Dirty Knowings: What Afro-Texan Women Tell Us About Archiving

Much of what we consider to be early radical first wave feminist work does not go beyond written texts. Hoping to disrupt this trend, I contend, however, that there is a different, much dirtier text, being written upon by those women who would never be given access to paper and pen. They would write their legacies in the ground.

I draw a notion of ground from Sylvia Wynter’s work on enslaved Jamaican cultural production and, I would argue, her great love for dirty knowing itself. “The Europeans used writing,” she exclaims. In her essay “Jonkonnu in Jamaica,” Wynter shares that the grounds broken, dug, and revitalized by enslaved Jamaicans provide an example of how dirt is a disruption of the white, European celebration of text as the highest form of legitimate knowledge production. For Wynter, ground is a key, and dirt is a memory of the power Black and Indigenous folks hold in crafting shifts of knowing within our living and social environments.[1]

Wynter’s push to begin with ground nudged my approach to the archives I was elbow deep in engaging. Despite the many historical critiques that the WPA Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) could not stand on their own, the ancestral voices were loud in my reading. In fact, formerly enslaved Afro-Texan women were guiding my readings towards what Wynter termed “transplantation,” the dirty work of breaking grounds to craft belonging among displacement and dispossession. It took form in the named messy practices of beginning small gardens and digging for roots in the very same blood-stained ground she recalled being whipped by an overseer on. Use of blood-soaked soil formed legacies of surviving, creating, and healing self and community. It was a jarring, intimate strategy across Texan narratives. I sought to honor that by naming the knowledge of intimacy between Black female bodies and flesh with dirt as nourishing power.

Briefly, Afro-Texan is a term I use to frame diasporic African identities found among the Texas narratives (communities of free-born Blacks, Black Indigenous, Afro-Latin). Here, with these knowing and living grounds, one finds Black flesh as a beginning to knowing Texas. Afro-Texan women highlight labor that nourished swift fugitive practices of adaptive living through cooking on ranches, speaking Spanish, living with Indigenous communities, and moving to and from New Orleans—all reminiscent of Texas’ rich socio-cultural history.

Land was, painfully and openly, familiar. It could protect the physical and spiritual matter of Afro-Texan women’s dreams, toils, and futures where the written and archived word was never enough. Therefore, ground embodied matters of safe-keeping, perhaps hiding, Black Texan memories. Intimately using and depending on ground, and its various elements like water, served Black bodies in fuller, more pleasurable ways of living than local and state archives do.

Cooking shows how intimately memory was embedded in land. Of all the “garden stuff to eat,” for instance, rivers and woods remained places of great treasure for enslaved peoples, especially the women charged with cooking. Summertime brought turnips and greens as some women slept outside under the stars. Wintertime was for smokehouses where even when “there was no hickory wood ‘round but we used the corncobs […] they made a fine flavor in the meat,” as Mandy Morrow recalled in an interview for the FWP.[2] Land was also the cooking site. Memory was preserved like the cornbread, hoecakes, or “ash cat,” wrapped in cabbage leaves and buried in hot ashes. Land created a recipe and as it is passed down and taught, dirt holds those memories.

Likewise, rivers, between dirt and over it, tell a story, what would the babbling brook say? Afro-Texan women speak of water as a method of hiding and rest. Water, as an element of land, washed off the scent of runaway enslaved folks and hot springs soothed painful dog bites. Water also met Lou on the shore while she fished, taking smaller children to the creek, letting them lay on the bank.

Land gives room for memories to be made important. It was space big enough, deep enough, porous enough to hold the abundant experiences of Black flesh—it is linked to Black excess of, and in evolving definitions of, living. Excess centered richness. From selling eggs used to build a Black-owned hospital to traveling back and forth from Texas to Mexico to trade for flour, perhaps in search of coffee, tobacco, and cotton cloths. For one, “We all pitched in,” shared Betty Powers in another interview for the FWP. Such memories in, and perhaps of, this living excess reveal that while life was complicated in violent and nonviolent forms, the transplantation of land meant that Black Texan life would continue to build meanings without restriction where they were the authors. Memory was their “[s]pace to do as we pleased, after being slaves, that surely was a good feeling.”[3]

Often, enslaved histories within the archive push scholars to look harder for more and rarer materials adamantly seeking the smallest of traces of Black folks. Yet what I believe is that in our training to find evidence, there is an abundance of it buried beneath us. Afro-Texan women describe the use of an alternative text—the land—using the abundant strategies of nourishing power. Nourishing power is not perfect and varies from testimony to testimony. It is no small praxis of living that borders, yet exceeds, the prominent lines of plantation, archival, and even material violence. Relying on the archive is not enough, though, and I imagine with Wynter that the formerly enslaved spoke loudly as they mapped a different means of forming knowing for themselves. To play with land as an early text meant that instead of getting “tore up,” there were moments when flesh was satisfied with what may have felt like endless discovery and pleasure.

Yet, one is left to wonder, in critically engaging the loud voices in Texas dirt, how much we will never know about the tears, blood, bare feet, and dirty fingernails wrapped in and before abundance and survival. What remains important here is the making of an ever-evolving archive that may only be properly excavated, or buried, by those who had tilled that space.

[1] Sylvia Wynter, “Jonkonnu in Jamaica: Towards the Interpretation of Folk Dance as a Cultural Process,” Jamaica Journal 4, no. 2 (1970): 34-48.

[2] Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 3, Lewis-Ryles. (1936), 138-141, Manuscript/Mixed Material.

[3] Ibid., 190-192.

*Cover image: “A woman picking vegetables in a garden.” This photo is part of the George Ranch Museum Collection. It is dated between 1950-1965 with an unknown photographer and unnamed Black woman. I believe she speaks with those who tilled the ground before her.

[*Cover image description: black-and-white photo of a Black woman in a white dress working with vegetable garden.]