Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Strange Fruit

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" We like to think of ourselves as a clearinghouse for all the deities that have been downsized, laid off, and deprived of their benefits due to a theological NAFTA.

With Samhain but a short six days away, we want to introduce you to some ancestors we'd like to entertain in our sacred Gnomehenge next Tuesday night.

Today we're going to talk about a book in which my father's people get a bit of a write-up. A behavioral review, so to speak.

The book is The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley. It's a historical novel. It won the prestigious PEN-Faulkner Fiction Prize. Go ahead. You try doing that. See how hard it is.

The novel is about an intelligent, troubled African American man who is trying to figure out why his father committed suicide on a remote mountain farm in southern Bedford County, Pennsylvania.

Actually, The Chaneysville Incident is based on a true story. The "incident" in question really happened. And the remote mountain farm belonged to my great-great-great grandfather. My great-grandmother was born there.

In the ancient days of g-g-g-Granpaw, it was customary to bury people in a plot on the farm. A few ancient generations of Dad's people are interred in the little farm cemetery, hard by a creek in Bedford County.

Also in the same cemetery are 13 unmarked graves. Or rather, they're just marked with plain slabs of shale (it's plentiful there, trust me).

The creek that runs through the farm has its source at the Potomac River and runs due north through a thin stretch of Maryland into Pennsylvania. It splits into three extremely rugged mountainside branches just above the hamlet of Chaneysville, PA.

Dad's people's farm is about six miles south of Chaneysville and about two miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. Escaping slaves from Maryland and Virginia used the north-to-south flowing creek as a pathway to Pennsylvania. If they could make it to Bedford, Pennsylvania, they found a black community bursting to the plimsol line with Underground Railroad volunteers.

But from the mouth of the Potomac to Bedford was a perilous trek. The creek seems mostly benign, but it contains "holes" that are as much as 20 feet deep. And as author Bradley conjures, not every white person along that stream felt inclined to help escaping slaves.

Hey. Like smoking ganj, it was against the law to help escaping slaves. When was the last time you lit a spliff?

A few years prior to the Civil War, a cluster of 13 slaves -- men, women, and children -- got tracked down and cornered by bounty hunters on g-g-g-Granpaw's farm. The slaves committed mass suicide, killing the children first and then themselves.

We will now pause and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. (Yeah. Phooey.)

For bounty hunters, dead slaves were as valuable as live ones. The corpses served to scare other potential runners. But Great-Great-Great Granpaw, alerted to the commotion and appalled by the carnage, categorically refused to allow the bodies to be removed from his property. He and his family and his neighbors (all kin to me) buried the dead slaves in the little farm family graveyard. That accounts for the unmarked slabs of shale: No one knew the names of the deceased.

A few sentences about this incident appear in a family genealogy done in the 1970s. It was these few words that inspired Bradley's fine novel (which covers a whole lot more ground than just a single "incident.")

The graveyard is still there. I've taken my daughters to see it. Someone is keeping it up. I have no idea who that might be.

My dad's people run high to shyness and anxiety. They don't like fuss. But when pushed to extremes, they can be like a bull in your bedroom. So it was on that particular day, I'm sure. I know my dad was made of such strong Scotch-Irish stuff. I imagine my ancestors sent those bounty hunters south with every bit of spirit their ancestors showed when they sent King Edward back to England while fighting with Wallace.

And by the way, this "incident" made my ancestors felons according to the Supreme Court of the era.

Does anyone have a spliff?

This Samhain, "The Gods Are Bored" salute Aaron Imes and his children. We invite them to our sacred bonfire. And we have it on good authority from Chonganda that those who rest among them, under unmarked shale slabs, may join us too.

For my legions and legions and legions of readers: There's a Ron Popile twist to this entry. (i.e. "But wait! There's more!)

Even David Bradley doesn't know how "The Chaneysville Incident" played out in the next generation of my hillbilly kinfolk. Stay tuned.



Anonymous said...

Proud, and so you should be!

*hugs* Anne!

Angela-Eloise said...

Anne, you tell the coolest stories! Samhain blessings!

Hecate said...

May the Goddess guard your Grandpaw. May he already have found his way to the Summerlands. May his family take pride in his good deeds. Blessed Samhein.

Athana said...

Hey, Anne Proud Johnson, this is a great post. You have some pretty spiffy kin in your family tree.