Why We Go…Why We Stay

Last week I shared with you my walk around the old Butler Island Plantation. In talking with other researchers of those enslaved there, I discovered that very few of the African Americans currently living in Darien claim any connection to the place. To those of us who do not live there, this seems strange: after all, while the Butler family may have held legal title to the land, it was the labor of our ancestors that made it lucrative. However, the social dynamic created when the descendants of the former enslaved live in such close proximity to the descendents of the former overseers (there is no evidence that any Butler family descendents remained in Darien after the Plantation was sold, since they were originally from South Carolina and Pennsylvania) may have created some rather uncomfortable situations. And then there were all those mysterious Mulatto offspring of two Black parents. As I spend more time getting to know my relatives that still live there, I hope to explore these issues with them, but – for now –  I can only say that – past fishing – it appears the fine Black folk of Darien want little or nothing to do with that entire tract.

This became painfully apparently when I returned for the “Homecoming ” last summer. It was billed as the “first annual,” with an eye toward becoming an expansive event that would celebrate the Gullah Geechee culture of our ancestors and their contributions to modern-day Darien.  Instead of a glorious  celebration, it turned out to be a very loosely-constructed gathering of around 20 people, punctuated by an over-priced luncheon at the local seafood shack where we were pretty much the only people of color wedged in among the “Regulars.”  I took my daughter and one of her Girl Scout friends, thinking this would be a wonderful cultural experience for them. Instead, I ended up struggling to explain to them how – in a town so small, and in 2012 – people would continue to go to such great lengths to segregate themselves. Why the descendents of the people who had built that place would not welcome the opportunity to come back and claim that.

As disappointing as the experience was for me, I did end up meeting a fellow Mungin. It was exhilarating: when I heard her introduce herself as a Mungin, my heart leapt.  Even though I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I may not be biologically connected to Betsey and March, it is really all I have, so I’ve decided to “roll with it.”  I made my way over to her as quickly as possible and we began to talk. She remembered my mother. She knew my grandfather. She had stories to tell.

As was expected for her woman of her age, she chose not to dwell on the whole illegitimacy issue. She did, however, allude to an incident that may explain Pearl’s and Sadie O.’s mysterious disappearance from recorded history, and why Mommy may have ended up in D.C. with “Uncle Ike.”

I am committed to unraveling this mystery. I refuse to accept that the Olivers came and went in three short generations. I will find out why my oldest sister remembers Sadie O, but not Inez, and I remember just the opposite. There is also the mystery of the Mungin Funeral Home, and the lot facing Lauren’s Way on one side (my name).

So far, my search feels like it has resulted in more questions than answers, but I choose to see them as additional challenges. Some of us, the Seyyal of us, are forever moving; forever searching for a place that feels right. Others of us are content to settle down where our roots have been planted, and nurture them.

Too often, I hear questions like “Why are black people so stuck on slavery? That was so long ago.”  Truth be told, prior to delving into Mungin history, I was pretty disinterested in the history of the enslaved in America. But once I had names, and places, and dates, it became real to me. I read Fannie’s journal and I could see Betsey there, and – by extension – myself. Her womb wounded by having too many children became by womb too wounded to have any. Her tenacity in the face of the reality of her existence gives me strength: makes me know I am bred to face adversity…and win.

Why do some of us leave and some of us stay? I don’t know. I just know that it is. And I don’t know that any of us who physically leave ever truly escape.

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