Authors: Charles Johnson
A HARVEST ORIGINAL
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Copyright Â© 1998 by Charles Johnson
Preface copyright Â© 2001 by Charles Johnson
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These stories first appeared in
Africans in America
by Charles Johnson,
Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Research Team.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Johnson, Charles Richard, 1948â
Soulcatcher and other stories/Charles Johnsonâ1st ed.
"A Harvest original."
Contents: The transmissionâConfessionâ
Poetry and politicsâA soldier for the crownâMartha's dilemmaâThe plagueâ
A report from St. DomingueâThe people speakâThe soulcatcherâ
A lion at PendletonâThe mayor's taleâMurderous thoughts.
1. Afro-AmericansâFiction 2. Historical fiction, American. I. Title.
PS3560.03735 S64 2001 00-053950
Text set in Cloister Old Style
Designed by Linda Lockowitz
Printed in the United States of America
A Harvest Original
C E F D
The Transmission 1
Poetry and Politics 25
A Soldier for the Crown 33
Martha's Dilemma 41
The Plague 49
A Report from St.Domingue 59
The People Speak 67
A Lion at Pendleton 83
The Mayor's Tale 93
Murderous Thoughts 103
the first large lecture classes in Black Studies premiered at the Illinois college I attended, African American faculty were so scarce on campus that black graduate students from different fields volunteered to teach these courses, with undergraduates assisting them as leaders for small, weekly discussion groups. I was one of the latter. Reaching back, I recall cutting most of my own classes spring term in order to prepare for my discussion group by reading for eight hours a day John Hope Franklin's massive masterpiece,
From Slavery to Freedom,
and dozens of other texts (by black authors) on sociology, history, and literature. In the late 1960s, these works were no where to be found in the canon or curriculum at integrated colleges, secondary or elementary schools. In the universe of academia, they were "dark matter," invisible to the eye. And, yes, I was sometimes tempted to condemn the white teachers and professors I had had since the 1950s for not placing this history before me, but I realize now that
had not been taught this materialâthey never knew what they didn't know, and thus had nothing to transmit to the children of color who filled their classes when
Board of Education
went into effect after 1954 and who hungered for knowledge about themselves.
What I learned as an autodidact, as an undergraduate teaching himself in those dizzying, early days of Black Studies, was that American history on every level imaginableâpolitical, economic, and culturalâwas simply inconceivable without the presence of black people on this continent from the time of the seventeenth-century colonies.
So, while I have been a voracious student, and sometimes a teacher, of black American history and literature for over thirty years, I was (and continue to be) astonished by the wealth of research and perception-altering revelations about this country's past contained in the PBS series
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery
and its beautiful companion book, which I had the privilege of co-authoring with Patricia Smith and the WGBH Research Team.
However, in late 1996 when producer Orlando Bagwell approached me about writing twelve original short stories to dramatize the companion book's history, I was initially hesitant. Why? At that time, I was a year away from completing my fourth novel,
a complex, multileveled philosophical fiction about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, 1966 Chicago campaign (and his fictitious double who appears during a riot). I had already devoted seven years of study to this difficult and endlessly demanding project The thought of committing my time and energy to yet another book that involved both scholarship and unflagging imagination made me feel weak in my knees. But, happily, Bagwell, a producer I've admired since the early 1980s for his professionalism and outstanding character, persisted. He and his team of filmmakers, who devoted a decade to bringing
Africans in America
to the screen, urged me again by phone, fax, and face-time at a Seattle restaurant to take on this unusual project, since I'd already traversed slavery's history in my third novel
(a fiction that demanded seventeen years of research on the slave trade and another six on the vast lore of the sea). I fidgeted. I flinched, but at the end of the day how could I say no? I'd come to know American life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while writing my second novel,
(1982), and through numerous historical teleplays for PBS from 1977 through the '80s. Finally, I agreed, though I had absolutely no idea exactly what stories I would write.
Early in 1997 we all met at WGBHâBagwell, Patricia Smith, Steve Fayer, who wrote the scripts for the television series (and was co-author of
Prices of Freedom,
the companion book for the award-winning PBS series,
Eyes on the Prize),
and those responsible for auctioning the proposed companion book. From the very first we agreed that, unlike some texts spun-off from TV series, this book would best serve readers (and viewers) if it could stand on its own as a unique publishing event. On that cold January day in Boston my only contribution to our discussion was to express my desire to generously deploy a variety of literary forms for the twelve stories. I wanted to create, if possible, a diversity of narrative styles that would make each story aesthetically vivid; I dreamed of dramatizing the history covered by the series, of course, but I also wanted to bring a specific technical challenge to every one of the tales, regardless of their content.
But the long and short of it was that I still had no idea
I would write.
For months, as I worked through spring and summer to complete my fourth novel, huge boxes of research compiled by WGBH's Research Team arrived on my doorstep. That fall, when I finished
and finally could pore over these reams of black-bound books and the drafts of Smith's poetically written chapters, story possibilities began to percolate in my imagination. Here, in these boxes crammed with primary and secondary source material, I was introduced to facts and historical figures essential for deepening our understanding of America's past and present; the
I experienced being no less than the delicious shock of discovery I'd known in the '60s. The research for the PBS series treated major historical momentsâthe Middle Passage, the Revolutionary War, abolitionism, and the circumstances that led to the Civil Warâbut in doing so it also unveiled the fascinating and often ambiguous anecdotes, ironies, back-stories, and paradoxes that inevitably arise when human beings for centuries live within an execrable social arrangement they know is unjust and fragile and ultimately doomed. Here, in the historical record, was marvelous grist for the mill of fiction: the slaves who fought in greater numbers for the Crown rather than for the Continental Army, in a desperate gamble for their freedom; the frightening (and wickedly funny) dilemma of Martha Washington after her husband George dies; the plague that descended upon Richard Allen's Philadelphia in 1793; the racist alarm Thomas Jefferson felt over Toussaint L'Ouverture's victory in Haiti. On and on, the material gathered by the research team made history I fancied myself to be familiar with suddenly unfamiliar and, therefore, exciting.
All during the month of January, 1998, I did nothing but write, day and night. I cannot remember anything of that month in my life because I read no newspapers, books, or magazines; I put my everyday existence on hold, apologized to my wife, children, and friends for being physically present but psychically absent (I fear I've lived most of my life this way, what with dovetailing creative projects for the last thirty-five years), and retreated from
world to dwell every waking moment for thirty days in the unfolding world of my ancestors. In short, I was in heaven for a whole month.
With that sort of concentration, remarkably like Buddhist
(focus), the stories flowed from me in a dreamlike rush. Each possessed its own particular form. "The Transmission," which was the first fiction I wrote, employed the most conventional of storytelling strategies: authorial omniscience (third-person-limited) to depict the harrowing journey of the African boy Malawi to the New World. "Confession" shaped itself as a third-person monologue (until the very end, only the slave Tiberius speaks). "Poetry and Politics" is a single scene entirely in dialogue without a line of description, because I heard rather than saw this exchange between Phyllis Wheatley and her mistress. "A Soldier for the Crown" is cast in second person, "Martha's Dilemma" in traditional first person, and "The Plague" rendered as fictitious diary entries by Rev. Richard Allen. An epistolary approach felt best for "A Report from St Dominique," and in "The People Speak" I could not resist (being an old journalist) the mock-newspaper article as the story's vehicle. By contrast, "Soulcatcher" uses
authorial omniscience as it switches from the viewpoint of a slave hunter to perching on the shoulder of his prey. In "A Lion at Pendleton," mixed prose and verse (George Moses Horton's "The Slave's Complaint") structure the narrative. The dominant feature of "The Mayor's Tale" is, obviously, the "Once upon a time" narrative voice usually heard in folk-and-fairy tales. And the final story, "Murderous Thoughts," is composed of alternating first-person monologues, each with a different voice and diction, delivered to an off-camera reporter.
Rarely is a writer given the opportunity (like an actor) to climb into the skin of both Frederick Douglass and Martha Washington, to descend into the fetid hold of a slave ship and join an eighteenth-century slave revolt, to play Jefferson's consul to Haiti and inhabit the psyche of both a runaway slave and his pursuer. For this great privilege I thank Orlando Bagwell. Much credit, I must add, is also due to my superb editor, Jane I say, for her wise editorial work once these stories began rolling off her fax machine.
Two years ago it was my hope that this repertoire of formal variations would bring a freshness to the illuminating facts in
Africans in America
which, to my knowledge, is the only history text that features fictions commissioned from a contemporary writer. And it is my hope today that these stories, now published separately as a collection in their own right, will serve as something of a time machine for readers, transporting them back to an African American past that in every way critically informed the on-going adventure of democracy and the creation of the republic in which we presently live.
THEY WERE DEAD
, and this was the boat to the Underworld.
In the darkness of its belly, the boyâhis name was Malawiâlay pressed against its wet, wooden hull, naked and chained to a corpse that only hours before had been his older brother, Oboto. Down there, the air was curdled, thick with the stench of feces and decaying flesh. Already the ship's rats were nibbling at Oboto's cold, stiff fingers. Malawi screamed them away whenever they came scurrying through a half a foot of salt water toward his brother's body. He held Oboto as the boat thrashed, throwing them from side to side, and the rusty chains bit deeper into his wrists. But by now, after seven weeks at sea, the rats were used to screams, moaning, and cries in the lightless entrails of the ghost ship. All night, after the longhaired, lipless phantoms drove them belowâthe men into the hold, the females into the longboats and cabins, the children under a tarpaulin on deckâMalawi heard the wailing of the other one hundred captives, some as they clawed at him for more room. (Perhaps, he thought, this was why the phantoms clipped their nails every few days.) He couldn't always understand the words of the others, but Malawi gleaned enough to gather from his yokefellows that they were in the hands of white demons taking them to hell where they would be eaten. Many of the others were from diffÃ¨rent tribes and they spoke different tongues. Some, he remembered, had been enemies of his people, the Allmuseri. Others traded with the merchants of his village, men like his father Mbwela, who was a proud man, one wealthy enough to afford two wives. But that was before he and Oboto were captured. They were no longer Hausa, Tefik, Fulani, Ibo, Kru, or Fanti. Now they were dead, one and all, and destined for the Underworld.
Every day since this journey began, Malawi had lost something; now he wondered if there was anything left to lose.
They had been herded after their long trek from the lush interior to the bustling trading fort overlooking the sea. They came in chains, shackled in twos at their necks, in a coffle that contained forty prisoners, a flock of sheep, and an ostrich. When they arrived at twilight, their feet were crusted with mud and their backs stung from the sticks their captorsâwarriors from the nearby As ante tribeâused to force them up whenever they fell during the exhausting monthlong march. It was there, on that march, that the horrors began. Wearily, Malawi walked chained to Oboto. His father, Mbwela, and mother, Gwele (Mbwela's youngest wife), were shackled in front of him. His mother stumbled. One of the Asante struck her, and Gwele fought back, scratching at his eyes until he plunged a knife into her belly. In a rage such as Malawi had never seen, his father fell upon the Asante warrior, beating him to the ground, and would have killed him had not another of their captors swung his sword and unstrung Mbwela's head, but with a cut so poorly delivered his father did not die instantly but instead lay bleeding on the ground as the coffle moved on, with Mbwela cursing their captors, their incompetence, telling them how he would have done the beheading right.