with plantation technology from sun up to

sun down in cotton and sugarcane plantations. 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.


Black Geography

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, this is your land, your planet, your road, your sea – suggests that her surroundings are speakable. And this speakablity 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 written

into margins 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 attempt 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.


Water

Johnny’s memories– like the tide of an ocean – consistently enter and exit his

mind. Braithwaite 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 Christians - disrupts, but does wash away, injustice. Lessons

arrive and depart according to the laws of this “black sea.”

 

 

Works Cited


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, Katherick and Clyde Woods. Black Geographies and the Politics of Place.
South End Press, 2007.