Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Great Grandmother's Fork

 My Great Grandmother’s Fork
By Daphne Muse
More than thirty years ago my father, Fletcher Henderson Muse, Sr., gave me my great-grandmother’s fork.   My father had a way of passing on family history and legacies, for he also gave my brother Vincent the knife with which he so deftly carved meat for the dinner parties he served in wealthy homes up and down the Eastern corridor.
Born an enslaved woman in Cuthbert, Georgia and my namesake, Daphne Allen lived to be 97-years-old.  That fork, made of tin and wood, now has a ball of cotton on the prongs which I picked on a trip to Cuthbert about twenty years ago. It sits in the lap of a beautiful doll made by my mother.  The doll sits on a rocking chair that belonged to my great-grandmother when she was a child.  I’m now amazed that she is a part of my life in this way and am reminded of her presence each time I walk past that rocking chair.
          I met her twice: once, when I was about six-years-old and again at Christmas break from college, when I went to spend a very challenging holiday in Cuthbert with my grandparents Henderson Muse and Johnny Clyde Muse.  They argued incessantly about the Bible, him touching her Bible and maddening matters not of a biblical nature.  I thought I’d been sentenced to hell for impure thoughts and transgressions made during early childhood.
While I don’t so much remember her physical presence during the 1962 visit, I have a very clear memory of meeting my great-grandmother when I was about six.  She had on a crisp white dressing gown and had just finished serving my great-grandfather breakfast.  She was a short spindly woman framed in Ebonized skin with no smile, but a solid suit of armor surrounding her spirit.  I don’t recall one word my great grandfather said, as his head remained buried deep in his plate, while he sat alone at the head of the table.  One did not sit at the table with him, while he ate.  I guess he came up out of African royalty of some sort and one needed an appointment to speak with him.

That humble fork is about to be installed in an exhibit I’m mounting and will rest on the page of Ruth Gaskins  A Good Heart and A Light Hand:  A Collection of Traditional Negro Recipes.  Instead of transporting it the three miles from my home to the site of the exhibit at Mills College’s Olin Library, I feel as though I should hire a Brinks trunk to transport that fork.  I’ve been the caretaker of this “family jewel” for more than three decades now.  My great-grandmother’s legacy is integrally intertwined in this fork and embedded with secrets both culinary and personal.  She held it in hands prickled by the thorns from picking cotton and hopefully soothed by cradling the children to whom she gave birth.  I remember being absolutely perplexed upon a visit to the Smithsonian some fifty years ago and seeing George Washington’s teeth included in an exhibition.  I could not fathom why his teeth would hold an esteemed place in a museum, especially one like the Smithsonian.  But I’ve learned from historians and scholars including John Henrik Clarke, Francille Rusan Wilson and Leon Litwack that those teeth are filled with stories about class, race, gender, power, privilege, and slavery.  Her fork tells another kind of story about the same dynamics.  My enslaved great grandmother’s fork is just as important to me and my family as Washington’s teeth, extracted from slaves, are to the history of America.  Her fork reflects the history as well as pain and pleasures of her life long-lived life; she lived to age ninety-seven despite an often bone crushing existence across two centuries in rural Georgia.
While others place rare jewels, trophies of conquest and priceless carpets from vast empires on display, my great-grandmother’s fork has now been cataloged for an exhibition.  As people cast their gaze upon three centuries of iconic books and ephemera in On These I Stand, they will stop and gaze at her fork, learn her name and a little bit more about the relationship between this simple eating implement, my family and the history of 19th and 20th century America.  At every turn, we have to find ways to honor our ancestors, their survival against all odds and learn to wear the armor that allowed them to keep their spirits marching towards freedom land.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  She proudly lives in Oakland, California and recently completed her fifth children’s book about a squirrel named Leroy.


Monday, January 12, 2015

“Selma” powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power.  

     "Selma" powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power.  Whatever the range of critiques regarding the film, the courage and dignity with which the people of Selma, Alabama and their allies met their mission to secure voting rights for black people, is riveting in its portrayal.   Despite being whipped with blood-letting, nail infused Billy clubs, having their jobs threatened and friends, family and allies murdered for seeking and advancing justice, they continued to persevere.  Despite my own critique in “Ten Responses to Selma,” I am grateful to DuVernay, Pitt and Winfrey and the others who made this film possible.  The film truly reflects the dignity, strategic thinking, bravery and compassion of black people.  It also reflected the vision of Dr. King and young men including SNCC activist John L. Lewis and SCLC strategist James Bevel.  From his mentor theologian Howard Thurman to activists whose names will never be known, King’s vision also was forged by other movements and voices contemporary to the times.  What was not at the table was the fierce leadership of the movement’s female “architects,” including Ella Baker, Septima Clark and Fannie Lou Hamer.  The presence of SNCC strategist Diane Nash nuanced beyond recognition.  And while the voices of everyday people did not form the primary dialogue, the fierce determination of people including Amelia Boyton, Jimmy Lee Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper was apparent. 
     How many have walked even one mile, let alone fifty-four miles, dressed in the same reflections of dignity, self-respect and perseverance? Their feet were not comforted by Nike Air Jordan shoes or Adidas. Many women were attired in church lady outfits and men suits.  Allies including Michigan housewife Viola Liuzzo and Unitarian Minister James Reeb came in a heartbeat and were murdered at the hands of white supremacist.
     Despite King’s decision to turn back on the first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and march to Montgomery, the insistence and agency of local people and other activists from around the country, resulted in accomplishing the fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery.  That stride toward freedom resulted in twenty-five thousand people assembling on the steps of the capital at Montgomery and in the same year, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.  The inherent pride and belief by black people in black people (supported by diverse groups of celebrities, religious leaders, union members and educators) went the distance in that pen being put to paper to make the Voting Rights Act a reality.  In the aftermath of Ferguson and the daily killings of black people across the country, this generation of activists is making Black Lives Matter.  They have the legacies of Selma, and the wells of so many other battles and victories claimed for social justice, from which to draw. 
     The experience of Selma and this film translate differently across the generations.  But, I feel a sense of reassurance now that my forty-one- year-old daughter, sixteen- year- old grandson and thousands of young people have seen the movie.  My grandson loved the film and the closing song “Glory” by Common and John Legend.  Interestingly enough, he was most taken by the FBI tracking notes that came on the screen during the film.  He curiously noted “No one could say this wasn’t real.”  I plan to sit with him this week, using my own FBI file, to discuss how millions of citizens have been tracked across administrations and decades because of their determination to secure what is so inherently ours:  Equality and Freedom.
I highly recommend the reading list noted in this link:

Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Black Scholar and aired on NPR.