Several years ago, I was going about the sad business of selling my grandmother’s brownstone in Brooklyn. I inherited the task of sorting through more than 50 years of belongings to determine what memories were worth saving (as we couldn’t rescue everything).
Among the polyester dresses and tattered furs, I found a photograph of my grandmother’s mother, tucked carelessly between the pages of a Family Circle magazine. Her striking West African features were captured in a passport photograph from the early 1920s. In it she holds my 7-year-old grandmother and great aunt in her arms, and sports a long string of pearls. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on this woman, my great-grandmother. The photograph raised a thousand questions, none of which could be answered by the living. So I placed it in a box and promptly forgot it.
The truth is my family history has been relegated to a box of sepia photographs of handsomely dressed men and women, relatives with names no one can remember. It is the sort of shoe box of proud celebratory images found in antique shops marked "$5.” It sat next to my writing desk for years, undisturbed. Once in a while, I’d open it and explore the faces, hoping to divine some precious insights; a story, a play. But more often than not, I’d forget that it was there.
My family didn’t formally preserve our personal history, and as a result, the stories of my ancestors were never quite passed down. We were a boisterous bunch, but an odd silence would descend at family gatherings when it came to issues of the past. My grandmother was blessed with a storyteller’s tongue, but she seldom spoke of her parents other than to express deep sadness and love.
“Their life was hard, Lynn-Lynn, they were poor Bajans,” she would say, affecting a West Indian accent, and immediately turn the conversation elsewhere.
I imagine the act of forgetting was how she survived, for to remember was to embrace the painful legacy of oppression. The pain was inherent in her reticence. When I was a child, my questions were met with silence that lingered into adulthood. In order to transcend the past, we’d let it go. Hence, the names of my ancestors were rarely spoken, and subsequently forgotten.
My family tree has remained incomplete, and our personal history is in perpetual state of limbo. Why? Was it that the family didn’t deem their stories precious enough to preserve? Or did they believe, like so many others, that history was made by significant people and events, and thus undervalued their own stories? I will never know. Much of our history is lost or buried with the dead.
It has taken the act of writing a new play to rescue members of my family from storage. It has happened quite inadvertently. A couple of years ago, I began researching a play about a lonely African American woman searching for intimacy in New York City during the early 1900s. As a native New Yorker, I’d become intrigued with the social lives of African American city dwellers in the early 20th century. I knew shockingly little of the city’s history and found the prospect of venturing into new territory a welcome diversion. I spent hours in the New York Public Library, obsessively exploring the dimly lighted honky-tonks and brothels of the notorious Negro tenderloin district and the cramped, overpopulated residences of San Juan Hill. I could almost hear the syncopated ragtime piano filling the saloons and dance halls in the Negro districts. These African American neighborhoods promised a wealth of untapped stories.
Indeed, the world of African American athletes, bohemia and intelligentsia was richly documented. The stories of these parvenus crowded the African American newspapers and the literature of the period, providing hours of distraction. However, I found that the day-to-day details of the lives of ordinary people of color remained more elusive.
It was these tales of recent immigrants from the South and the Caribbean that compelled me; the field hands, the cane cutters, the domestics, seamstresses, unskilled laborers, porters, cooks, bellmen, janitors, blacksmiths, tailors, messengers, elevator operators, nurses and waiters. They were the people listed in the classified ads, who poured into New York City in huge numbers at the turn of the last century, hoping to transcend the scars of slavery and oppression. They were memoir-less people, known solely as names on census forms and death certificates. Their complicated lives were excluded from most vital historic records. My cluttered shoe box of photographs was filled with just such people. They were my ancestors.
Still, patient research had unearthed scant documentation of their lives. This historic omission made me feel the gap in my own personal history all the more acutely, and my research took on a sudden urgency.
Sitting in the main hall of the New York Public Library, I had an epiphany: If my family hadn’t preserved our stories, and history certainly had not, then who would? It led me to revisit the shoe box of neglected photographs beside my writing desk. It was placed there for a reason. The undisturbed image of my great-grandmother was still nestled on the top of the pile of forgotten relations; her mute image begged for recognition.
In a rare candid moment, my grandmother once shared that her mother was a Barbadian seamstress who created intimate apparel for women at the turn of the century. She arrived in New York alone, and soon after began corresponding with a handsome Barbadian laborer consigned to the Panama Canal. The long-distance exchange led to a short-lived marriage a year later.
An unspoken tale
The union was the beginning of my maternal family history in New York City. These forgotten details became the unexpected inspiration for my new play, “Intimate Apparel.” My great-grandmother’s simple, unadorned story was one of the many unspoken tales of African American immigrants. Now, her identity is no longer frozen in a self-conscious photograph. She’s Ethel Boyce Armstrong.
Research reveals that she arrived at Ellis Island aboard the ship Cearense on the same day a fast-moving fire consumed the Triangle Shirt Waist factory. As Ethel stepped off of the ship, the modest New York skyline was no doubt darkened by an ominous haze emanating from the island of Manhattan. She likely inhaled the faint smell of smoke, unaware of history in progress. One hundred and forty-six people, mostly women and girls, perished in the sweatshop fire, a tragic event that transformed labor laws in America, and perhaps Ethel’s fate in America.
At the same moment Ethel breathed in the New York air, my great-grandfather George Armstrong was toiling in the Panama Canal Zone. He was digging a pathway to the modern world, becoming one of the many unidentified contributors to American prosperity. Thousands of African Caribbean men lost their lives building the Panama Canal; he was one of the lucky ones. I studied the solemn faces of the hundreds of anonymous African Caribbean contract laborers and found the face of my great-grandfather in each one. In their worn, rugged expressions I recognized the hardship and disappointment that rendered my ancestors silent for so many generations.
In hunting for a play, I established an intimate dialogue with my great-grandparents. I was finally able to release them from the shoe box and allow their memory to breathe. I never expected that my family would be the wonderful byproduct of months of research to craft a play.
In the end, my play is not specifically about my great-grandparents, but rather inspired by their lives. They are no longer anonymous people. Their lives now resonate in my work. I write their names, Ethel Boyce Armstrong and George Armstrong, so they become part of the historic record.
Cultural historian Alfred Kazin has said, “To have a sense of history one must consider oneself a piece of history.” As a playwright and possessor of a shoe box full of photographs brittle with age, I’ve embraced the role of the family historian.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Opens Friday. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Ends: May 18
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Lynn Nottage is a New York-based playwright.