The View From Stono
by Mwatabu Okantah
Resistance. We come from a legacy of resistance. It is important to understand that we have always resisted. There have always been those amongst our people who refused to give in or give up.
We must continue to resist. Enslavement is too often mental today. We have won the struggle to remove the shackles and chains from our bodies. We must now remove the fetters from our minds. In relative terms, we have expanded the potential for our freedom of movement. The View From Stono looks into a new vision that will guide us toward a deepening of our collective consciousness, as well as a strengthening of our group spirit.
I write because I am determined to participate in a process which has the capacity to heal us. I agree with Asa Hilliard, "no longer a people, we have been rendered a mere population"—a series of socio-economic problems to be debated and/or solved. Relegated to the new "permanent underclass," it is more than likely that too many of our people will continue to flounder and be routinely dismissed by mainstream society. If we are to become a psychologically and spiritually whole people once again, we wi ll have to seek healing. We will have to provide ourselves with masters of the healing arts. More than anything else, The View From Stono is about healing. The first time I read Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel, THE HEALERS, I
immediately identified with the main character Densu. Like Densu, I, too, found myself caught up in a long search for self-knowledge, understanding and wisdom. I had begun to become conscious of my own emotional confusion and pain.
By the time I was exposed to the work of African world writers, I knew intuitively that I needed to
stop the profuse bleeding from my own psychic and spiritual wounds. Armah’s novel articulated much of what I had been suffering for so long. When master healer Damfo tells Densu, "the present is where we get lost—if we forget our past and have no vision of the future," I heard him as if he were speaking directly to me. The story transported me. I was there. I was able to flee harsh American reality into an inner sense of a past that had been shrouded in mists. Indeed, I had become lost in my own present. Armah’s novels provided a view of our distant black past that made sense to me. 2000 SEASONS, and, especially THE HEALERS, opened a new window and I could see clearly into my own experience.
I had not forgotten my past so much as I had never known it to forget. Instead, I was driven by
that vague something I knew was missing from my life. Even as a child, I ached inside those questions I did not know how to form into words. Vague notions and nagging questions disturbed the surface tranquility of the day dreams I experienced during my too long days. Questions that robbed me of sleep.
Questions that invaded my night dream space, turning dreams into whitemares. Questions constantly nipping at the heals of my peace of mind. Questions that would haunt me all the way into a young adulthood consumed inside its own torment.
Questions. Who am I? Where am I? How did I come to be here? Where do I go from here?
Fundamental questions. Lacking answers, I realized we have become a still wandering exslave people dispersed in a still strange land, in search of our proper names. A new tribe, we still do not know our name.
What happens to a people who have been held hostage for so long they have forgotten the true meaning of being free? How to reach a made-over people grown arrogant in our ignorance of our own origins? Strangers to ourselves, we are products of a society that has willed itself into a deadly, collective white-blindness. Sadly, we, too, have repeatedly chosen blindness rather than sight. The View From Stono, therefore, is about reclaiming the soothing black light of our own eyes.
In VISIONS FOR BLACK MEN, Na’im Akbar writes, "(we)… are not unlike those historical ancestors who achieved emancipation, but not liberation, and found themselves returning to the plantation for their former masters to take care of them." The View From Stono is a meditation. It is personal. It is my own attempt to look directly into the proverbial mirror of our experience to see my own face; to see into our true face. It is one black man finding the courage to look into our "ugly beauty." It is one b lack poet struggling to harness the surging fury ringing in my own voice. The View From Stono is what it has become at this historical moment because we live in still troubling times. I am very much a product of our times. Stono is for those of us who still feel compelled to flee the plantation. It is for those of us who recognize Harriet Tubman when she visits in our dreams; Black Moses visits in our dreams.
There is something about being in the South Carolina low country that has always moved me.
For a long time, I could not say what that very definite something was: I could not name it. I just knew that whenever I visited the low country, it spoke to me from the trees. It did not speak to me; rather, I could hear it speaking, could hear voices wind whispering through the leaves. It is always in the rustling of the trees. Over the years, I have come to know it as the speech of African ancestors who are restless in their eternal sleep. During my early visits south, however, I knew it only as an un defined, yet, persistent inner feeling. I remember that first bus ride.
My imagination played tricks on me then. When we pulled into this nation’s capital, my mind slipped into another world. Some call it "Chocolate City." Black people live in rows surrounding a big, white house; from Freedmen’s Bureau lines to standing in welfare lines. Freedom has become living behind gates and bars on windows and doors. We need protection from ourselves on urban plantations today. Riding deeper into Virginia, runawayslaves and runawayslave trackers appeared, darting from tree to tree, outside my window. I was reading Sterling Brown’s NEGRO CARAVAN as the bus barreled down I95 South. I closed the book. Old slave songs echoed in my ear. Still motherless children, at that moment I knew I belonged to another generation of my people still wandering this still strange land.
I come from families who escaped north, one during slavery, the other during the early 20th century Great Migration, never to look back, never to return. "Down South" was something we did not discuss; there were no fond "down home" stories told. As I rode that bus deeper south, all that I thought I knew had come essentially from my reading, and, even more vicariously, through the always pregnant silences I inherited from those remembered things my grandmothers never said. I began making th e pilgrimage south in desperate search for the Africa hidden inside those stories black people know, but choose not to tell. On that first ride, it seemed as if the very atmosphere super-charged as the Greyhound rolled deeper south. My journey inside my people’s story had begun.
I rode in silence. The more lush and beautiful the landscape became, the more I realized how monstrous is the white lie this nation continues to force feed itself. I remember changing buses in Richmond, Virginia. I was dressed in African clothing. A white southerner making the same connection to Atlanta mistook me for an African from Africa. I had already noticed him watching me as we rode in and out of Washington, D. C. I sensed his need to say something. He approached. He greeted me. I nodded, maki ng no effort to respond. I listened. He talked. I played to his lead. He spoke slowly, and a little too loud, to compensate—I supposed, for my apparent difficulty understanding English. It was surreal. I smiled, and nodded. We road together from Richmond to Atlanta, Georgia. At one point, he even warned me to be wary of "Nigras." In his mind, "Nigras" and Africans from Africa were clearly different beings.
His arrogant, though innocent insanity only served to intensify my sense of purpose. Nigras or Africans? His unwitting distinction between the two spoke volumes. The enormity of this quandary began to take definite shape for me during those early trips into the American Black Belt. Virginia. The Carolinas. Kentucky. Tennessee. Georgia. Alabama. Mississippi. Louisiana. The plantation south. The former Confederate States of America. There is a Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. The Confederacy is s omething they would never want to forget. A brochure even informs visitors that Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue was laid by hand. Not too coincidentally, "laid by hand" is never made plain. No words to acknowledge the real power of black hands. What is there left to wonder?
They preserve plantations and Civil War battlefields in today’s south. They restore mansions, and gin houses, and stables, and work sheds, and period décor. At the Bell Plantation along Virginia’s James River, the tour guide could not say where the slave quarters were located. The question rattled her. At Boone Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina, a sign in front of a neat row of nine brick cabins says, SLAVE STREET. It is clear America preserves her preferred illusions in restored, Gone Wit h The Wind-like plantations. Tour guides conjure idyllic memories from a past that never really existed, save in novels and Golden Age Hollywood movies. The story of Africans in America is not preserved in stately, antebellum big houses. It can never be adequately told in sanitized museum exhibits. Our story is too often lost in the slave quarters that have been too conveniently left to time’s slow destruction.
For me, going south has always provided the creative energy out of which my own poetry could arise from deep within my own inner voice. Something about the south, generally, and, South Carolina in particular, has always allowed me to hear with my inner ear. Our story has been lost inside our own need to forget. I know now it was the poet in me that was drawn south in search of our ancestral voices; in search of those connections that continue to bind us. I searched along dirt roads, and in the back w oods hollows just to hear that speaking silence. I confronted the blistering summer heat of our failure to remember because something deep in my core wanted never to forget. Black poets are born to not forget.
I began to go deep south because the Great Black Poet Tree growing up inside my soul draws nourishment and strength from African roots transplanted deep in a ravaged American soil.
I was traveling back-south into Africa. Africa is reborn in the New World. Instinct and intuition drew me into America’s Black Lore. As Americans of African descent, we have to find Africa inside ourselves before we can truly know ourselves. Until then, we can never know what being African in the New World really means. They took us out of Africa, but, our survival refused to let them take the Africa out of us. For better or for worse, we are what the descendents of enslaved Africans in America have become. I travel back-south to find the Africa that still lives quietly in the familiar there. America calls it "southern." It is the Africa our ancestors brought with them to keep alive there. It is the Africa that shapes America’s dark face. I did not fully comprehend it all then. I only knew that Africa was alive in us still.
I rode on in silence. I contented myself in the knowing that our story is ancient. It continues to unfold.
It is an epic story that must be told. The View From Stono to insure the ancestors’ voices will be heard.
It is almost forgotten now, except for the rare mention in history books. Like so many things, it has been forced into hiding deep in the backwoods of our racial memory. Only the foundation remains from the old way station. It is almost completely obscured under a dense cover of weeds and underbrush.
My untrained eyes would not have known it was there. This location is not recorded in any official historical register. It sits just off of U. S. Highway 17, a few miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, next to a farmer’s co-op, on Johns Island, between Wallace Creek and the Stono River. It is in the low country. There are no tourists here, only an ancestral vibration that is so strong it was palpable in the silence.
As we approached the site of the former Hutchinson Brothers’ trading post, I was giddy. I was here. Too long wandering ancestors called my name. I was standing on the actual spot where the event that came to be known as the Stono slave insurrection claimed its place in the greatest history never told.
I stood in what used to be a doorway, feeling a feeling inside that must have been these very thoughts before they became words to be written. The Stono rebellion stands as testament to our age old will to resist enslavement. Like any people, our ancestors fought to retake their freedom. In 1739, an African some say was called, "Angola Jimy," led an attack on the Hutchinson Brothers’ trading post igniting what the Charles Towne plantation owners dreaded most.
As early as 1730, a slave conspiracy was uncovered in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties in Virginia. Rumors took on lives of their own, and traveled further south. The question of so many Africans in the colonies haunted European imaginations. The thought of too many Africans stoked the fires of their fears. In Carolina, low country planters clamored for skilled rice cultivators. Profit seeking traders raided for them in West Africa, in what is now Sierra Leone and along the coast of Angola. They ca me to be called, Geechee Negroes. By the late 1730s, Africans had become the majority population in the low country black belt. Stern precautions were routinely taken. Punishment for "bad nigger" Africans was both swift and severe. Peace was always uneasy. White men who would later fight for their freedom from oppression, found themselves living in fear. Indeed, America’s stark contradiction is older than her own revolutionary years.
Angola Jimy may have been a free African. He may have been enslaved. On that account, no one seems certain. What is known is that he was accorded an unusually wide ranging freedom of movement. An expert trapper and fisherman, somewhat mysteriously, this African was allowed to keep, and play, an old drum. He may have been acting in retaliation. Plantation overseers were known to have the heads of "unbreakable" Africans placed on stakes after public executions. Even Africans could only choose "liberty or death." Why should Africans have been expected to choose otherwise? Angola Jimy just wanted to be free. He played his drum in traditional fashion. He called to an African God. He called his people to task. He called those who would fight to join him in making war.
It is important to understand that black people in the Americas were not merely "slaves." They were enslaved Africans in the so-called New World. Slaves were not picked up in West Africa. It was kidnapped African hostages who were sold into slavery. This distinction is not semantic, it is crucial.
Enslaved Africans rebelled against slavery precisely because forced captivity was alien to their collective sense of their own humanity. In other words, Angola Jimy took the action he took because he knew who he was, and he understood what it was to be free. Others joined him because the African traditions they brought with them had already prepared them for the burdens they would have to bear. One man became many. They became rebel souls. They responded to the drums. Warrior drums. Oath drums. They left the Hutchinson brothers’ heads on the steps outside their trading post. They dug escape tunnels. They raided plantations for warriors and women. They headed deeper south into the bush. They moved toward freedom. They dared.
Their numbers swelled into a guerrilla outfit of almost three hundred men, women and children. Slowly, they headed south toward Spanish Florida. They knew the stories of maroon villages in Florida. They knew that if they made it, they could live free amongst the Seminole native people there. They knew the white men were afraid to follow them into the deep bush. Even then, the whites were not at peace with nature. They came to the New World to conquer and own the land. The natives, and the Africans, h owever, knew the land. They were one with it. They talked to it. Listened to it. Caressed it. Loved it.
To them, it was their Greater Mother. Angola Jimy’s rebel band moved slowly south. Near Walterboro, they stopped to gather themselves. They played their drums. They danced warrior dances remembered from home. They moved undetected for three days. They knew freedom for three days. They experienced being free for seventy-two hours.
They never made it to Florida. Their dream was deferred in a clearing near Walterboro, South Carolina. While they were dancing, a white traveler returning to Charles Towne from Beaufort spotted them so engrossed in ceremony they failed to notice him. He circled around them and continued on to Charles Towne where he sounder the alarm. The whites called the militia to arms. On horseback, they were able to catch up to the rebel Africans. They ambushed them at Walterboro. Angola Jimy was killed.
Those who escaped disappeared into the bush. They scattered into Florida. All the others were killed, captured and executed. Their heads were staked on mile markers all the way back to Charles Towne.
Planters wanted to warn their slaves that the price of freedom was death. The mounting price of their power to warn was living in constant fear.
The View From Stono, then, is about one black poet’s attempt to bring Angola Jimy’s memory back to life in our minds. We need his courage, and his commitment today. Stono is about continuing to make a way out of no way. Stono is about not giving up on the possible. Stono is about not giving up on the idea of going home. Stono is to teach us that home must first exist as a real place in our minds.
Stono is to remind us that home is near.
There is no doubt, danger is still close to us. Still, we forget in order to survive. A shattered people, The View From Stono is for those amongst us who would pick up the pieces to continue the work of putting our people back together once again. The time, now, is for picking up pieces. Returning to THE HEALERS, master healer Damfo continues an impatient Densu’s instruction, "There will always be work for healers, even when the highest work is done. That highest work, the bringing together again of the black people, will take centuries. You, Densu, growing up, have been told you belong to the Fantse people, like everyone else at Esuano. No one told you the Fantse people are no people at all but a single small fragment of one community that misfortune blew apart."
Like Densu, Americans of African descent have been told we are individuals; that we are no longer Africa’s children. We have no recollection of those pieces blown apart. We are American citizens today as a direct result of our African ancestors’ misfortune. We have no memory of having once been a whole people. We have come to accept these fragments as the reality. Tragically, we have become more American than the Americans. We have grown too comfortable calling ourselves by alien names, speaking in a still strange language, and living in a still strange and hostile land. For these reasons, The View From Stono is one with the maroon spirit of Angola Jimy and those Africans who refused to be enslaved, who fought as men and women rather than submit to a stunted life as beasts carrying someone else’s burden.
Stono is about bearing witness. It is a testament to the people we must continue to strive to become.
The View From Stono is about seeing. It is intended to help liberate our collective vision from the radioactive lifestyle of a society that has historically, and continues to oppress non-white peoples. It is about reclaiming our eyes. America is like the stubborn person who fails to heed their body’s warning signs. The person who tells him or herself they are well when they know something is terribly wrong. This nation is a society gone mad; a society turned in on its own self-interest. Our present c ondition of group psychological paralysis is rooted in our failure to accept America for what is truly is; and, it is no more or less than the sum total of its own lies and self-deception. To the degree that we have struggled mightily to gain acceptance and inclusion in this society, our present condition is therefore symptomatic of those same lies and deceptions. The United States of America of popular mythology does not now, nor has it ever existed, save in text books and in Hollywood movies. We have part icipated as willing victims of our own ignorance and this nation’s legacy of distortion and half truth for too long.
Forcibly cut off from the soil of our African roots, we have become "weeds in the garden of life."
Stono, however, is not about encouraging hopelessness or despair. It is not looking to point the finger of blame. When a person learns he or she has cancer, the proper question becomes, not how or why did this happen to me, but, what must I do to become healed? Like all cancers, societal issues that are neither acknowledged nor confronted never resolve themselves. They do not just go away. They fester. They haunt us before they destroy. It is on this very level that the 1992 uprising in South Central Los Angeles was such a tragedy. It was too predictable. It was preventable. It was foreshadowed in a new generation’s music. The children who lived through the hot summer of 1965, and Watts, grew to adulthood only to give birth to children who burned South Central in the hot spring of 1992; no progress here, only retrogression.
Stono is about embracing even the slimmest glimmer of light in face of suffocating darkness.
In his now seminal essay, "The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community," Vincent Harding argues that the urge to meaningfully discuss the question of vocation, or, the meaning of one’s life beyond the mundane world of work is dangerously absent in contemporary American society. He writes, "… the fact that it is out of style in the university—and elsewhere—to probe seriously into the question of one’s sense of purpose in work is not only indicative of the plight of society, it also bears a stark warning to black people in America….It is a warning because we are constantly tempted … to let white America’s style become our own, forgetful that the best hopes and interests of the masses of black people have always been out of style in America. It is a warning because we are tempted even now … to accept American definitions of wisdom, probity and truth—or, worse, to accept America’s claims that such things are not worth discussing." Written more than twenty years ago, Har ding’s sentiments seem more relevant today. His warning speaks even louder as we enter a new millenium.
America watched television as Los Angeles burned. Another generation flaming before our eyes,
and no one was surprised. The only real mystery about South Central was the degree to which it would pass out of the average American’s overloaded attention span? What would be the new language of subterfuge, dismissal and denial? To what extent would black people embrace this new language as our own? What new lies could we tell ourselves in the face of something so old? As we stagger into a new century, we must see our present predicament in the clearest terms. We must finally establish our own criteria to measure our own progress and development as a people living in this society. It is too readily apparent, that unlike any other time in our history, we are in a period of extreme material and spiritual chaos today.
Returning to Harding, in the introduction to the Black Paper, "IBW and Education for Liberation," he writes, "The focus of our analysis of the present situation … (must be) on the search for an unromantic, systematic understanding of our own colonized condition in America and elsewhere so that we may move to reshape it out of a position of authentic knowledge and strength. Our planning towards the future places much emphasis on the development of the educational and political systems which will prepa re our children and build their community for their phase of the long struggle. So the communion among the Black dead, the Black living and the Black unborn goes on." Again, Harding’s words ring prophetic in this year 2000 of our discontent. The true nature of our crisis is both spiritual, as well as cultural today.
The View From Stono, therefore, is about the condition of our eyes. It is about questioning how, and what we see. It is about seeing the challenge of our own historical moment. History only repeats itself for those people who are ignorant of their own historical experience. History is a dynamic process. History is motion. Its always forward march can only pass by those of us who stand still in its wake. There is even more at stake, as we move into the 21st century, than too many of us care to realize. The world IS changing. A new world order IS emerging. The have nots are not waiting to inherit the earth. They are not waiting to have anything trickled down to them. America must change or perish. This nation can no more escape the lessons of history, than any of the great nations that have preceded it. And, if America cannot escape, then we, as Americans of African descent, cannot escape. We, too, must change, or we will find ourselves tossed upon the garbage heap of history.
Stono does not seek to find a middle ground. It is part of our quest for solid ground. It is commentary. It is the voice of one New World African poet. A sometimes hard, sometimes soft singing voice groping to move us closer to creative solutions for the festering problems that plague us. Bob Marley called for an Exodus, called for "the movement of JAH people." The 21st century demands that we KNOW what it is we are moving away from; that we KNOW what it is we are moving toward. These time s demand that we move away from the ways of a bankrupt society toward a deeper, more heartfelt sense of our basic peoplehood; toward a healthy recognition of our essential black us-ness. We have become a people who have forgotten the value of our poets. We have forgotten how to speak in our own collective voice. I agree with Lerone Bennett, Jr. when he writes that the task of the black artist "is to break through to authenticity… to hack …(our) way through the dense undergrowth of myths….What is involved he re is a perilous search for identity which is not, by any means, the same for …(black) artists and white artists."
Stono is about finally achieving group self-definition. To define ourselves is to empower ourselves. Without understanding ourselves in group terms, we will remain a group of confused individuals who lack a compass to guide themselves. This question of black identity must be resolved. So long as we remain confused about our proper name, we are doomed to continue in this white quandary that still frustrates even our best minds. The keys to our identity crisis, both as individuals and as a distinct peo ple of African descent, are to be found in our rich cultural heritage; a unique heritage that bridges two continents. This is to say our enslaved African ancestors had a better collective sense of themselves living in an alien world than we do today. We do not have to reinvent the proverbial wheel. Our artists are the Keepers of Our Sacred Lore. Creative thinkers and doers continue to walk in our midst. Our cultural inheritance is awe inspiring.
The roll call is endless. No need to name names, yet, it will suffice to say we stand literally "on the shoulders of giants." More than memorizing the facts of our historical experience as part of some Black
History Month exercise, we must begin to understand that experience as a forever unfolding epic journey and that we are participants who are not just along for the ride. As representatives of our people living in the present, we have to understand and accept the roles we must play during our own time. We have to become contemporary makers of black history. Indeed, it is our challenge to direct the very course of our journey. A well known African proverb reminds us, "I am because we are, and, because we a re, therefore, I am." Each one of us has a life to live, and a role to play in the New World African chapters of our people’s story.
Our living legacy of resistance has resulted in our now having the right to choose which road we will travel. The View From Stono is about making sure that we understand choosing the way of our ancestors is a viable choice for us today. Returning to Armah’s THE HEALERS one last time, The View From Stono is about learning what I think may be master healer Damfo’s ultimate lesson to an aspiring