(I began this post in 2012, but never finished it. It is meant as a history of my relationship to MEP. I don’t know why I left it a draft for so long, but I just finished it up and here it is.)
When I was 15, my family visited San Francisco during the Xmas of 1956. My mom was from there, our family had roots there, and her sister still lived in Nearby San Mateo where she was finishing her degrees in Anthropology. I was taking my first anthropology class at the time, from Joseph Epes Brown, an unusual class for high school, but I was delighted I had an aunt in the field already. I spent much of my visit roaming her bookshelves. She had a copy of the Sacred Pipe, Joe’s followup to Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. This gave me even a bigger crush on Joe, that she liked it, but I had already read it.
Then my eyes fell on a book by Helen Holdridge. It was called, Mammy Pleasant. I read the first few pages of the book- until she arrived in San Francisco with growing horror and repeated some of the stuff it said to my mom, who then forbade me to finish it. It was my first true crime novel, so to speak and left an indelible impression on me. My mom and aunt talked a bit about it and my aunt concurred with my mother that the book was sheer yellow journalism of the worst kind. I didn’t even understand what yellow journalism was.
My mom was born about 15 years after MEP died, my aunt 18,but they had family memories of her that were warm. They thought she was impeccable and had moved in the highest circles of early SF society and had arrived about the same time our family had, in the early 1850’s.
My grandmother was 10 when MEP died and her parents had property near MEP’s in Berkeley, though maybe MEP’s was in Oakland. Anyway, my grandmother knew who MEP was because her parents talked about her fall from grace and said they didn’t believe the half of it. That is about all of the family memories, but it was enough to make me remember her in 1971-2, when my husband inherited his grandmother’s books. She had a lot of travel books, at least 7-8 about Tibet alone, which was very exciting….. then I saw a copy of Mammy Pleasant… of course I read it through immediately. I had such mixed feeling about her. She was wonderful in so many ways, a here in the Emancipation Movement, but HH was saying she was a liar, a thief, a madam, a baby eater, a serial murderer, a voodooist, an abortionist and baby stealer. I had difficultly and kind of thought where there was smoke, there was fire and put it aside.
I had a vague recollection of the paper my roommate sophomore year in college wrote on Vodoun. I knew it was a legitimate African Diasporal Religion, not a bunch of curses, so I found it fascinating that MEP had connections to voodoo- as voudun was called in those days, even by Metraux and Herskovitz, which were the books she used.
In 1985, I enrolled my 4 year old daughter in a friend’s (Barbea Williams) dance classes. Barbea taught ballet and Katherine Dunham technique, which I like, as it is dynamically very similar to Martha Graham’s work, which was my professional dance training. The following year she got pregnant and hired a troupe from back east to come teach for her. This troupe consisted of Aziz Ahmed and his good friend whose name I forget at the moment and Denise Bey. Aziz and friend were African drummers and Denise was an African dancer, trained by Ladji Camera, and she is a world class dancer. Zoe loved these classes and I was proud when Aziz told me she had African nuances because she was learning it before she got culture bound. I kept her with Aziz for a couple of years then when he and Denise parted ways, I kept her with Denise until she was 11 and wanted to study ballet. I was discouraging about her starting so late, but in less than 6 months she was in her age group at the ballet studio, she picked up combinations just by watching them, and she was very musical, as ballet dancers called nuances.
So, for 7 years I was an African Dance Mom and my kid performed with Denise a hundred times. Before a performance Denise would choreograph the pieces they would dance and the children only needed a quick marking and they had it. I realized this African Dance training was an excellent foundation for any other kind of dance, even one as opposite as ballet and that is why she caught up so fast in everything but a perfect turnout, which she did eventually achieve.
1986, I was bored and read Mammy Pleasant again. This time I looked at it critically and was far more horrified at what they had done to her name and reputation. I thought that if the research was done, she may have helped as many slaves as anyone else through and after the underground railroad. I was furious. I carefully read and reread the first 35 pages of the book, before she arrived in SF, then looked at every so called crime carefully and considered where the defaming had come from. I couldn’t quit thinking about it. I starting asking others if they had ever heard of her. No one in Tucson had.
I went to the University of Arizona library and looked her up. I found another Holdredge book about her partner Thomas Bell. I illegally photocopied the whole book. Then I also found some articles and mentions, but all leaned to the Holdredge POV. HH was all I had. There was nothing else.
After maybe weeks wondering and pondering, I suddenly had an idea. I would look at every accusation and find a way to defend it. The image was that HH’s telling of MEP’s life was a string pattern. I wanted to reach my hands in there and turn it inside out.
And so I did.
I was stymied by the Voodoo at first, but on a visit to the corner public library, I was perusing 299.7 when a page shelved some books, than gave the books a big whump to tighten them up, a book popped out of the shelf and I got it. I looked at it. It was Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren. I read the front cover and got a chill- this was my book! I also looked at the rest of the books on that shelf and chose one by Louisah Teish, as well.
I read Divine Horseman and was carried away by the beauty it revealed. Then I read Teish, who was another Dunham-trained dancer, and had learned African Religion at the same time as dance and was some kind of initiate of a lodge in St Louis. Her book was great, because she gave everyone who read her book permission to learn African style Religion, so to speak and make it relevant to our own lives. Thus I had little fear of trouncing on the hallowed ground of sacred African rites, though I hope I had enough respect for them.
I began to ask questions of the people around me and found they all had close acquaintance with African theology, some more close than others. I tried to listen carefully and only asked questions to clarify something. That I even knew that much was often a surprise to my friends. Some times people would relax around me and say things that added to my gropes.
So in the second year of my daughter’s studies, I woke up one morning and felt I wanted to start writing my version of MEP’s life. I sat down at a primitive computer, no Windows, and no spell check, and started in. I decided to start at the defining moment of MEP’s childhood, the loss of her mother.
What happened next is I went into a dream, a kind of fever. Without deciding to, I jumped into the first person and started typing so fast to catch the words in my mind, that hardly one word was spelled correctly. I could “see” what was happening. I could “hear” MEP’s voice, feeding me words. Now I made a joke to myself about “channeling” her, but I realized this was a phenomenon many writers experience when they are writing fiction.
I had it all inside percolating for months- I had done some book knowledge and built some experiential knowledge from people who were initiated into various sects. Now it was cooked and ready to come out in chronological order. It poured out. About 35 pages.
I tried to proof read it, and every time I thought I had it, I’d find more errors, but now I had a goal. I wanted to make 50 copies of this pamphlet and pass them out,starting Juneteenth, a local African-American celebration of when they got word, in Tucson, of the end of slavery. I did and I did. I mailed a copy to Louish Teish’s publisher and got no immediate response. I gave a copy to Taj Majal, when he came through town. I kept about 6 copies and passed most of them out later. Later, I heard that Rita Marley got a copy, maybe Taj’s?I got other feedback of where those booklets went and it was a lot of places.
Well, I felt I had done an earth shattering thing. I had written a short bio Of MEP based on my love and passion for her. I felt I totally refuted HH and made MEP a whole person again. An abolitionist, an entrepreneur and all around good person.
Maybe 5 years later, when I was working on a since abandoned PhD, I went into the U of A Library again to do some research on Esteban, another of my heroes. I had to ask a clerk where the special collections were, and for some reason, I wrote down my name and phone number and gave it to her. Her mouth dropped and she said, “Someone called here asking about you this morning. I took down her name and phone number” She was shocked at the coincidence as was I. Susheel Bibbs, San Francisco and a number.
I called her and she said Luisah Teish remembered I had sent a booklet about MEP to her about 5 years ago, but she didn’t have it. Susheel called the U of A on a blind search for me. All she had was my name and the fact I lived in Tucson! Wow. So I sent her a copy cringing over all the typos I had missed.
When she called me back, she told me I was the first person in 85 years to print a good word about MEP! I had broken the line of wretched writings about her and presented her in a strong and positive light. She said she was donating the booklet to the San Francisco library to the MEP collection! The she had a couple of other questions like, HH never called MEP’s second husband anything but John James, but I had called him JJ and only her recent research had brought that to light. there was one other thing I said that Susheel said no one should know because she had uncovered it after I wrote the pamphlet. It was actually something pretty profound, though I can no longer remember what it was.
I am a scientist by training and not into magical coincidences,but there you have it; this story is rife with them.
So, all full of woo woo, I was proud of my work. I even wrote a highly summarized biography of her and sent it to Susheel for approval as I felt she had the lock on MEP at the time. It was approved, and I sat on my laurels for several years, proud of myself.
My awakening has been slow. I was reluctant to let go of the Voodoo. After all, if MEP did know Voduon as a religion, it sure made her story loud. Another Marie LaVeau. That idea was exciting to me, but it is a sidetrack, though one worth learning the source material about, independently of this story.
But it was the various birth stories than began to crack the edifice I had built. The born a slave in Ga. story came from Charlotte Dennis Downs according to HH. However, even in the HH book, it connects the born a slave story to John James, JJ, Mary’s second husband who was born on the plantation where Mary’s mother was supposedly sent from. It is obviously some kind of confabulation, if HH ever did talk to Charlotte. Hughes proved the born in Philly on Barley Street to be a confabulation because there was no Barley St in 1814 when MEP was born.
All we know is she was on Nantucket by the age of 6. The rest is imaginary or confabulated. I became convinced there was a reason for her secrecy regarding her birth. There was some reason she ended up with the Husseys and the best one I can think was that she was some kind of relative, possibly an illegitimate child related to the Husseys, but that is a speculation that could be proved or disproved by some further research.
So by now, I was a far more sober researcher than when I just hated on HH. I began to realize the entire edifice HH had created was a lie, but I kept looking for morsels of truth.
I have never gone and done any research, but if I ever get up to the SF library, I will have a field day, I am sure. Meanwhile, I just keep trying to strip the fables from MEP’s fabulous life. By putting my incoherent thoughts out there, I am starting to get some good feedback from real researchers.