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Archive for August, 2011

Errors in “Slavery in the American Mountain South”

I haven’t finished reading Wilma Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South yet, but I’ve already run across two errors that are bothersome:

First, on page 1, “In geographic and geological terms, the Mountain South (also known as Southern Appalachia) includes that part of the U.S. Southeast that rose from the floor of the ocean to form the Appalachian Mountain chain ten thousand years ago.” Ten thousand years is too old for the Youth Earthers, yet far too young to be geologically correct.  Also, the sentence manages to say absolutely nothing; it boils down to “the Mountain South is the part of the south that’s in the mountains.”

Second, she writes that “slaves staffed a fashionable hotel atop Lookout Mountain, and they led regular expeditions to mountain sites nearby, like Tallulah Falls in Northern Georgia” (84). Lookout Mountain is at the extreme northwest corner of Georgia, at the GA – AL – TN junction.  Tallulah Falls is at the extreme northeast corner, at the GA – SC – NC junction. They’re 150 miles apart — that’s certainly more than a day trip in the 1840’s.

I’ve seen the same Tallulah Falls / Lookout Mountain error before in another primary source, whose name escapes me. I thought it might have been a confusion with “Lula Falls” and “Lula Lake” (very pretty, but not nearly as impressive as Tallulah Falls). There are a number of other falls much closer to Lookout Mountain: Ruby Falls is the most prominent in roadside advertisements, but Cloudland Canyon also has waterfalls.

The book also suffers from the academic tendency to never use a succinct phrase when a more pompous alternative is available. Capitalism is consistently described as a “world system” (whatever that means). Sometimes Dunaway’s vocabulary glosses over the facts in a particular unsavory way. The worst is when she writes “the region’s indigenous people were integrated into the commodity chain of the world economy to supply slaves.” The commodity chain, in the case of the Middle Passage, was more literal than figurative.

Her argument so far — that slavery was more prevalent and more essential in the Mountain South than most historians present — is compelling and seems well-researched. I wish that she’d avoided the errors and overblown style, but perhaps they are endemic to all the titles in Cambridge’s “Studies in Modern Capitalism.”

Written by timwestover

August 31st, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Posted in folklore

Sheep Shadney and Sheep Nannie Tea

I didn’t mean to have two Zora Neale Hurston or two scatological posts in a row, but this item from the glossary at the end of Jonah’s Gourd Vine made me very curious:

SHEEP SHADNEY, tea made from sheep droppings. It is sweetened and fed to very young babies.

The Internet has a few tidbits on this folk remedy. “Sheep shadney” returns only references back to Jonah’s Gourd Vine, but “sheep shandy” gives us a reference from the Floripedia prescribing the concoction as a remedy for whooping cough.

Covey’s African-American Slave Medicine confirms the practice in Kentucky and Indiana as a treatment for measles (another childhood disease). Other kinds of dung (cow and chicken) are also mentioned as cures for the common cold.

The wonderfully Victorian title Scatalogic Rites of All Nations finds “sheep shadney” remedy for measles (under the name “sheep nannie tea”) among the Navajos, who supposedly learned it from the Spanish.

While making a tea out of manure seems nauseating to 21-st century suburbanites, I wonder if that same revulsion would have been present among agricultural people two hundred years ago. Living closer to the hummus, these smells would have been omnipresent and familiar and possibly not as off-putting. Body odor and bad breath weren’t considered particularly offensive smells until companies wanted to sell us deodorant and mouthwash; perhaps manure wasn’t smelly until we weren’t around it every day.

However, part of the cure may be the bad smell. Do we drive away “bad airs” (like measles and whooping cough) with sweet smells: a pocketful of posies? Or do we drive them away with worse — yet familiar — airs: animal manure? If the tea didn’t stink, would it work against measles? Would anyone have thought to try?

Written by timwestover

August 30th, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Posted in folklore

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Hairy Hindparts are Fatal to Parrots

I read a lot of folklore, especially Southern folklore, but a persistent and unusual theme that I’ve discovered is the peculiar susceptibility of parrots to a human’s naked hindparts.  That is, if a parrot sees a naked behind, it will die instantly.

Sometimes, the folktale specifies that the hindparts in question must be hairy.  Quite often, it is a woman’s hindparts that do the killing.

This sets one to wonder: what parrot was the first to die, and under what circumstances? Were parrots so common in the 19th century South that a folktale like this was necessary? It would seem simple enough to disprove the phenomenon, but that is never really the point of a folktale…

I finally found an explanation of the phenomenon in Zora Neale Hurston’s Every Tongue Got to Confess, posthumous collection of Gulf-state African-American folktales. This supplied the backstory that was missing in the other folktales and folk beliefs I’d read, which only stated, “A woman’s hairy hindparts will kill a parrot.” In the tale she records, the hindparts are not hairy, but they are still fatal. In the quotation below, I’ve reduced the dialect and omitted sensitive words — the original can be read on Google Books.

During slavery times, they didn’t allow blacks to eat biscuit bread, but Old Miss had a cook that used to steal biscuits and eat them. Old Miss had a parrot that roosted in the kitchen and told her all that went on.

One day, just as she [the cook] had taken some biscuits out of the pan, she heard Old Miss coming in, so she hid the biscuits under the cushion in the chair and made out like she was busy doing something else. The parrot saw her, but she wasn’t paying him any mind. Old Miss started to sit down in the chair and the parrot hollered, ‘Hot biscuits, Old Miss! Burn your behind!’ He kept up that until she looked under the cushion and found the bread. Then she had forty lashes put on the cook’s back.

That made the cook mad with the old parrot, so one day when Old Miss was gone away, she turned her clothes up over her head and backed up to the parrot, and it scared him so bad till he dropped dead. Ever since then, if a parrot sees a naked behind, he’ll drop dead.

So, the parrot’s death is a warning tale against tale-telling and prudishness. The parrot is a tattle-tale, revealing a hidden (and sometimes sexual) secret because it is repeating overheard speech. It appears, then, to be a prude, and it meets with a commensurate fate  — its prudish heart can’t take the shock of a rude gesture and an unkempt behind.

Written by timwestover

August 21st, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Posted in folklore