After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. For Johny Pitts the Breaking Ground tour was a chance to discover and reflect on his own American roots:
Seppie & The Shark
“Navigate the treacherous and make it seem effortless, like those who made the exodus seeking the north beacon” – Mos Def
The American emigre architect Louis Khan once wrote that “the city is a place of availabilities… a place where a young boy, as he walks through it, might see something that will tell him what he wants to do with his life”. If where you walk doesn’t suggest those availabilities, you must move.
In 1930 a 14 year old girl named Seppie Furs took part in what became known as ‘The Great Migration’: the mass migration of Southern Blacks to the Northern US. Like many other members of the African American community, she left her town in South Carolina not just searching for availabilities – more dignified work, more wholesome food, more fortified shelter – but in search of a life; a place where she might thrive, raise a family and be given space to dream. Until then she had been living in the smoke-cloud of slavery which, despite being outlawed towards the end of the American civil war in The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, still meant little in the South even in the early 20th century (and judging by recent racially motivated shootings and the numerous confederate flags I saw raised during my time in Charleston, one wonders how much it means in the early 21st century).
Seppie Furs is my Grandmother, and shortly before meeting up with my fellow Black British writers in Charleston I visited the tiny town of Olar where she grew up. Though doubled in size since my Grandma’s day, it still only has a population of about 500 people, pierced with a single railway track with a large rusty watercooler, standing like an old giant amongst a series of sad looking trailers and bungalows. I sought out the town’s oldest resident, which turned out to be a 96 year old white man with a remarkably sharp mind named Raymond. He remembered the Furs family (my ancestors) and the small hairdressers they ran, which also used to sell delicious fried fish sandwiches.
“There was still a lot of racism back then, but my family grew close to black folks here because we grew up picking cotton with them. And though some people didn’t like it, we used to go in and get our fish sandwiches anyway- they were good!” Raymond told me how, though slavery had long been proclaimed over, as a young boy he saw the subtle (and not-so subtle) ways black people in the south were discriminated against: “There was segregation, but life was tough for everybody, and people were forced to work together to get a yield. But I saw with my own eyes how much tougher it was for black folks. They didn’t get paid nearly as much as the white folks for a start – sometimes the plantation owner wouldn’t end up paying them at all, and then white shop owners would cheat black customers by pressing their thumb down on the scales so everything cost more. This was a tough place for everybody, but especially so for the blacks”. I left Olar thinking how the simple story of my Grandmother leaving her small town at the age of 14, to work as a maid for a Jewish Family in New York, was more than just an act of desperation, but also an act of heroism, for it is easy to die of indifference.
In Charleston I had an optimistic moment stood on the shores of Sullivan’s island, where tens of thousands of enslaved people (those few out of millions who actually survived the treacherous middle passage) arrived on slave boats from West Africa. It’s likely my ancestors were amongst those who were shackled, sold, and forced to pick cotton or use their skills as rice growers for generations, until my grandmother eventually broke what had by then become only a figurative chain. Apart from the 14 hour a day backbreaking work and horrendous living conditions enslaved people were forced to endure, I also heard stories that the work was sometimes carried out whilst being maimed. Some slave masters were known to snip the Achilles tendons of their human property so they couldn’t run away.
With these stories in mind I stood there looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, in the warm subtropical fog of Charleston, with its humid, dramatic weather (hurricane warnings had been issued recently). I thought about working the fields in this close, suffocating climate that had me dripping with sweat just wandering the unsettlingly quaint colonial streets. Stood there on the shore, I also thought of how amazing it was that I was stood there as a black Briton on a writers tour, staying in an air-conditioned hotel, mixing the privilege of vacuous shopping at designer brand outlet with art exhibitions and intelligent chats in elegant candle-lit restaurants. After that forced movement of my ancestors, by standing at the shores of Southern America as a free black man who can read and write, I felt as though I was evidence of their positive, self-made movements after that traumatic arrival.
This feeling of empowerment shortly preceded a depressing reality check. I’d learned that one of our fellow writers, British Somali poet Warson Shire, had been denied access to her plane by US immigration officials, and wouldn’t be joining us on our tour. Judging by the recent comments of Rupert Murdoch, and the growing anti-Muslim sentiment across the West that he represents, it’s not hard to imagine why.
For our event Warsan sent a video of her performing a poem with that contained the line “You only leave home if home is the mouth of a shark”. For so many young black and / or Muslim men and women both in the West and beyond, the opportunity to move, physically and figuratively is being denied. And if the freedom to better yourself and your family is denied, then you either get swallowed up by the shark or learn to become one.