Reading is an exponential activity. In a linear activity, when you finish A, you can proceed directly to B and then to C. In an exponential activity, completion of A leads to a directional dilemma between A 2.0, A2, or B. Reading spreads out in all directions and it only occasionally loops back on itself so that you return again to the original subject, author, or concept.
When I get together with reading friends, I know that I will come out with a magnificent list of things to read. So it was in January on the Big Event 12, as we listened to Dr. Gafney speak about Womanist Midrash, but I listened to others tell about books that were helpful to them in understanding the experience of Black women in the United States. One book, mentioned by the Reverend Angie Shannon, was Far More Terrible for Women: Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery.
When I returned from the trip, I purchased this book in hard copy. It’s a very small paperback, but I think it is the kind of book that is worth having visible on one’s shelf. It begs to be picked up, flipped through, read, and discussed. Far More Terrible is part of a series of books that compiles stories that were collected over different parts of history. The stories in this book were taken from interviews with formerly enslaved people. The interviews were done through the Federal Writers Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. So we are talking about interviews with formerly enslaved women, written down during the Depression, recalling events of some sixty-plus years previous.
This book is incredibly easy to read. Many of the interviews are transcribed in American, Southern, black vernacular. I did read reviews wherein the readers complained that they were put off by this, but I did not find it to be a problem. It was helpful to me because I was better able to hear a voice in my head that was not my own. The book is separated into sections, grouping similar stories with one another.
The sections are called “Jezebel and Mammy”, “Friends and Family”, “Witches/Doctors” and “Herstory”. Six or seven narratives per section underscore the realities of women who were enslaved and considered property in the beginning years of their lives. The narratives underscore how enslavement encompassed their whole reality- their relationships with their parents and siblings, their psychological development, their sexuality, and their prospects after freedom.
Each narrative is captivating in its own right and I can’t decide which one to quote because the voices are quite unique. One interesting aspect is that one of the interviews is with a woman who enslaved people herself. Her perspective on “how things were” is starry-eyed and almost insulting next to the other entries of suffering, struggle, and triumph.
Far More Terrible serves as a rival main dish to a literary world that claims to value Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Would people read and respect the complicated narratives of real women as much as they liked feeling good about sympathizing with the fictional Cora (Whitehead’s protagonist)? I am not arguing that UR‘s literary success is based on white guilt, but I am saying that the more complicated narratives have rarely received the kind of attention or accolades that a cleaner, fictional line can attract.
Far More Terrible is complicated. It is the stories of real women who were born into circumstances that named them as not fully human and not necessarily worthy of fully consideration. Even when receiving a wedding celebration, the events are cut short because the new bridegroom must return to the plantation where he works the next morning (story of Tempie Herndon Durham). The women who are recounting their narratives have mixed feelings about their childhood experiences, as well as their adult circumstances. They are struggling, like everyone else, during the Depression and their present stress reflects on their memories.
This small book of narratives is, in my opinion, an essential volume for the modern US citizen or resident who wants to grapple with the genuinely complex nature of modern social and commercial interaction. Nearly everything we take as “normal” in contemporary U.S. social interaction comes from a framework that was built on saying some people were worth less than others. Black women tended to be at the bottom of that framework. It is only by completely dismantling what was built that we can even begin to consider making something new. We cannot scrape the paint or just move around a few planks and consider a new structure built. The false framework must go down to the ground, so that something new can be framed with equity and justice.
The only way we will actually do that truth-telling work is to be truth-hearers first. We have to be willing to listen to true, hard, and complex stories and sit with them, knowing that they cannot be fixed backwards. They may give strength for forward healing. Additionally, we have to follow the exponential path of true stories, listening to their contemporary versions and believing their truth.
I encourage you to also take the advice of the Reverend Angie Shannon: read Far More Terrible for Women. Read it. Think about it. Follow its exponential paths. And tear the framework that continues to box out black women down to the ground.
The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back to the specific post. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.