Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the Act of Overlapping

When we went to Somerset Place near Creswell, NC, I bought Dorothy Spruill Redford's book, Somerset Homecoming.

We went to Stagville Plantation in northern Durham County and I bought Piedmont Plantation by Jean Bradley Anderson.

I have a friend, Nancy Milio, and I bought her book, 9226 Kercheval: the Storefront That Did Not Burn.

Because she loved it and was rightly sure I would, my friend, Shirley Drechsel gave me Undaunted Heart, by Suzy Barile.

All four of these books tell narratives, stories, histories at a very personal level.

Dorothy Spruill Redford set out to trace the roots of her family on Somerset Place. Hers was one of the hundreds of enslaved families. The roots were torn from Africa, reknit in the New World, then spread like a web all over America. Dorothy pulled them "home" to Somerset again.

Jean Bradley Anderson tells the story of the largest plantation in antebellum North Carolina--largest in acreage and in slaveholding--a planation that once blended it's white family with the white family from Somerset by marriage--with all of usual official sources. Census records, bills of sale, contracts and such. What makes it personal, though, and wonderful to read, is her use of diaries and letters. She brings the Bennehans and Camerons very much to life. I feel sure she dreamed of them.

Nancy Milio was a young white nurse when she became involved in starting a storefront community and health center, Mom and Tots, in a black neighborhood in Detroit. She uses her own diaries as well as memories to recall those fraught days in 1968's when cities all over America burned, but that storefront did not.

Undaunted Heart is written by its subjects' great-granddaughter. Suzy Barile tells that she is descended from two North Carolina governors and her book--like Jean Anderson's--is full of families and names that are carved on buildings and printed on street signs all over North Carolina. I grew up in Chapel Hill so this was a story I know: David Swain was President of the University when his daughter, Ella, met and married a Union general. General Atkins oversaw the fairly brief Union presence in Chapel Hill at the end of the Civil War. Suzy Barile has family diaries and letters and passed-down oral history. She makes great use of them to give her ancestors' life. I've always suspected that Mrs. Spencer (another Chapel Hill name of the era) was a busy-body and now I know it's true. Of all the sympathetic people, I felt most deeply for Mrs. Swain who was widowed and saw all of her children die.

Is the overlapping obvious from what I've said so far?

War and riot--much the same in their destruction of property and trust, taking decades to repair.

Race, black and white, from slave days to the '60's and since we are now in the age of Trayvon Martin's murder, to today and tomorrow. Family, whether rich or poor, subject equally to grief and joy.

All the nuance that may be kindness, or may be cruelty, and is constantly in flow.

Willpower--this must happen--be it an unsuitable marriage or a place where the power of community can be flexed for its own survival.

All the tender complexities of human nature.

Humans together in their best and worst ways. Out of the overlapping, comes story-telling. That is our necessity.

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