Wednesday, December 2, 2020

#TCC4Vets Holiday Donations for Veterans Village

After an exceptionally quiet and safe semester, we will be putting together a non-feast very socially distanced #TCC4Vets holiday delivery on 12/10.

Asking for multiples of just a few things: new large white bathtowels, men's bedroom slippers and laundry pods/dryer sheets.

Please sign up if you feel called to shine some light and show some love with us.

https://www.signupgenius.com/go/508094ba5a72e5-donations


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Alfred Williams 1858 Will Part 2: That each female slave receive one half of one week day in every week for every two children she may bear, while in my service, during the life of such children.



Mr. Williams mentions enslaved people in the tenth part of his will and testament, after money and children and fighting with people in his head and solving problems that haven't happened.  

I can only imagine how much fun he thought he was. 

Here is exactly what it says, then we can unpack it.

Tenth. I direct special care be taken of all the slaves belonging to myself and children, as regards their health and comfort.  I direct you as far as possible that they receive moral culture and religious instruction.   That each female slave receive one half of one week day in every week for every two children she may bear, while in my service, during the life of such children. 


 

OK. So it seems nice, right? It can't be.    

Any document that honors the right to own humans is fundamentally flawed.

 This one is especially strange because of the offer of time off to female slaves for bearing children "while in my service." 

Does "in my service" mean "having sex with me?" or "while I am forcibly enslaving them instead of someone else enslaving them when the child was born?"

It had to be well known that Mr. Williams gave women who bore children -- and whose kids survived -- more time off than everyone else, but I makes me wonder what kind of system that fueled.  

The clause about the children being alive in order for this clause to kick in is menacing.  

Why add that? Would you really take time off BACK from a grieving mother? I bet he would.

Did women (and the men they loved?) encourage each other to face nonconsensual sex in order to buy 100s of hours of freedom of the next years?  

Were the enslaved women  jealous of each other? or protective? 

What did older women tell their little sisters? Their daughters?  

We may never hear their side of the story.

Mr. Williams benefits from laws and traditions that were obstacles to literacy for people of color because I think they left none of their stories in writing, but in all truth .  

I have hours and hours to fill during this slippery time of questioning everything,  so I just might search the Library of Congress' Slave Narratives or Louisiana archives for answers that will lead to more questions and stories.

Just as it should be. 

Alfred Williams 1858 Will Part 1: Because I am not looking for anything in particular, I notice more.

 I have hours and hours each day to fill during this slippery time, and I can’t keep rearranging books or finding obscure Swedish shows on Netflix.

 

So I keep researching.   Sometimes I have a goal in mind, like with the Pandora’s Safe project.  Most of the time I don’t, and instead open digital databases and read file after file of raw data.  


There is something so uncomposed about data that relaxes my mind. When you read a book it’s been edited and architected to take you somewhere in a fixed number of words and images. 


It is a constructed ride and sometimes I need to have the feeling of taking a long walk in archives staring at documents like birdwatchers squint at trees.

 

On Monday night I read the death certificates of each and every person who died in one Alexander county of North Carolina between 1945 and 1950.  I didn’t take notes but I did bookmark interesting names and shout out things like “this poor guy --- the saw mill” to my kids who are experts at both ignoring me and appearing  to be encouragingly supportive.

 

 What I found didn’t surprise me. Most deaths were disease related, and the only gunshot deaths were suicides by men in their 60s and a toddler shot by her 6 year old brother. 

 

 

 

I was not pleased with seeing a 24 year old woman die of natural causes and bookmarked the page to research it later. 



There is something quietly soothing in reading every record then moving to the next file.

 

Because I am not looking for anything in particular, I notice more. 

Middle names excite me.


 Missouri Arkansas. Now that's a name. 





I always want to know who was the informant at the death, and where the body went after the funeral.  Every now and then I pull up an obituary or look for a newspaper article but most of the time I just keep reading the primary sources as they were written and filed.

 

One of my favorite things to do is read Wills (and yes, my brother told me to get a new hobby but also have you tried reading Wills?), especially those written and/or probated before the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery.  

 

When Wills are filed for Probate they are usually copied into the counties book of wills, which means that all the wills of everyone who died in a certain year can literally be read like a book from cover to cover if you are good at reading cursive and also open to French and Spanish, because about 30% of the Wills I read that were written before 1860 were not written in English.  We can discuss this later. 


What matters is that many states made those books of wills available to ancestry to digitalize and code and that’s how I access them.

 

The other day I was reading Wills filed in Orleans Parrish in the 1860s, shocked by how wealthy some people were, throwing around legacies of thousands of dollars and leaving lists of addresses of all their properties to be disposed of.  I make a point to look for mention of “slave” or “negro” (they were used interchangeably in Wills, let’s unpack that later) and also if there is some context to the discussion.

 

For example, I have read Wills where the person mentions that their kids will divide equally all their property including real estate, cattle and slaves. 

 

I have read Wills where the enslaved people are doled out by name (beloved Betsy goes to XXXX) and others where the decedent allows their children to each pick 2 and then sell the rest and split the profit. 

 

Nothing I’d seen before prepared me for what I found in Alfred A. Williams’ will, which I found in Orleans Parrish Will Book #13, page 99.



The will before Mr. Williams’ was in French, so I just passed on it and want everyone to remember I didn’t read all the wills, just the English ones, and even though Louisiana became a state (I often read the event described as “Louisiana was granted statehood” which is a whole other way of seeing the relationship, right?) in 1812, about 1 in 5  wills I’ve come across filed in the 1840s-1860s were in French or Spanish.

 

I feel that you’ve heard me on this point of how connected and multilingual the cities of the  Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Basin were in the 19th century and I can move on.

 

In his 1858 pre-Civil War testament, Alfred A. Williams leaves cash to his brother and brother-in-law, and wants a trust created for his minor children and administered so that when each of them reaches 21 they get all the funds accruing since his death. He then inserts something I’ve seen before and because I didn’t go to law school I get to name things and I call it the jerk clause.

 

He says that if his kids oppose the will then their shares will go to his brothers and sisters.

 




 Like how does someone get into a future fight with their kids that happens after their death?


What’s it like to be that controlling?


 Does it work? Because as I see it he’s going to die in 1863 and most of the wealth his family had when will was signed in 1858 will be on it’s way to be gone with the wind.   


The next several paragraphs are assigning who he wants to administer his property until the kids all turn 21, and how that person should be compensated. Yawn. I see this being written in a smoky room over rum, fat bellies and promises. Once you tell someone you’re leaving them stuff, things have to be different between you guys.

 

 I try to be neutral but it’s hard to like this guy, swinging his wealth around.

 

Then I found the portion of his will where he mentioned slaves, and I feel like I have uncovered the devil, and puppeteer who implied choice and freedom in a situation when the opposite was true.


(Continued in next post)*****

 

Johannes Soldane: Today is everything, do something.

 I have been working on a project for about two years that started when I stumbled up a case involving $7 and an iron safe in the early hours of the Civil War in Jackson County, Missouri.

 

 I have meant to finish this project and turn it into a snappy manuscript over the past year but instead I have rolled with the changes 2020 has brought and instead mastered the art of Zooming while feeding my dog quiet treats to keep her docile.

 

I have turned my attention to hanging plants, training for a 10K and learning to paint my own nails (I hate it).  I have mastered the art of keeping my kitchen clean, lined up all my clothes by color and season, and binged more series than I care to admit.  Nothing I do gives me space from this project, instead it seems like every quiet moment I have my mind wanders back to “what if?” and “did you think about” and “oh hey what if this person is the same as …”

 

 

By working, I mean putting names and census data on the wall and connecting them with strings and pins to probate documents and naturalization oaths.

 

 Since I am teaching from home during this strange and slippery time when it’s hard to know what to hold on to, I don’t have as many student papers on my desk and instead have neatly labelled vertical files of things I’ve printed out from digital archives even though it is much more awesome it is to be able to pinch and zoom a document than to hold a blurred copy. 

 

The physical files are something to hold, to highlight and to read over and over until new things reveal themselves.

 

 Even after I find new things I still go back and look for more data points to help me connect these dates and misspelled names and silences into stories of people

 

I have spent many restless nights tossing and turning ruminating on little bits that fit together like a puzzle,  wanting to be done with this and share it already and yet in no hurry to move forward with it all.

 

 The names have worked their ways under my skin – Gian-Jean-John, Johann, Achilles, and Sylvester who believed he was an Osage Indian and became a powerful leader in turn of the century Oklahoma.   It doesn’t matter at all to me if I am related to any or all of these people whose name I more or less share; their stories as immigrants and orphans  are interesting and important on their own.

 

 

Today I put names in digital archives again, just like I do every time I don’t want to grade.

Jean Soldani. John Soldani. Jean Goldani. John Soldan. Gian Soldan.

 

 I change one letters and dates like a scientist adding drops of this or that into a test tube and holding the results up to the light.  

 

I print the documents and keep going.  

 

And no you don’t get them now, because then this wouldn’t be a good story, it would be a data dump and that’s no fun at all.

 

Ground zero of the big story I am taking you to and through for Pandora’s Safe is  the 1860 census, but today we are not visiting ground zero. It is too boring to start there, and I don’t have time to waste your time by telling this story wrong.  Today we will visit the probate file of someone who may or may not be related to everyone else in this story.  

 

 

JOHANNES SOLDANE

 

From what I can piece together, Johannes Soldane left Switzerland for the US in 1848.  I find several documents of people with names similar to his arriving in the US in the 1840s, and there is no reason to believe he was the kind of man who came to the US several times before bringing his family.

 

I can’t find his marriage papers, and I can’t find his children’s birth certificates. 

 

A lot of history involves using the stuff you DO find and not losing your mind over what you wish you could find, so I don’t waste too much energy here.  I might never know if he was an explorer, but I get the feeling he was the kind of guy who thought crossing the Atlantic was more fun than being in central Europe as the wars of the 1840s pulsed through changing the political and economic landscape forever. 

 

There are no pictures of Johannes Soldane or his wife Maria Anna  or their kids, but their actions speak volumes.  Johannes Soland moved his family from Europe to the US right as the US and Mexico concluded the war that would lead to the US acquiring California and finding gold there. Maybe that’s where he was headed?

 

From what I can tell he didn’t buy land or intend to stay in St. Louis very long – or maybe bad luck struck as soon as they settled in.  Again, I only know what the data points tell me, and the data is pretty raw here.

 

When a person dies very often they have a will that is brought to a probate court and then dispassionate bureaucrats make sure the everything unfolds legally and fairly – for example, that the deceased’s goods are appraised at fair value, and that proper notice is posted in newspapers etc.   It doesn’t seem as though Johannes Soldane had anything to be probated other than a single bank account, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Page one of his file says that he died in April 1849, but  he has no heirs because his wife and two children - -whose names were unknown to the lawyers probating the documents – and died in September and October of that same year. 

 

They didn’t make it to the 1850 census or the 1850 mortality census, which would have given us clues on where they lived and who they lived near.   We can’t tell how many children they had in 1847 – six? Four? Two? – and whether they had older children waiting for them who would never know what happened to them specifically but we can guess.

 

I guess cholera.  In 1849 a cholera epidemic swept the young city of St. Louis, killing hundreds a day.  Perhaps that’s how they died – one at a time, but all together in the blurr of history – leaving no one to tell their story or claim their bank account. Maybe that’s why Johannes estate is not put into probate until 5 years after his death. 

 

By the standards of many probate files, this one is thin and lacks excitement. No one contests the itemization, no  one demands changes.  Its freakishly quiet.

 

The only asset Johannes Soldane has is about $175 he put in an account with three guys whose last name is Rippenstein.  By 1855 the Rippensteins are insolvent and don’t give the money to the executor of the will. 

 

The data points can be flexed and bent to imply that there are people in Missouri waiting for Johannes Soldane – perhaps his brothers, cousins, children – but no one document I have found in the hundreds I’ve poured through answers that question with certainty.

 

The lesson from this tiny piece of one person’s life shows us what we all know.  Nothing is certain, no tomorrow is guaranteed.  Today is everything, do something.

 

And now that I’ve written that I feel like he will rest more peacefully tonight now that his family’s tragic 1849 is no longer forgotten.

 

(continued) 







How High Can Rocks Fly: Part 3: How fast can dead snails run?

(From December 2017) 
I will forever remember finding a particular envelope the week after Christmas while sorting through odds and ends and putting away decorations and writing syllabi.

I thought the paper envelope was filled with some sort  of fragrance beads, so I got a glass bowl, opened the envelope and shook them out. A bunch of yellow beads fell out, accompanied by about 50 tiny assorted seashells mixed in with tiny beads.

 I spent the better part of the afternoon admiring each one of them and then placing them in to a spiral pattern in the bowl.  I loved each of them.

The seashells tell a story about creatures effortlessly – almost helplessly -- creating beautifully perfect geometric art that they leave as their gift. 

These creatures did not have the choices of  being kind and helpful – or did they? Am I underestimating them? -- but still they found a way to be generous.

 I suddenly want to know more about the communities of whatever these are but oh wait. I am dumbstruck. Entirely.

  I am a grown human being and I do not know what to call the creature that lived and died and created seashells.

Are they snails? I’m thinking snails are land things. 

Snails are like Gary on Spongebob.  Wait, is Spongebob really under the sea? Is Gary a native underwater sea snail  or is he from above the water like Sandy the Squirrel and does that explain why Gary meows?  I want to look this up but stay on track.

The creatures that made these seashells can’t be “snails” and I’m stumped but motivated to get through this and find the right word so I can finish writing this and finally grade.

 I think of typing in “What died to become a seashell?”  or “How are seashells made?”  but I think google would laugh at me. 

Of course I know how seashells are made.

They are made by math, by the golden spiral and by the Pythagorean swirly square root thing.













Each sea shell is  made by a divine creature that instinctively grew at exactly the right speed; they could not go faster or slower, they could not grow into a shape any different than the one they were intended to become.  

I can’t imagine they were aware of their shells, but then I can also imagine an entire show based on snails having shell envy and some snails getting plastic shell surgery to look more like a conch. 


I finally did search “how are seashells made” and have an answer that is boring and ugh.  The smug top sentence for any big search should be disregarded. 
 Then I switched to google image search and got this treasure for you. You’re welcome.







At least now I have an answer.

A variety of sea creatures leave their shells.  They have all sorts of names. Mollusks and clams and oysters and guess what?  As the narrator I get to make choices and for this story we are going to call them sea snails, and leave their names a mystery that died when their entire family-village perished in whatever catastrophic event that caused all these shells to be seeking refuge halfway around the world from their home.

How do I know they are from far away? The tag on the bag of shells read “Made in the Philippines.” Of course I read it, I look for hints and clues everywhere, all the time.

It did not mention whether the contents were food or could be given to children – do they care if anyone is harmed? -- but I bless their hearts anyway, because that’s the right thing to do.

The Philippines are pretty far away from Tallahassee, an unimaginable distance to be covered by any snail, much less a dead one.

That’s right. I now realize my question is really “How fast can a dead snail run?” and the answer has been answered by every single one of these shells.

 It moved as quickly as it needed to in order to go where it was intended to go, and the universe did the rest of the work.



--------

*On exam day I will have enough rocks and stones so that each of you can pick two shells and two stones; one of each to keep, and one of each to give away. 

How High Can Rocks Fly: Part 2: Do not give rocks to children.

(From December 2017) 

I have to answer the question I don’t know how to ask before I can write something I want to give my students before they take their final exams. 

 For years now, ever since at least 2010 when we lost two people in one class, I have given my students lucky rocks at the end of the semester as tangible evidence of my gratitude for our time together and my good wishes for their future.

 We usually begin Final Exam day with stories and rocks (and for a bit there was a picture thing and once or twice I wore my Harry Potter-looking Ph.D. stuff), but that always left out the student who tiptoed in 3 minutes late, or the students who were so genuinely wrapped up in memorizing the parts of the Treaty of Paris (1898) they were unable to listen.  I don't blame them.

I would not want any student to feel left out, so this year I will give them something to read (this).

One of the reasons I love rocks is they remind me that I have a choice in what I keep and what I leave behind.   

I hope that you all take pieces of this class with you, the good parts, the parts that meant something to you.

 If there were times in the semester when you felt frustrated at me or disappointed in yourself, I hope you choose to put that rock down.

One of the things that makes us human is our ability to question things and to invent stories.  Rocks cannot tell you about the 1968 election and connect it to both the Nixon Doctrine and Watergate. 

No matter how hard they try, rocks can’t tell stories.  Rocks have other uses.

Do rocks worry about being useful? Successful? Important?  Lost? 

Would worrying help the rocks get to where they are destined to go?  

Can rocks fly?  Did this rock come from outer space?  Was it part of a meteor once? 

I do not know. 

I did read once that humans are made of stardust. Stardust pulsing though our veins, connecting us to things that have been and will become. Perfectly amazing. 

I don’t know how high these rocks can fly, but your rock has flown from where it was and then will end up exactly where it is intended to be, at exactly the speed it needed to go.

There. Question answered.

Now something else.  When I bought the rocks there was tag on the bag with was a notice smaller than a fortune cookie that read, “Not for children under 14. Not for food.”

I shook my head.

Who needs to be told that????

What horrible person would be giving rocks to kids? Or think rocks are food?  

Still, there must be a reason for them to have taken the resources to have printed and affixed those particular rules to these rather rock-like rocks. 

I choose to practice radical acceptance, so I’m going to practice believing that those two rules are crucial.  

Rule #1: Do not give rocks to children.

Whoa. YES! Best rule ever. Brilliant. Profound, even.
If you give a child a rock, they might cry.   They were hoping for maybe candy or your Netflix password or to use your wireless headphones. 

You can’t always tell if someone is a child or not based on their age, but you will definitely know if a person is ready to believe rocks are magic and that you are offering them treasure.   

If they don’t want your treasure, leave them to the universe to learn what they need to learn on their wisdom path today.

Rule #2: Rocks are not for food.  

Yeah. Right! Anyone who has heard the fable about stone soup knows that rocks can be the key ingredient in making a community feast. 

I am aware that more than one hundred students are  waiting for me to finish writing this and post exam grades, so for expediency sake, here is a recap of the story à

Our service projects this semester have been our stone soup.  Each student has chosen to use their talents to contribute to a greater mission resulting in something bigger and more awesome than we each could have made on our own.

But OK. Still.  I had agreed to agreeing to the two rules and I’m breaking my rule to follow the rules.

 Good thing I don’t have an editor to answer to. Good thing I don’t have to worry about getting a grade on this essay.  

Rocks are not for food. This is probably the stupidest rule ever.  

If we are at the point where people are eating so many rocks that there are rock shortages and rock overdoses lets reconvene and figure out what bad choices lead our society down that to that path.  Was it Yalta? Was it Perestroika? Can it be connected in any way to blaming Mexico for forcing us to join WW1?

Wait, I am still not agreeing.

Radical acceptance might be against my nature, so I have to practice harder than other people. Here we go.

Do not eat rocks. Be careful what you ingest, be careful that it isn’t toxic or harmful.  Practice kindness to yourself, you are treasure.

 Do not feed rocks to people. Do not feed anything harmful to other people. They, also, are treasure.

 Wish for yourself health and protection; offer the same wish for everyone else.   

Now I see it.

The people who bagged these rocks took the time to wish their rocks would do no harm.
Bless their hearts.

I’m almost ready to finish this story and grade that stack of exams that looms next to me on my desk, but not until I answer the question I’m still figuring out how to ask.



(continued)
(there are only 3 parts, then I really really have to grade.....)