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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/19/21

Of Cotton and "Hands": Engaging River of Dark Dreams, Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

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Message Dr. Lenore Daniels

Previously published at the Black

'A soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane sapling size and three times the height of man...valuable pound for pound" as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered a recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts"'

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Colonel Thomas Sutpen likens "it" to an erupting volcano. Sitting atop his horse, hearing "the air trembling and throb at night with the drums and the chanting It was "the heart of the earth itself he heard," calling forth from him an acknowledgment of its depths soaked in "violence," "injustice," and "black blood." Maybe not outright compassion. Or empathy, even. Just an acknowledgment that the spilling of blood and the indifference toward suffering is an abomination, a crime against the very Earth that gave birth to all life on the planet.

And yet, "apprenticing" in Saint Dominique, overseeing the earth and the laboring human beings beneath him as he rode atop his horse, the future slaveholder oscillates between anger and fear. Years later, to fellow neighbor and Civil War veteran in Mississippi, General Compson, Supten admits to feeling this "incredible paradox" rising from the earth, too. But what could it mean? What role could it possibly have in his life?

Riding across the plantation owned by his mentor and boss, Sutpen concludes that this "incredible paradox" was originating from within him, not the earth itself! For what could the trembling and throbbing of air and earth at night refer to, if not to him, and him alone? Whatever was "boiling and readying to rise up violently underneath him" spoke to his dreams! Didn't he, Sutpen, find himself suddenly "riding peacefully"-despite the distance drumbeats beneath his feet?

He, Sutpen, had discovered a "design"! Was it not a caricature of his dream? His own rising volcano of innocence ? "'I was quite calm, quite calm,'" he told Gen. Compson, while he listened to the earth speak to him of a "'man's'" destiny, of his "'destiny.'" And then the "'design'" unfolded before him. A glorious "design" in which he was at the center of a grand enterprise, of great extravagance. Out enterprising all others!

To see it through, he explains to the general, he would need to acquire "'money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family, incidentally of course, a wife.'"

And why not? Sutpen recalls for the general how he came to discover his innocence while learning about the difference not only between white and Black men, but also "'between white men and white men.'" Even before he arrives in Saint Dominique, something nestled within him, angered him, and filled him with hate. He remembers running to escape it but to no avail. It took hold of him, at the front door of the big house, the moment a "'n----r'" told him, the son of a poor tenant farmer, but white nonetheless, to go to the back door! To the back door! Go!

The "'incredible paradox'" must have been there in Virginia. Had to have been since he realized on retrospect that it wasn't the "'n-word anymore than it had been the n-word that his father had helped to whip that night.'"

At that moment ready to relay his father's message to the Black face, he hears, instead of words, an "'explosion.'" Before the door closes in his face, "'something in him escaped.'"

Something in him escaped.

In the novel, Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner's fictive Col. Thomas Sutpen has a dream"

My father was a cotton picker in Arkansas. When exactly, I don't know. For how long, a month, a year? I don't know. I don't know if he had a dream. He would have picked cotton before I was born in the early 1950s. His story of picking cotton told by an older sister. And why not? Memory of those days wasn't to be shared with future generations who imagine the humanity surrounded by the whiteness of an American kingdom while listening to the down beat of drums and the whistle of trains passing on their way north"

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Activist, writer, American Modern Literature, Cultural Theory, PhD.

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