Tuesday, June 12, 2018

John M. Coggeshall's "Liberia, South Carolina"

John M. Coggeshall is professor of anthropology at Clemson University.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community:
With her basket full of blackberries, the girl paused on the soapstone boulders, gazing on the corn fields in the valley below her, until her owner’s voice shattered her thoughts. “Katie,” the older white woman shouted, “bring those berries over here now! I need them for my party tonight, so I’ll whup you if you eat any!” Smiling slyly, the enslaved girl reluctantly complied, carefully wiping the juice from her mouth and whispering to herself the irreverent nickname her parents secretly called their owner. “Yes, ma’am,” she dutifully replied aloud, and wondered what it must feel like to obey only her own parents and to pick her own berries. “What must it feel like to be free?” Katie thought.

If my book, Liberia, South Carolina: an African-American Appalachian Community, were a movie, this scene might open the story. The book tells the oral history of “Liberia,” a freedom colony established by freed slaves in the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina in 1865; the story then chronicles the community’s struggles through decades of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. The book follows five generations of an extended family (and their neighbors and friends) in that community, a story told primarily (but not exclusively) through the perspectives of strong female characters. Despite the fact that their fortunes wax and wane with varied historical situations, the extended family persists into the present. Fictionalizing this story would be both easy and dramatic. I see the movie as a mash-up of The Waltons meets Roots.

The first documented family generation begins with a woman named “Aunt” Katie Owens, born a slave sometime around 1840. She had several children, some rumored to have been by a white father, and her son Will married Rosa Glenn (daughter of a former enslaved woman). Rosa had multiple children, some said to have been fathered by white men, and her oldest son Chris Owens married Lula McJunkin (granddaughter of a freed slave). The couple had eight children, including youngest daughter Mable Owens Clarke, who currently lives on family land and who (with her niece) manages a monthly fish fry to preserve the community and Soapstone Baptist Church.

While white-authored local histories describe a peaceful and harmonious relationship between the secluded Liberia Community and their surrounding white neighbors, black oral histories tell a more complex tale. Family stories of life under slavery describe strategies of resistance, from reluctant compliance to murder of oppressors. During Reconstruction, blacks established churches (like Soapstone Baptist) and schools, males held public office, and communities (such as Liberia) were established as black refuges from white control. Later, under the shadow of Jim Crow, blacks preserved their private thoughts and actions within the safety of Liberia, while publicly interacting with dominant whites under a carefully crafted mask of deference. After the decades following World War II, black public deference slowly dissolved, met with white resistance (e.g., violently attacking Mable’s childhood home) and the burning (by arsonists) of Soapstone Baptist Church in 1967. Rebuilt with both black and white labor and capital, the church and community survive today, supported by monthly fish fries and widespread public support.

I see Ava DuVernay directing, Oprah Winfrey producing, and Aja Naomi King (Aunt Katie as teen), Kerry Washington (Aunt Katie as adult), Octavia Spencer (Rosa Glenn Owens), Viola Davis (Lula McJunkin Owens), and Ruth Negga (Mable Owens Clarke).
Learn more about Liberia, South Carolina at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue