Author: Pat Backley
Print Length: 190 Pages
Publisher: Pat Backley
Publication Date: October 8, 2020
I have not read a book I could not wait to get back to in a while. Daisy is one of those books.
Daisy is a Historical Fiction story from 1887 to 1974. The prologue is short but expertly ties the entire story together. A white hand is on top of a little black hand in a field of flowers. The woman and the little girl are making daisy chains.
“Mum, why am I called Daisy?”
Set in Alabama, Harlem, and London, the author takes us through time, starting in 1887 and ending in 1974 in that field of Daisy’s with the same question from the little black girl. Only now, we understand why her name is Daisy and why the hand on top of hers is white.
The author’s strength here is her character development. Although there were many sudden tragedies, the author did such an excellent job with their backgrounds and personalities that the reader is genuinely interested in them and grieve their loss.
This is a family story, and I loved most how the author tied everyone together with the historical backdrop. There are descendants of the enslaved whose lives weave with descendants of slaveowners and poor white Londoners the author interweaves with poor black Americans’ lives. The exciting part about books (and movies) like this is all the tension built up between the families and wondering when everyone will meet up with one another!
As the author detailed their lives, I knew they would intersect at some point, and I was eager to see how it would all play out. It was like reading about a generation of people all connected in a six-degrees of separation kind of way – that all people on average are six or fewer, social connections away from each other.
An example of this in the book is when Samuel, Winifred, and Jeremey Davis, the black family from Harlem, moved to London in 1952. Leading up to this, we have already met the white family in London (because the author starts in 1887 and moves time forward). Thus, the anticipation is already there as to which of Polly’s descendants will meet one of the Davis’s. Little Jeremy was five years old in 1952, but by the time he is an adult, he meets one of the great-great-great granddaughters of the London family, and they marry, giving birth to the little girl from the prologue.
It’s juicy ya’ll!
The author does a good job of recounting the family’s past throughout, so it continually reminds the reader of how it all started and how everyone is connected. The overall message of the book seems to be that it does not matter if you are rich or poor, slave or free, black or white; we are all part of the human family, a family that would flourish much more smoothly if biases like racism, sexism, and classism did not exist.
“Being born poor was a scar that never faded.”
“She had never experienced racial hatred first hand, so had no real idea of how it could erode a person’s whole life.”
Today, she provides insight into the book, To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Workingman 1877-1982.
A Long Preamble
The full title of To Shoot Hard Labour, which I was first introduced to as a secondary school student and have referenced in the years since, is To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Workingman 1877-1982 (first printing 1986).
You may immediately pick up that the title structure is reminiscent of the true-to-life literary genre known as the slave narrative. Famous examples of which include Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (published 1859). Additionally, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself (published 1845 by the anti-slavery office in Boston); and The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by Herself (published in England in 1831).
The subject and author of the last of these spent some of her time in enslavement in Antigua, where I live, the locale of the post-slavery narrative told by Samuel Smith to his grandchildren, co-authors Keithlyn and Fernando Smith.
The slave narrative emerged in the colonial era as a genre and a tool of the anti-slavery movement concerned with dismantling chattel slavery in the Americas – other references will say North America, but I am being very specific.
It shouldn’t need to be said in 2020 with all the material (e.g., slave narratives) at our disposal, but chattel slavery – the brutal multi-generational-generational-generational form of human trafficking and enslavement of Africans fed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the need (read: greed) for labour for the mass production of sugar and cotton that built the European and North American (meaning the USA) economies – happened across the hemisphere known as the Americas. The Americas includes North and South America and the Caribbean. Historically, this is the so-called ‘New World’ over which European powers fought and which they colonized over hundreds of years – beginning with Columbus’ wrong turn at Hispaniola, modern-day Haiti (French), and the Dominican Republic (Spanish) in 1492.
The first enslaved Africans arrived in the New World in the 1500s. To Shoot Hard Labour, in its sweeping introduction, spoke of Las Casas, the Catholic priest known as the protector of the ‘Indians’, the Kalinago (called Caribs by the Europeans who in the history books I read as a child were described as ‘fierce’ and ‘warlike’) and other indigenous groups being exterminated for European profit, who proposed that the colonizers look instead to Africa for labour. In this introduction, it said the first enslaved Africans landed in the New (to the colonizers) World in 1502.
The Old World powers of England, Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands (Dutch) divvied up and dominated Africa (which they mined of her natural and human resources) and the colonies they claimed in the New World, often through violence. England emerged as a superpower – an empire upon which the sun never set, into the 20th century, until its former colony, America, which had greatly expanded its fortunes and influence since declaring its Independence in 1776, rose to take that spot. Forgive me for being hand wave-y on the details of globalization; I intend this as a discussion of the book To Shoot Hard Labour, not a New World history.
However, I am writing this in the summer of 2020, a summer in which the newly announced Vice Presidential hopeful on the US Democratic party ticket, Kamala Harris, is US (i.e., North American) born to a father from Jamaica and a mother from India. The fact that these are both former colonies of England and that Jamaica was, like the entire Caribbean, a chattel slavery colony is not the point, but it is not irrelevant. Harris’ Blackness, and her connection to the struggles of Black people who have fought their way from slavery to freedom and beyond, have been called in to question with sentiments like “She’s not Black. She’s Jamaican.”
If you know the New World history, you know that Blackness and Jamaica are not mutually exclusive. The English speaking Caribbean, including Jamaica, and other non-English speaking former colonies, are majority Black and have been for centuries at the forefront of anti-slavery, labour rights, and independence movements, and for decades at the forefront of the reparations movement specific to the injustices of chattel slavery.
It is a movement that has been centered in American discourse this election cycle – and we love to see it – because it’s all about reparative justice. This is something that should unite, not separate us. We are diasporically – through our ties to a common motherland, Africa, and the inheritance of a common brutal experience here in the New World – family. But here we are, and it needs to be said – some of the most brutal forms of chattel slavery existed in the Caribbean, and the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour is one man’s testimony.
The genre known as the slavery narrative grew out of the lived experience of enslaved (and formerly enslaved) people, some 6000 of them across North America and the Caribbean through the 18th and 19th centuries. They were autobiographical and, given their use as an anti-abolitionist tool, emphasized the struggle, with religion and progress being recurring motifs. As with many slave narratives, To Shoot Hard Labour is an ‘as told to’ and Papa Sammy ends by telling his grandsons, “I hope that you will write down exactly what I am telling you. If you do, the people will see how far down in the mud arwe come from.” (p. 162)
To Shoot Hard Labour veers from your traditional slave narrative in that it begins in 1834 – the year slavery legally ended in the English speaking Caribbean, with the four year apprenticeship – Antigua, which opted for full emancipation in 1834, was an exception. I, therefore, describe it as a post-slavery narrative. Its central theme, beginning with Papa Sammy’s ancestor Rachael’s long walk across Antigua to re-connect with the daughter (Minty) sold off years before, is the quest for freedom, life, humanity in a world determined to keep Black people underfoot. “Only when they find Minty they really believe that slavery was all over for sure.” (p. 32) But not without scars, “Minty had a brand on she hand.” (p. 32)
The book is a stark reminder that the legal end of slavery did not mean its end in practice. In some ways, even in a country, politically independent since 1981, with Black leaders and a majority Black population, the struggle for true self-actualization continues. The ways in which the struggle continues and in which they have been brought in to sharp focus in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the globally resonant Black Lives Matter uprising sparked in North America/the US, and the economic and social quakes sparked by both, is more heavy lifting than this piece can do.
But let’s talk about this book though.
I covered a lot of ground in the 13th installment of my CREATIVE SPACE column of 2020 (SAY THEIR NAME: IN MEMORIAM) in which I wrote about To Shoot Hard Labour by telling the stories of some of the people beaten, raped, and killed, casualties of anti-Blackness post-slavery in Antigua, as well as some of the unsung freedom fighters (labour rights activists). There is likely to be some overlap, but I’ll try to tread ground not covered there, here. I urge you to read that article as a companion to this one.
As the nation was reminded during a month-long on-air book club discussion of it in which I participated, this book covers a lot in its 100 plus years, and even if you’ve read it before, you’re likely to learn something. And even if you’re not from Antigua, what you learn will be educational and impactful as you consider the arc of human history in general and Black people’s experiences in the New World specifically. The particularity of it makes it more potent, not less.
“Just a little away from the market on Church Street in an open space under a big mahogany tree was the old slave market where the bakkra use to sell our generations. That mahogany tree had hoods and spikes in it. After slavery end, Delos Martin, a Scotchman built a business place just west of it, and that would block the view of the courthouse at the corner of Scotch Row and Church Street…the little hill at the head of the city – the one in a straight line with High and St. Mary’s Streets – was called Gibbet’s Hill. It was the place where the open gallow was built – close to what is now called the Botanical Gardens – but the slaves use to call it Dribbet House.
The open gallows were like the frame of a house. Them gallows would have three or four planks overhead. The slaves used to be tied with rope at the neck or shoulders, around the waist, or any part of the body for that matter. They were then pulled up and tie to the overhead planks, and they would be left there to swing. A portion of food would be left in front of them, but that food was to let the slaves see it and not reach it. They were made to swing there till they dead. Nowadays, when you want to show how harsh you want to deal with somebody, you say ‘Me go kill you’. Back then we use to say ‘Me go gibbet you.’” (p. 95)
A long quote, yes, but hopefully you see what I mean, that you don’t have to know those places to see and hear, in Papa Sammy’s own voice, with the vivid descriptiveness of lived and/or handed down memory, the history being revealed.
For me, the reading comes with a sense of loss and reclaiming, as, though I grew up here and knew the named streets, these places, as described, weren’t known to me. There are stories of numerous places for us to re-discover–from the baobob (or as Papa Sammy called it bear bob) tree (the one on the Freemansville main road), which has the distinction of being near a former market where enslaved people were sold, Stony Hill Gully where enslaved people plotted freedom, in 1736 (enduring public torture and death as a consequence), to the lawlessness and licentiousness of bakkra spaces like Guiana Island and Willoughby Bay.
It’s worth noting that though the book, in the spirit of narratives, is autobiographic and, as a result, largely anecdotal, it is not so easily dismissed as a history. For one, it fills the gaps left by the original history of dates and more official sources, i.e., the colonizer’s perspective. For another, it makes a valiant effort to fact check itself.
When Papa Sammy gives 1904 as the year the Gunthropes sugar factory became operational, there’s a footnote that references “Sir Francis Watts, who played a leading role in the establishment of the first central sugar factory” (p. 115) as saying that it was planned in 1903 and reaped its first crop in 1905. The centralization of at least some part of the sugar production process, by the way, began opening up the world of people who had known only plantation life – a very narrow world indeed.
Sugar was king during much of slavery, plantation days, in the Caribbean, and this changed only ever so slowly post-slavery. Massa (also called bakkra – literally “back raw” according to one source* much like “cracker” a pejorative for white in the US* is, according to some sources I’ve seen, a reference to the sound of the whip hitting Black flesh) was still Lord, Master, and the magistrate. The formerly enslaved was still, for all intents and purposes, enslaved. As Papa Sammy said, “in those days, nega if them right, them still wrong” (p. 118)
While the story doesn’t scrimp on the sorrow, it doesn’t wallow in victimhood. It speaks concurrently of the rise of free villages like Freemansville, the harnessing of skills and resources (female-centered work in medicine – a fair amount of folk remedies included), the lingering effects of enslavement (children still carrying the so-called Massa’s name and harsh corporal punishment of children and adults continuing the pattern from the plantation), and the rise of the workers’ rights movements with sometimes fatal consequences (as during the 1918 ‘riots’).
Additionally, the governorship and business and ownership or lack thereof and the transformation of the country, the push for voting rights and ways the community worked together (“the swap, throwing the box and working the lift was the main things that prevent us from eating each other” – p. 116). And there was a beauty. I can verify that as Papa Sammy said, there is no better vantage point for sunset viewing than Clark’s Hill, which is a rising in the middle of the island.
Chattel slavery was not indentured servitude, no matter what some meme said, and the fact that we seem to be forgetting that makes books like To Shoot Hard Labour even more valuable. Consider that post-slavery movement was restricted – you couldn’t just switch employers, and you would be punished physically or locked up for not going to work. You still effectively lived in slave quarters (called the ‘nega-house’ where there was no privacy); you did not police yourself in any way – in fact, “whenever there was a fight or quarrel among nega-house people, it would be massa that would decide who was to get punish and how the punishment would be” (p.38) and who in fact still had and exercised the power of life and death with impunity over the people he once owned.
Consider that post-slavery, you did not own the land you worked nor what it produced unless bakkra said so, that prison labour (literally a jail cart which moved where the work was) was effectively another form of slave labour. Consider all this and more through the lens of current conversations re Blackness, reparations, etc. Consider all this and more, over the 100 years Papa Sammy lived, dying the year after Antigua arrived at political Independence.
Who else to tell this story even if in the telling he disrupts some established narratives–e.g., bringing nuance to the story of modern Antigua, dinging the mythology, speaking to the jealousies and infighting, and the missed opportunities and broken promises even with Black leadership?
You can hear the heartbreak in his words as he reflects on the mahogany tree that once marked the slave market in town. “It was our government and black people that pluck up that tree.” (p. 161). It is we, now in charge, he insists who have forgotten and that’s the heartbreak of this book, but that’s also the hope. These stories are hard to read but they need to be told because – there is much that was done that we can learn from, there is much that was done to us that we must never forget.
Why read this book, beyond it being riveting history? To quote Papa Sammy, “I want the young generations to remember” (p. 161), and this is important because, to quote him further, “I hope that the day will never come again when our people have to suffer indignity like my generation and others have to.” (p. 162) Indignity, when you read this book, and books like it, you will see that that’s putting it mildly.
RIP to the co-author of To Shoot Hard Labour, Antiguan and Barbudan historian, and trade unionist Sir Keithlyn Smith who died July 31st, 2020, and buried in an official funeral on September 15th, 2020.
*Cracker: “Cracker” was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia’s frontier regions. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of “whip-cracker” since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip. Over time this came to include slave-drivers who used Blacks as livestock during chattel slavery, often literally “cracking the whip” to make them walk faster when human bodies replaced cattle or as a warning to enslaved people who were not “working” hard enough. ‘Ev’ry time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalised our very souls.’ – Bob Marley, Slave Driver, from Catch a Fire | Source: “Remembering the Crack of the Whip: African-Caribbean Artists in the UK Visualise Slavery.”
Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of two books of children’s fiction, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure and With Grace, two books for the teen/young adult market The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth, and two adult contemporary books Oh Gad! and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Her writing has appeared in several international magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, including, respectively, Essence, The Columbia Review, and New Daughters of Africa.
When I started this blog and chose “truth is stranger than fiction,” as the tagline, it was puzzling to people. Someone even reached out to correct, me, saying, “don’t you mean the truth is stronger than fiction?”
No. Stranger is the word I meant.
What it seeks to communicate is that nothing we can create can be as unusual as what we find in actual life, and speaks metaphorically of the unsettling realness of truth—the “strangeness” of reality. You think something is weird until you find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. You think my blog name and the tagline is strange until you understand what it means.
Everything that is happening right now, I could quickly put in a novel. Except, there is no story I can conjure up that would be equivalent to the real-life terror that blacks face and have faced every day in this country.
As someone who writes Black Historical Fiction, there is a strangeness about what’s going on because what happened in the 60s is still happening. And as I place my fictional characters amid events that actually happened, I realize that I am a character in the present world, a world that mirrors the one passed. Our children and their children will read about what happened this year, and they will ask the question, “what was it like living in a world with civil unrest because of the mistreatment of blacks during a pandemic?”
The first five months of 2020 have been brutal on every level, and we are living in what will one day be part of America’s history, and it must not be lost to us that we are part of that history.
If America were a house, racism would be the foundation on which this house sits. People don’t want to hear that many of the founding fathers were slave-owners. They don’t want to hear about the Slave Patrols turned southern police departments. People don’t want to hear that dismantling systemic racism means to dismantle that system. And people certainly do not want to hear about the spiritual connections between the afflictions blacks have endured, their real identity and heritage, and their place in America.
But there is no one way of looking at everything that’s going on, but this is also what makes writing a powerful tool for shedding light on these truths, exposing prejudices, and breaking down barriers, and eventually whole systems.
Everyone can’t be on the ground. I won’t say “on the front lines,” because I don’t believe there is one way to be on the front lines. The term comes from the military line or part of an army that is closest to the enemy. To be on the “front line” means to be closeted to the enemy, which is usually depicted as physically facing him. But there are other ways to face the enemy, and one way is to write with accuracy.
Write the truth. Write it as raw and as bloody as it is in real life. Pass down stories to the next generation that will teach them the truth about who they are. Take Toni Morrison, for example, who in the 60s and 70s chose to publish the books of black writers telling the truth and exposing lies. Books play a significant role in educating a people, and miseducation has a lot to do with what is and is not, written in books.
Writers are, therefore, also on the front lines and in a powerful way. In the words of Nina Simone, “you can’t help it. As far as I’m concerned, an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”
As devastating as things are right now, what black writers write today, be it a poem or blog post or scholarly article, can make a difference in the next world.
They get tired of hearing it.
Ain’t nobody got to say it,
I know that they get tired.
Tired of these distractions in brown-colored skin
waking up from Valley’s
with muscles and tendons
Uncovering the blood in the American Flag—
Tired, tethered, and intoxicated
with his story.
Unraveling the color of bigotry on a beautiful glass,
Smeared fingerprints and fallen stars like
Why they keep sittin’ in?
Between our comfort and a hard place.
This be some kinda hard place
for brown-colored skin
in the springtime.
Strange fruit popping up again on trees,
‘cept Nina ain’t here to sing us a song.
After 400 years
songs just don’t work anymore.
Tired of these guns accidentally going off,
Landing somewhere in my purse.
somewhere in my womb.
Somewhere in my future between lipstick and foundation.
I’ve got to warn my sons
about accidental guns.
Generational homicide got me on my knees praying
ain’t got his name on it.
Let’s be accurate about it.
Will I be left with the fragmented
pieces of my husband’s shoes
between our front porch and the living room floor?
Will my kiss linger long enough to bring him home tonight?
Or will I suffer a widow’s fate of mistaken identity?
After all, these brown, tan, bronze, and mahogany-colored
skins all do look the same…
I’m afraid of your guns.
They don’t know the difference
between friend and foe–
or maybe, they do.
Funny how bullets be mistakin’ themselves for judges
that ain’t got names on them.
They say a gun
ain’t got a name on it.
Why are they sugar-coating it?
‘Cause people get tired of hearing about all this black…
All this oppression,
All these curses,
All this power like,
Why we won’t pour sugar on top of these bodies?
Get ’em up off the street.
Don’t want our bullets to get stirred up, ya know.
Getting up outta beds,
loading themselves into chambers
and taking walks at night,
in the afternoon, and especially in the morning,
when it’s springtime.
Fun Fact: I first wrote this poem four years ago (almost to the day). Reposting because it is still fitting for today’s climate. You can find it in my I am Soul poetry collection.
This is a real-life case of living beyond the colored line. It starts when a black man named O’Day Short and his family moved to a racist area of Fontana, California, in 1945. Here’s a bit of history behind Fontana:
The Ku Klux Klan established its headquarters in Fontana.
KKK Grand Wizard George Pepper and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) leader Tom Metzger claimed Fontana and the Inland Empire as their California Eastern Territory for White Supremacy.
Hells Angels Biker Gang originated in Fontana
Hells Angels and Nazi Low Riders (NLR), flourished in the city of Fontana, with no consequences from the Fontana P.D.
Many incidents of discrimination and hate crimes were unsolved and poorly investigated
Fontana has a long history of racism and discriminatory policies, so it is no surprise that blacks were not allowed south of the area. The saying went: “Base Line is the Race Line.” Southern Fontana can be best described as a “Sun-down town,” towns blacks were not allowed after dark. When the sun went down, any black person found in a “Sundown Town,” risked lynching. Read more about Sundown Towns in an older post here.
When O’Day Short, his wife, and two children moved onto land in an all-white area, neighbors threatened them to leave that neighborhood and occupy one of the ghetto neighborhoods where the town allowed blacks to live.
One interesting thing about the Short family is that they were fair-skinned and many believe this is how they got to purchase the property in the first place. O’Day moved his family into the half-finished home. It is said the man who sold him the land where the house was being built did not know he was black.
When people complained, O’Day got a visit from the sheriff to leave the property. The Sheriff offered to buy the house back, but O’Day refused. The sheriff warned that the “vigilante committee,” will not be pleased. They recorded the visit by the Sheriff in the Sheriff’s office in San Bernardino. According to the report, Short described the threats to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I). On December 6, 1945, Short also reported the threats to the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American Newspaper.
On, December 16, 1945, not even a full month after the Short’s moved in and ten days after the reports, the Short home exploded in fire, the family inside.
Helen Short, 35, and her daughters Barry, 9, and Carol Ann, 7 died.
O’Day, 40, lived long enough to be taken to the hospital. A month later, on January 22, 1946, he also died.
They have linked the cause of the fire to an oil lamp O’Day was lighting when the tragedy occurred. The interesting thing about these reports is they didn’t mention that the Shorts were black, not in 1946 or later when the story resurfaced.
The NAACP hired an arson investigator later to investigate the story. The investigator reported that the kerosene lamp was found and almost intact, determining the fire was set, from the exterior.
I decided the Short Family would be the subject of this week’s fun fact because of the limited information that can be found on them. It was many years later before the NAACP launched their investigation and people even knew their story.
There is much more to be added to this list but these five are good points. Black History Fun Fact Friday returns to the blog this week. We will be revisiting some basics. Specifically, the End of Chattel Slavery and Reconstruction.
“In August 1619, the first ship with “20 and odd” enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia. Four hundred years later, we look back at this moment as the start of an enduring relationship between the founding of the United States and the unconscionable exploitation of the enslaved.
In a sweeping project published by the New York Times Magazine this month exploring the legacy of slavery, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “[The enslaved] and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. … But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.”