What the Ground Remembers

1.

The dead speak to me. Cluster around my bed and crowd my sleep, filling my dreams with memories that are not mine. These ancestors insist that there must be a vessel, a witness. Before I am born they run their fingers like chalk over my forehead, brush them over my palms, my tongue. There will be a witness. 

This daughter will remember.

2. 

República Dominicana
Boca de Nigua
1796.

The sugar mill is burning. The overseers lie motionless on the ground, desecrated, their lifeless bodies soaked with the scarlet stain of their own blood. In life, they were cruel, pushing the enslaved workers in the mill to exhaustion. The fires and filthy fumes of the sugar mill never ceased. The consumption of European markets required that the labor never end. Working constantly from dusk until dawn, the enslaved Africans who powered the ingenio at Boca de Nigua, laid the foundations for the wealth of the Spanish Empire and the birth of the modern global capitalist order. 

The hazards of the job were many: Workers lost limbs harvesting cane, grinding cane, boiling cane. They grunted alongside oxen pulling the cane press, the stench of sweating bodies and burnt cane filling the sugar mill. Like farm animals, their lives were miserable and short, lasting an average of only seven years upon arrival to the New World. Children did not live here, could not survive the violence of the cane fields. Stolen from their homes and thrust into a brutal labor system these Yoruba, these Congo, these Asante, these Coromantee, these Fulani, these Akan, became the faceless mass of black laborers whose bodies fertilized the soil that produced the first truly global industry.

The violence of Boca de Nigua is legendary. Overseers routinely brutalize the workers, using tactics of physical and psychological torture – sexual terror and murder – to discipline a resentful and recalcitrant labor force. At Boca de Nigua sexual violence is a routinized way of life. It is pervasive, ravaging everyone in its path. The Spanish overseers use their cocks like weapons, sodomizing male and female enslaved alike. Rape is a common act, a tactic designed to break the worker into total submission. 

Runaways are tortured and branded. Rebels are executed and dismembered, their torn limbs hung throughout the colony to serve as warning to others who might be similarly inspired to resist. The brutality, however, does little to subordinate the enslaved Africans brought to the ingenio. Rather they stoke their resentments in private amongst each other, away from the ever-watchful eyes of their enslavers and the observant ears of potential traitors within their ranks. They organize themselves slowly, gaining the trust of their companions, recruiting new members to the project. Memory fuels survival, stokes rebellion. These children of the sun toil endlessly under its gaze and the scrutiny of stone-hearted men and they wait.

The tiny island of Hispaniola belongs to the ancestors. The soil holds their blood, their bodies, their memory. When history refuses to account for them, the ground remembers. 

Inspired by the rumors of rebellion wafting into the country from the western half of the island, the enslaved workers of Boca de Nigua unleash a wave of retribution on the Spanish colonial government. When the smoke clears, the rebels form their own collective government and, foreshadowing the birth of the world’s first Black republic next door, declare themselves sovereign and free of any colonial power. 

Their freedom is short lived. The seven leaders of the collective government, including a woman named Ana María, are taken to the capital where they are tortured and then quartered. Their severed heads are hung at the gates of the colonial city for 10 days. The Spanish are particularly fond of dismemberment as a punishment because they believe that this ensures that the souls of these African rebels will not rest. 

I think, perhaps they have miscalculated. 

Indeed, our souls cannot rest. There is far too much work still to be done. 

 

 

 

3.

Belle Glade, Florida.
February 2013

Sugar is on my mind a lot these days.

State Road 80 from West Palm Beach to Belle Glade knifes through the uniform terrain of southeast Florida. Belle Glade sits in the heart of the muck, the swath of fertile, pitch-black, mineral-rich soil that sustains the sea of sugarcane surrounding the towns on the edges of Lake Okeechobee. Sugar cane grows in either side of this local highway, swaying languidly in the warm, humid breeze. The sugar cane are hypnotic, they hold the gaze with their repetitious movement, seeming to wave in greeting. The eye likes clean lines and repetition. I try to remember to keep my eyes on the road and away from the cane. My father has warned me to be careful of this road; the canals that run alongside it hold the bodies of too many people lulled to distraction by the monotony of the landscape. I keep both eyes open as I drive west, occasionally diverting my attention from the road to follow the dense pewter wall of smoke circling into the sky as the cane fields burn. The fields are always on fire, the harvest never ends.

South Florida is cane country. The first governor of Spanish Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, tried unsuccessfully to grow imported sugarcane there and there is evidence to suggest that native peoples in the region may have engaged in small-scale sugarcane cultivation. By the 1560s, sugar had already become a global commodity, a luxury that only the very rich could afford – access to sugar functioned as a sign of wealth. They say that Queen Elizabeth loved sugar so much that she ate it until her teeth were blackened, rotting stumps. Even then this sweet, granular concoction had the power to drive people out of their heads. The emergence of the ingenio, or the sugar mill, as the first model of pre-industrial mass production meant, however, that soon sugar would become a luxury that the entire world could afford. 

Despite repeated failures in the Everglades, white settlers kept coming, bringing their dreams of fortune, power, and access to cheap, abundant land with them. By the late 19th century, South Florida was still a wilderness of marshy, swampland. The Seminole call the Glades pa-hay-okee, or “grassy water,” for the sea of endless sharp, double-edged sawgrass that grew wild in the shallow bed of water spreading southward from Lake Okeechobee down to the tip of the peninsula. When the Seminoles refused to leave these lands after the purchase of the Florida territory from Spain in 1819, President Andrew Jackson plunged the region into a series of “Seminole Wars” that lasted well into the 1830s. Even when their leader, the famed guerrilla leader, Osceola was captured and executed during the Second Seminole War, the Seminoles resisted, retreating deeper into the labyrinthine waterways and the darkness of the Everglades, emerging periodically to attack forts, loot food supplies from soldiers and civilians, and slaughter anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to be caught in their path. But the Seminoles were subjugated, among the first casualties of Manifest Destiny. This campaign of ethnic cleansing, displacement, and conquest was considered a success – despite the presence of living Seminole peoples today. Yet Seminole peoples exist in public memory only as a colorful tribe of people, whose likenesses have been reduced to football mascots, the names of their leaders affixed to abject public structures like housing projects, prisons, and dying towns whose futures hold no promise. 

It is estimated that approximately 1500 soldiers died in the Second Seminole War that drove out most of the Seminoles; there is no record of Seminole deaths.

The conquest of South Florida made sugar possible. By the early 1920s, whites began to settle in significant numbers in the region. Their settlement accompanied the effort to subdue the very landscape of the region, and the federal government funded projects to drain the Everglades. The drainage exposed hundreds of thousands of acres of silty, black muck, whose agricultural capacities became the stuff of legend. The land, however, was not always obedient. The drainage dried out the exposed topsoil, turning it into dust that imprinted itself on everything and everyone. Everglades residents soon learned that the land would ignite like a matchstick at the slightest provocation leading to subterranean fires that burned for months on end. The ground became an animal: a living thing seething with rage.  

Right around the time that the U.S. Sugar Corporation was formed – creating what would become the largest domestic sugar operation in the country, with 100,000 acres devoted to cane cultivation and 6,000 employees to process it all – Janie and Tea Cake, the lead characters in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, were also making their way to the muck in search of good work and good times. I was in high school the first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and was shocked when I realized that someone had written a novel about a place that I knew. Driving across the muck, Janie’s first impression of the Everglades returns to me: 

…Everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okeechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that half a mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too. [1]

Poor white trash, Negroes, and Caribbean labor migrants poured into the labor camps of the Everglades, transforming it from a vast swamp into a farming paradise where the soil gave away its sweetness like the loose women who roamed the streets of Colored Town in Belle Glade. The workers braved the sawgrass whose serrated blades sliced their flesh open like raw meat, they endured the muck that worked its way into their clothing and irritated their skin. They drank, they gambled, they partied, they screwed around, had families, went to church, and sometimes someone died in a juke joint brawl. But mostly they worked from can’t see to can’t see, waiting for their weekly pay so that they could live like kings again if only for a night. Sugar was big business and the growers raked in such immense profits, banks established a rotating check cashing system so that there would not be a run on the banks on payday. Black labor, bodies and sweat carried out the reclamation of the Everglades and laid the foundations for the rise of Big Sugar in the 1960s.

When a category 5 hurricane slammed into Lake Okeechobee on September 14, 1928, claiming more than 2,500 lives in an hour, it destroyed this unequal paradise. Lake levels had been rising steadily all summer with the record-breaking rates of rainfall. The hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and the Leeward Islands before winding its way northwest to Florida. Jim Crow reigned in the Glades, shaping the racial geography of the region through residential segregation and racially dividing public space. While wealthier white families lived within the towns of Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay, and Pahokee, black migrant laborers and their families were compelled to live on the low-lying, flood prone shores of Lake Okeechobee. When the hurricane came, they had nowhere to run and many waited in their homes, their eyes watching God, praying for a deliverance that did not come. The storm made no distinction among its targets but in death, as in life, black and white must never meet. In Belle Glade, Black bodies were thrown into a mass grave just outside the city and burned; caskets were scarce and reserved for white victims. 

When my grandfather, Rennick Carlton Morris, Sr., came to the United States in the 1950s as a cane cutter, the getting on the muck was still good. After the storm of 1928, sugar emerged as the region’s most important cash crop. Sugar was resilient, could withstand days of underwater submersion, and thrived in the fecund black soil. The problem lay with harvesting. Until mechanization, sugar cane required intense manual labor and increasingly Florida growers relied on unorganized, imported labor to get the job done. The poor white folks and Negro migrant workers who had flooded the Glades each season in search of work began to make demands on their employers. The Jamaican Guest Worker program was the state’s response to poor people trying to leverage their labor power against capital. In the years following World War II, thousands of workers from Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados, and the Bahamas migrated on seasonal contracts to cut cane on the muck. My grandfather was among these workers. 

He came as a young man with a new family to provide for. His skills as a mechanic – which he’d picked up after lying about his age to enlist in the British Royal Air Force – enabled him to quickly move up the ranks from cane cutter to supervisor. Cane cutting was dirty, miserable, dangerous work. Many a cane cutter had lost an ear, a finger, or a limb to the fields as they swung their machetes in a firm, swift arc towards the body in order to leave a clean cut at the cane stalk’s base. Sometimes, delirious with thirst and fatigue, a cutter would swing his machete too hard and the blade would hit the cane stalk and bounce back in its owner’s direction. Missing limbs and lacerations on the head, upper body, and torso bore testimony to the violence of the work. To quench their thirst they would slice the cane on top, which held the freshest juice, and suck on the sweet fiber. Eating the sweet pieces on the bottom would only leave a man thirsty and desperate. They could not afford to rest. Stragglers and those who failed to meet quota could be sent home for the day, or, worse, sent back to Jamaica, empty-handed.

After paying for food, which came directly out of their paychecks, the men scraped their meager savings together to send back to waiting families in the Caribbean. Those dollars sent children to school to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, nurses. Workers built up and expanded their homes one room at a time, season by season. In 1972, after years of slowly immigrating his family one child, niece, and cousin at a time, he brought all of his children to the United States, with papers, to a tiny home in the tiny town of South Bay. His sugar dream had paid off.

My family, like so many immigrant families from the Caribbean, left their home countries to build new homes here. Heading west into the small city of Belle Glade, visitors are greeted by a Disneyesque welcome sign: Belle Glade: Her soil is her fortune. That may have been true at one time and maybe it still is for the handful of wealthy families that own the cane fields surrounding the town. For everyone else, Belle Glade is now a town in decline. When Big Sugar mechanized in the early 1990s, thousands of Jamaican, Haitian, Mexican, and African-American workers were left without work or the promise of future employment. Instead of jobs, they got crack cocaine, two new prisons, and catastrophic rates of HIV/AIDS infection that transformed Belle Glade overnight into the “AIDS capital of the United States.” 

My Pop died in 1988 right around the same time that the sugar dream died on the muck. People from all over the Glades came to pay their respects at his funeral at the Church of God of South Bay. The swollen crowd tumbled outside of the tiny church filling the parking lot and spilling over into the street. He had become something of a statesman in South Bay, a community elder who helped everyone who came across his path. He was a hard, authoritative man, with enormous hands and seemingly endless strength. But in the end, even he proved finite. The consensus was clear: Mr. Morris was a good man who had worked himself to death to give his family a better life. 

Pop is buried, along with my grandmother and Uncle Oral, in Foreverglades Mausoleum Gardens at the intersection of Ice Plant Road and W. Sugar House Road. They rest under the watchful gaze of what my people call Big Sugar: the Sugar Cane Growers Co-op. The graveyard is surrounded by wild sugar cane that towers precariously around its carefully manicured boundaries. If the cane were allowed to run freely it would overtake the small graveyard in a matter of mere months. From my grandparents’ gravesite I watch the smoke from Big Sugar spiral towards the heavens. Sugar has always run our lives. Sugar brought us to the Everglades, made our lives possible here, and then eventually made it impossible to stay here. It moves us still, taking us under duress to sites not of our own choosing or our making.

The sugar house and its dirty fumes shrink in my rearview mirror as I leave the cemetery heading east back to West Palm Beach. Gregory Isaac’s satin tenor fills the tiny car and we sing together, “I was given as a sacrifice/to build a black man’s hell/and a white man’s paradise/but now that I know/It’s time, I’ve got to go Lord/the proceedings seem so painful/and so slow, slow, slow…” I drive and I don’t look back. I keep both my eyes on the road.

4. 

República Dominicana
Boca de Nigua
March 2013

It is silent in Boca de Nigua. A lonely cow grazes aimlessly in the field, observing our movements through the ruins with mild interest. The mill is a hollowed shell of itself. Graffiti litters the walls. Local residents use the area to hang out, drink, and meet for romantic trysts. There is no marker to remind us that we are on sacred ground; that no matter who we are or where we come from, we all share ancestral ties to this remote corner of the Dominican Republic. Eight out of ten Africans trafficked through the Américas entered here, labored here, died here. People who wore my face were here. Memory lives here.

Our tour guide is a round, exuberant Mestiza anthropologist. A feminist, a mystic, a scholar, she outlines – in all of its ugly brutality- the colonial world of Boca de Nigua. I am listening to her, but my mind is somewhere else. The breeze settles cold and uneasy on my exposed arms. The air tastes metallic in my mouth. I am looking for, seeing myself in this place, my people in this place. The sorrow burrows into my womb and curls in on itself. Fear forms a small knot in my belly and I do not need the tour guide to tell me what my body already knows, what the ground remembers. The knowledge is saturating my senses, the ancestors whispering insistently into my ears, their breath running down my spine and gently lifting the hair on the back of my neck.  

They want me to know they are here.

Our guide tells us that despite the unspeakable number of Africans who died in this place no bodies have ever been recovered. Some Africans, desperate and knowing they would never again see their homes in their lifetime, take matters and mortality into their own hands. They choose to crucify the flesh and fly home to Guinea. Spaniards dismissed the suicides as the logical behavior of deranged, primitive peoples; they are more impressed by these Africans’ indomitable will to live. But they still die. Causes of death: rebellion, illness, exhaustion, torture, grief. 

Despite all of their searching, archaeologists are unable to locate their bodies. They know when they stumble across Spaniards because their bodies bear the signs of Christianity: rosaries, appropriate clothing, and small bibles. Scholars speculate that perhaps Africans were buried alongside whites – that is, if they were baptized. Others think perhaps Spanish slaveholders tossed their bodies into the angry sea. But there is no proof of this. I ponder this, smell the salty air, and remember all of the Africans lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, resting in Olokun’s arms. 

Or maybe they simply flew away.

My father tells me a story of a recurring dream he has had since he was a little boy. At night, he spreads his arms and takes flight, soaring into the heavens, taking in the tiny green island below him. He flies over mountains and bush, dunes and forests, twirling through the trees, the spicy scent of sage and fevergrass filling his lungs. When he wakes up, he is exhausted and his arms hurt. His face is filled with wonder as he tells me this story. 

They say we eat too much salt and that is why these new world Africans cannot fly. I imagine the sugar weighs us down, too.

5.

1998: Dominican archaeologists find the remains of an enslaved African beneath a cathedral in colonial Santo Domingo. They know he was enslaved because he is buried with manacles on his wrists, the better to serve his masters in the after life, I suppose. When the Archbishop of Santo Domingo learns of this find, he orders that the site be covered over with cement and the archaeologist who discovered it is promptly fired. 

2006: A Mexican construction crew in Campeche unearths the remains of some 180 people in a churchyard cemetery. Four of these are later confirmed to be of West African origin. This is determined by the chemical composition and sharpened points of their teeth. Located on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche was one of colonial Mexico’s richest port cities. One of the earliest slave ports, the traffic in Africans at Campeche swelled as the sugar industry grew throughout Latin America. Archaeologists surveying the site say it will provide us with a more thorough understanding of the diminished physical health of enslaved Africans in the Americas. I am surprised that they seem to need this additional proof.   

6. 

I wander the grounds of Boca de Nigua, feeling for all my life like a ghost. Touching the walls, the ground, staring into the empty blue sky. The earth smells of manure, damp and heavy. I inhale it deeply, let it ease into my lungs. 

After our guide completes her tour, our group fans out across the grounds, sorting out our feelings, trying to make sense of the magnetic pull that has brought each of us here. I touch the base of the crushing mill, see Africans grinding the cane alongside oxen, coated with sweat from the heat of the furnace. I walk the grounds as a free woman and remember the ancestors who took their lives and bodies somewhere else to escape the misery of slavery. 

The land is rapidly reclaiming one building. Sleeping quarters? Wood planks jut out from the walls like the fronds of a woven basket. I tiptoe around the building, inexplicably afraid to enter, but I do. On my way out, I reach down and pocket a shard of broken red brick. In Jamaica, they say you should never take anything from a graveyard, because the spirit of the deceased will follow you home.

I take the brick. 

7.

In the quiet of my home, I light sage, pour water, set white flowers on clean white cloth. I invite the ancestors to speak to me. I wait and I listen.

 

 

[1] Zora Neale Hurston. 1990 [1937]. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper and Row Publishers. 123.