I am a part of all that I have met.
MY FATHER WAS a wealthy man and the son of wealthy men. Hugenots, my forefathers had escaped persecution of the Protestant faith, gone first to England, later to New York, and eventually settled in South Carolina. My grandfather, for whom I am named, had dealt in many trades, saddling, carving carriages, but real-estate ultimately rooted the Laurens name across the city of Charlestown- where I was born and my father before me. He married my mother when she was nineteen, and to him at least, the marriage was conceived in heaven. She was tender and watchful as a mother and he was aloof and strict as a father. Ideal.
Before me, they had three children. These did not survive. After me, nine more, six of which died. When I was delivered premature, my father plucked me from my mother’s arms and handed me to a nurse. I was not expected to live. In pity, a midwife gave my mother a pillow to hold instead of me.
As I lived on despite his rational expectations, my father’s pragmatism gave way to some degree of fatherly pride...perhaps affection. At two, he saw me clothed in real apparel rather than blankets of cotton- plain and decent clothes, unmixed with foppery and doilies. At three, he taught me to swim, carrying me into the ocean and dipping me under until I agreed to hold myself above the tide. At four, he taught me to read and recite Bible passages, to fear God, and to ride a horse.
I remember very little of those happy years. Much of what I know, I retrieved only as my father later recounted me the efforts he placed in raising me. I recall life in Charleston as a structured, but pleasant, muddle, heavy warmth like spring heat. I was tutored at home every morning until noon, then released to play with boys my own age. I recall the beach, running with my toes in the sand, fashioning games with the other children and jogging home bare-footed under the canopy of Spanish-haired oak trees- always home in time for evening prayers.
The sailors that came to the port would tell me and my little playmates of Jolly Rogers they’d sighted at sea, and I would devise games to match their stories, brandishing a stick as my sword and announcing that I would fight the pirates. None of my playmates ever joined my solemn vow. Most ran off giggling. The sailors would pat my head, claiming they'd never met such a bold child.
I AM FIVE when my father introduces me to his trade. It is my first vivid memory. There are bundles of deerskins, bales of cotton, barrels of molasses, indigo and rice- so much rice-, creaks of ropes, and tar…tar bubbling in the seams of its barrels under the blazing sun. And the sweating crew lifts those barrels into place, arms straining under the weight. The men sing together in hauntingly sweet voices particular to their race, voices deep and beautiful.
Though I didn’t understand the implications of the practice just yet, my father traded in people.
He shuffles me to a small podium, orders me to stand beside and stay put while he worked and I watch. A small crowd of rich men from town gather and talk among themselves; some offer me friendly nods in greeting. I know these men from church.
Then the work begins. The ship docks, my father disappears…then he returns with them…
I remember the younger boys best, brown bodies slicked with sweat, arms stretching under ropes beneath the sun. Their short legs fumble to keep up with the line that moves, pulling them among the adults of their race. They mix together, husbands, wives, beardless youths and boys, all dressed in tatters, their calves all defined without fat.
And my father follows their parade from the rear…he hits them with a riding whip when they slack behind. He hits them harder than he has ever hit me, and I hear adults cry out to plead for them. And, I am so confused. And, I fear my father.
He suddenly towers over me at the podium as he sells away these people. I feel like a criminal, standing beside him.
With the familiar white men above and around me, yelling out prices and jeers, the dark people being shoved onto the stand and marked by my father, I lose my sense of location. This no longer feels like my happy muddled Charlestown. I do not recognize the beach, the view of the coastline.
So much has changed since then.