Selections from Descent
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Selections from Descent

In A Pictorial History of Polk County, published in 1976, there are hundreds of pictures of Polk County residents from the mid-19th century through the early 20th. There are photographs of log rollings and butchered hogs, of baptisms and baseball teams—one white and one Alabama and Coushatta, from “Indian Village.” Assuming that blackness is a visible trait (while knowing that it isn’t), there is only one picture of a black person, identified as “Uncle Duck,” a “faithful slave brought by the Darby family from Alabama to Texas.” He reportedly chose not to leave them when freedom came. In two other photographs, black men appear along with whites, but captions identify only the white people, as though the identities of the black men have been erased. No black women are pictured anywhere at all. [End Page 10]

Peggy/An Inventory

She has a recipe for cornbread and one for curing hog cholera and another for keeping quiet and another for children born too close together. She has a cast iron skillet and a pale blue bandana and a steel thimble she slips over her finger when she works up a quilt, a shirt, a song. She has a wash pot and a boiling stick and a fear of ha’nts and a way of looking twice over her shoulder. She has an apron she rips into rags in one smooth motion and a song for every kind of weather but days when the sun will not shine out. She has a butcher knife and a paring knife, a knife for extracting chiggers, a knife for scraping hogs, and a knife she hides under her bed before births to soften the pain. She has a deep belly groan like the H & T C Railroad grinding toward Austin, and even her lullabies crack like kindling. No one will own to hearing her cry, but her laugh is the crash of breaking glass—sharp, high, and exactingly brief. [End Page 11]

Gutman: Not all sexual ties between slave women and white men were exploitative, and not all interracial contacts between slaves, ex-slaves and free persons involved black women and white men.

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[End Page 12]

She watches him ride out at dawn, tossed onto the saddle like a sack of gunpowder left in the rain. “God forgive me I am drunk,” he said, he slurred, he sang, last night, staggering into the washstand, toppling the pitcher, shattering the vase, scattering her black-eyed susans, her bluebonnets, her patience and her easy shame. He didn’t even bother to sidestep the puddle, hands already taking the bearings of her breasts. She almost said, “Hush,” but instead, “I was putting the children to bed,” like a slap. Now he is singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” all mucked up by Confederates: She’s the sweetest rose of color this soldier ever knew—and she steps into black earth gumbo clay on her way to the creek. “You forgot your damn compass,” she thinks, sinking deep, deep. [End Page 13]

Peggy is trimming her sentences into strips, heed shorn of the wind to gut forth. If she won’t thrust into the meat to speak, it is seldom because she has nothing to say. Pris spins blue yarns, hangs her pots in cranes swung high over the flames. Pris is tall, Peggy low. If there are words between them (and nobody knows), it is Peggy who will rake them slow. Could say, “You tore your drawers with me,” but no. Gutting a cabbage to wrap corn pones, Pris hands her a knife a shade too dull— sings Peggy does you love me now? [End Page 14]

[Show a Witness:]

I am rereading Dawn’s book Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, in which she asks the question: When there is no choice, when the box is inescapable, then what?

My alarm goes off at midnight. I don’t remember setting it. I carry the book to the bedroom. I am going to look up the word “phantasmagoric.” Before accessing my Merriam-Webster app, I check Facebook and...


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