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.