Anthropology Friday: The Slave Narrative Collection (pt 2/4)

Eastman Johnson's painting, The Young Sweep
Eastman Johnson’s painting, The Young Sweep

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. (available on Amazon.)

I’ve been selecting excerpts that I personally find interesting. I’m not trying to paint the big picture of slavery nor highlighting awful things like whippings (there are many other places you can find those accounts.) Just because they’re not here doesn’t mean I’m pretending they aren’t in the accounts–I just assume you already know about them.

Frances Andrews, 83: The Skeleton

“It is said that the old brick house where the Wallaces lived was built by a Eichleberger, but Dr. John Simpson lived there and sold it to Mr. Wallace. In the attic was an old skeleton which the children thought bewitched the house. None of them would go upstairs by themselves. I suppose old Dr. Simpson left it there. Sometimes later, it was taken out
and buried.”

EvX: ??? Who keeps a (presumably real) skeleton in their attic? Did someone die up there and no one bothered to remove the body until it had completely decayed? Or was it a medical skeleton? That is seriously creepy.

Josephine Bacchus, about 75-80 years old: Earthquake and Folk Medicine

“Yes, mam, dey was glad to have a heap of colored people bout dem cause white folks couldn’ work den no more den dey can work dese days like de colored people can. Reckon dey love to have dey niggers back yonder just like dey loves to have dem dese days to do what dey ain’ been cut out to do.” …

“Lord, I sho remembers dat earth shake good as anything. When it come on me, I was settin down wid my foots in a tub of water. Yes, my Lord, I been had a age on me in de shake. I remember, dere been such a shakin dat evenin, it made all de people feel mighty queer like. It just come in a tremble en first thing I know, I felt de difference in de crack of de house. I run to my sister Jessie cause she had been live in New York en she was well acquainted wid dat kind of gwine on. She say, ‘Josie, dis ain’ nothin but dem shake I been tellin you bout, but dis de first time it come here en you better be a prayin.’ En, honey, everything white en colored was emptied out of doors dat night. Lord, dey was scared. Great Jeruseleum! De people was scared everywhe’. Didn’ nobody know what to make of it. I tellin you, I betcha I was 30 years old in de shake.”

Charleston, South Carolina, post-earthquake
Charleston, South Carolina, post-earthquake

EvX: Given that this narrative was collected in South Carolina, and… *adds up the years* I assume this was the 1886 Charleston Earthquake:

The 1886 Charleston earthquake occurred about 9:50 p.m. August 31 with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.0 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of X (Extreme). The intraplate earthquake caused 60 deaths and between $5 million and $6 million in damage to 2,000 buildings in the Southeastern United States. It is one of the most powerful and damaging earthquakes to hit the East Coast of the United States. …

It was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, to the north, Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the northwest, as far as New Orleans, Louisiana, to the west, as far as Cuba to the south, and as far as Bermuda to the east.[4] It was so severe that outside the immediate area, there was speculation that the Florida peninsula had broken away from North America.[3]

Continuing on:

“Oh, de people never didn’ put much faith to de doctors in dem days. Mostly, dey would use de herbs in de fields for dey medicine. Dere two herbs, I hear talk of. Dey was black snake root en Sampson snake root. Say, if a person never had a good appetite, dey would boil some of dat stuff en mix it wid a little whiskey en rock candy en dat would sho give dem a sharp appetite. See, it natural cause if you take a tablespoon of dat bitter medicine three times a day like a person tell you, it bound to swell your appetite. Yes, mam, I know dat a mighty good mixture.”

EvX: It turns out that Black Snakeroot is a real plant, more commonly known as black cohosh. According to Wikipedia:

Native Americans used black cohosh to treat gynecological and other disorders, including sore throats, kidney problems, and depression.[3] Following the arrival of European settlers in the U.S. who continued the medicinal usage of black cohosh, the plant appeared in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1830 under the name “black snakeroot”. In 1844 A. racemosa gained popularity when John King, an eclectic physician, used it to treat rheumatism and nervous disorders. Other eclectic physicians of the mid-nineteenth century used black cohosh for a variety of maladies, including endometritis, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, sterility, severe after-birth pains, and for increased breast milk production.[6] …

Black cohosh is used today mainly as a dietary supplement marketed to women as remedies for the symptoms of premenstrual tension, menopause and other gynecological problems.[3] Recent meta-analysis of contemporary evidence supports these claims,[1] although the Cochrane Collaboration has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support its use for menopausal symptoms.[7] Study design and dosage of black cohosh preparations play a role in clinical outcome,[8] and recent investigations with pure compounds found in black cohosh have identified some beneficial effects of these compounds on physiological pathways underlying age-related disorders like osteoporosis.[9]

However, you should note:

No studies exist on long-term safety of black cohosh use in humans.[13] In a transgenic mouse model of cancer, black cohosh did not increase incidence of primary breast cancer, but increased metastasis of pre-existing breast cancer to the lungs.[14]

Eastman Johnson's A Ride for Liberty: the Fugitive Slaves
Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty: the Fugitive Slaves

Please don’t just go eating plants from a random field or ordered off some website without being absolutely sure they’re actually safe.

Sampson snake root is also a real plant, otherwise known as Orbexilum pedunculatum. According to the internet, which I am sure would never lie to me:

Sampson snakeroot will help to…

  • Relieve from snakebites.

  • Retrieve of attract gay lovers among men.

(By the way, the internet lies all the time.) Continuing on:

“Oh, my Lord, child, de people was sho wiser in olden times den what dey be now. Dey been have all kind of signs to forecast de times wid en dey been mighty true to de word, too. Say, when you hear a cow low en cry so mournful like, it ain’ gwine be long fore you hear tell of a death.”

“Den dere one bout de rain. Say, sometimes de old rain crow stays in de air en hollers en if you don’ look right sharp, it gwine rain soon. Call him de rain crow. He hollers mostly like dis, ‘Goo-oop, goo-oop.’ Like dat.”

“De people used to have a bird for cold weather, too. Folks say, ‘Don’ you hear dat cold bird? Look out, it gwine be cold tomorrow.’ De cold bird, he a brown bird. If you can see him, he a fine lookin bird, too. Yes’um, right large en strong lookin, but don’ nobody hardly ever see
him dese days.”

“En I reckon you hear talk bout dis one. Say, not to wash on de first day of de New Year cause if you do, you will wash some of your family out de pot. Say, somebody will sho die. Dat right, too. Den if possible, must boil some old peas on de first day of de New Year en must cook some hog jowl in de pot wid dem. Must eat some of it, but don’ be obliged to eat it all.”

Black-eyed peas, for the New Year
Black-eyed peas, for the New Year

EvX: Eating black-eyed peas was a New Year’s Day tradition when I was a kid, too (it probably still is.) But why? According to Why we Eat Black Eyed Peas on New Years Day:

Most Southerners will tell you that it dates back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food (like purple hull peas).

The peas were not worthy of General Sherman’s Union troops. When Union soldiers raided the Confederates food supplies, legend says they took everything except the peas and salted pork. The Confederates considered themselves lucky to be left with those meager supplies, and survived the winter. Peas became symbolic of luck. …

(“Most” here is probably an exaggeration.)

One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January, 1863. What were they celebrating? That was the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. …

The oldest explanation for this tradition I found is on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, the tradition dates as far ancient Egypt. During the time of the Pharaohs, it was believed that eating a meager food like black-eyed peas showed humility before the gods, and you would be blessed. According to Wikipedia, the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to 339 CE, instructs the faithful Jews to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.

Well, since it is still January, if you haven’t had your black-eyed peas yet, perhaps there’s still time to cook up a pot and enjoy what might be a very old tradition.

 

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