Part 1 - The Digging
I wanted to smash and swirl and compress soil taken from beneath the labor of my families with a material that is materially pure.
I wanted to dig for a retort bigger than my body, stretch it out past my lifespan, make it last millennia; archive my clap back. I wanted to gather soil from the areas my families labored, and render it sterile with fire. I wanted to taunt all the confederate generals who have contributed to my DNA, and show them how impure their stolen land is; how impure their efforts were. I wanted to dispute what they preached. I wanted to smash what they left behind.
But first, let’s back up to the beginning.
ongoing since June 2020
It’s an old tale, the way humans organize the world and justify their actions in the name of living righteously. It’s an old tale, the way humans organize their wills to control their anxieties. I won’t be the last to tell it, my ancestors won’t be the last to do it, and there’s no such thing as righteousness in the first place. But, you knew that already.
I began digging for what my lineages have done on this earth way too late in my life. I plotted all the branches of my family in the U.S. back to the 1600’s - they were thickest in the South, last ‘settled’ in Florida, but scattered among the finger-lakes and dustbowl, too. Looking past the stories that have been passed down and digested, I sought the stories kept alive in census records and jail files and gravestone decor.
More preachers than teachers, hundreds of enslaved people, tens of thousands of head of bred and branded cattle, hundreds of confederate soldiers. Social purity, moral purity, physical purity, and economic prosperity were sought yet never found in southern gothic culture, and none of my families are special. It seems each generation in each pocket of my family began the same quest for salvation and faltered with sins of the earth. Tempering, enslaving, preaching but never learning, moonshining, and fighting, their misguided goals and insatiable vices sit in my body today as I write to you. Their vices will follow me back into the ground.
The instability from so many generations of weak morality has left stains in my story, too. My family worked the earth and those they enslaved without wealth or prosperity - they lived simply and just barely. Perhaps the most prosperous chunk of my family, by social purity and working-class standards in the 1800’s, were the Bromleys, Belshas, and Tharps in Tennessee. A plantation home that stands to this day, situated next to the local Methodist church in Bromley Hollow, was passed between the families depending on who had the most kids during a year, as the church was also the school. The civil war left crosses of honor littered on their buried bones. These families, the Bromleys, Belshas, and Tharps, have bloodlines that crisscrossed intimately.
I choose to look down on my tree, from this distance afforded by time, and I cannot look away.
Part 2- The Asking
I wanted to smash and swirl and compress the soil from beneath the labor of my families. I wanted to sterilize it with heat and purify it from growing anything again. I wanted to wipe clean their stolen sustenance through the ceramic process. And I wanted to archive the lot of them in a heap too big to move and too labored to leave.
But mostly, I wanted their dirt.
I wanted to mix their dirt with porcelain- the strange and fickle and fragile and sturdy and impenetrable and cutting and archival material I spend my time manipulating and laboring over reminds me of my bloodline from every angle but one- it is pure, in a sense.
So, I hopped on Reddit (an anonymous social media platform) to see if I could coax some people across the country to send me dirt. Travel restrictions were still up when I began this work; the pandemic was climbing and safety was not understood at this point. Some said yes and didn’t come through, many had vulgar or deflating retorts, but a few people in each region mailed me a box of soil. I have amassed hundreds of lbs of dirt through USPS in the past months from strangers on the internet, from 20 areas of land my families once lived.
Part 3- The Pinching
I've been mixing the gathered dirt with porcelain mined in Florida, where I grew up, and pressed the materials together between my right thumb and left palm thousands of times, amassing hundreds of pounds of ‘pinches’ no bigger than a shortbread cookie. These pinches feel both baked and dried, like a very specific family recipe, left out in the sun for decades.
Beached, bleached, forgotten, and found.
Laid out over the floor, the repetition of form is both dizzying and soothing; it is singular and infinite. Some swaths of pinches are white like peddled sand dollars, some are milky like brie cheese. Some could blend with many landscapes - deep ochers, tans, and gingerbread. All have a visible marbling of soil and porcelain - none are homogenous in-hand. One of them, from Texarkana (the meeting point of Texas, Arkansas, and Nebraska), looks like blueberry-cheesecake swirl ice cream with coral-pink chunks of stone in it. My favorite, from Roanoke, NC, is blood red and scraggly, like a toddler’s attempt at mixing red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting with sticky fingers.
Part 4 - The Balancing
One more thing about this mass of pinches- they sound like glass when you walk across them. Not sharp, but not smooth, this scrounged earth of hand-made shells clicks and strains and settles like an old foundation under the weight of my body. It’s the sound of panes of glass catching gusts of wind rhythmically, eerily. Walking across them with shoes on is wobbly, they slide on each other - the best way to make it across is to step slowly with bare feet, gripping toes, arms stretched out like you’re hundreds of feet above them; balancing.
walking on pinches