People say you crazy to remember. But I ain‘t afraid to remember. I try to remember out loud. I keep my memories alive. I feed them. I got to feed them otherwise they‘d eat me up. I got memories go way back. I‘m carrying them for a lot of folk. All the old timey folks. I‘m carrying their memories and I‘m carrying my own. If you don‘t want it I got to find somebody else. I‘m getting old. Going on three hundred years now. That‘s what Miss Tyler told me. Two hundred eighty five by my count.
Aunt Ester, the recurrent voice of legacy in August Wilson’s cycle of Pittsburgh plays, counts herself as 285 years old. Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904. Counting backwards comes to 1619, when Aunt Ester counts herself as born, borne forward, driven forward by the wind in the sails of the first slave ship to deliver human merchandise to Jamestown, VA, She is born to her new self as slave, torn from home, her kin, her old name, her African histories. She has chosen neither to die, nor to kill, not yet following all the slaves who starved themselves to death, or jumped in the ocean, or rose up to slaughter their masters, inviting bloody reprisal, often by torture. Aunt Ester has chosen to remain alive, as ancestor carrying forward the memories that might be otherwise be lost, choosing not to leave the men and women she has claimed as kin to drown in a present without the foundations or structures of memory.
Marcus Rediker, author of Slave Ship and Amistad, history professor at the University of Pittsburgh writes of the kinship that was born in fellow-suffering and fellow-care, the chosen kinship that was the crux of survival.
Slowly…the idiom of kinship broadened, from immediate family to messes to workmates, to friends, to country men and -women, to the whole of the lower deck…They built “new connexions”: they were “shipmates.”…Dr Thomas Winterbottom explained the significance of the term. He worked as a physician in the Sierra Leone colony in the early 1790s and observed the connection between kinship in Africa, aboard the ship, and in the New World. He noted that at a certain age “the title of pa, of father, is prefixed to the names of the men, as a token of respect,” and the “title of ma, or mother, is also added to the names of the women…it is worthy of remark that those unfortunate people who have gone to the West Indies in the same vessel, ever after retain for each other a strong and tender affection: with them the term ‘shipmate’ is almost equivalent to that of brother or sister……Such kinship would be extended when those who sailed together on a ship would later instruct their children to call their shipmates “uncle or “aunt…”
Aunt Ester chooses to adopt Citizen and Black Mary into her home at 1839 Wylie in the Hill District, and to care for them as though they were family. She chooses to tell stories, to instruct Black Mary how to cook and clean, to soul-cleanse the troubled minds of all her chosen kin by re-enacting the slave ship’s journey backward to the City of Bones, by singing lullabies to Citizen.
Rediker reports the observations of primary source Seaman Butterworth’s who voyaged on the slave ship Hudibras.
He noted how one nameless woman was “universally esteemed” among the bondswomen…She was an “oracle of literature” – an “orator” and a “songstress.” One of her main purposes was to “render more easy the hours of her sisters in exile.” When this woman spoke or sang, the female slaves of the Hudibras arranged themselves on the quarterdeck in circles…The singer stood, or rather knelt, at the center of the inner circle, singing “slow airs, of a pathetic nature…Butterworth surmised that “they might be speaking of friends far distant, and of homes now no more.” She also gave orations, some of which, Butterworth believed were recitations from memory, perhaps epic poetry. These pieces “moved the passions; exiting joy or grief, pleasure or pain…” The surrounding women and girls were closely involved in the event through the traditional African pattern of call-and-response. They joined in as “a kind of chorus, at the close of particular sentences.” It was a deeply communal occasion and an “air of solemnity ran through the whole.” The effect, even on the young Englishman who could not understand the words, was moving: he found, to his surprise, that he “shed tears of involuntary sympathy.”
Down through the centuries, Aunt Ester sings the blues.