Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The occult detective quilters of Gee's Bend.

Like Jayme, I haven't contributed to No Fear of the Future lately. What can I say? I've been busy. Here's a sample of what I've been doing: 

Gee’s Bend. The fictional Gee’s Bend was created by “Elizabeth Keckley” and debuted in “The Witches of Boykin” (Colored Library of Sport, Story and Adventure, Sept. 25, 1886). “Elizabeth Keckley” was the pseudonym of an anonymous African-American writer. (The real Keckley (1818-1907) was a successful African-American seamstress and autobiographer). The women of Gee’s Bend appeared in around two dozen stories in three magazines from 1886 to 1891.

The real Gee’s Bend, otherwise known as Boykin, is an isolated, African-American majority community located in southern Alabama. The women of Gee’s Bend have become famous for their quilts, which have become known as outstanding examples of American outsider material art. Quilting in Gee’s Bend is a practice which dates back to slave times.

The fictional women of Gee’s Bend, who are informally led by Grace Butler, are a version of the Occult Detective character--those private investigators, usually gentlemen rather than professionals, who specialize in cases involving the supernatural. Unusually for Occult Detectives, the women of Gee’s Bend let the cases come to them rather than searching them out–Gee’s Bend and environs are, in the stories, haunted by many supernatural creatures.

The Gee’s Bend stories develop thematically over time. In their debut they are approached by a white Occult Detective, Dr. Eldon, who needs their help with a case. He has heard of the power of the women of Gee’s Bend, and how the abstract designs of their quilts, in the shapes of bars, and squares act as prisons for demons, haunts, and other evil spirits, and appeals to them for help. There is a possessed man who Eldon cannot exorcize a spirit from. It turns out that the possessed man is Eldon himself, and Grace Butler, her particular friend Barbary Robinson, and the other women of Gee’s Bend only succeed in the exorcism at the cost of Eldon’s life.

Other stories in the initial spate of Gee’s Bend stories include the ghosts of the haunted Alabama River, a Stagger Lee-like “Bad Colored Man,” a Ku Klux Klan-like group of night riders, a haunted house in the next town over, a corrupt preacher, and the three devilish Tenyson brothers.

As the stories progressed, however, certain themes became more pronounced. The interaction between the white world and Gee’s Bend disappeared and was replaced by the interaction between Society Montgomery and Society Atlanta. More typically dime novel villains, like the mad farmer Loulie Brisco, were replaced with more women-oriented antagonists: a femme fatale who was seducing husbands away from wives, misbehaving daughters gone astray, a demon of crowd hate, and a femme fatale hairstylist/poisoner in Atlanta (the closest the Gee’s Bend characters have to an arch-enemy). References to other fictional characters–“that man in New York” (Francis Worcester Doughty’s Old King Brady) and “that man over in London who came to visit” (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes)–disappeared. Gee’s Bend, the town, became a sort of character in its own right. The supporting cast of characters was expanded, and the plots became about more than the central mystery.

The Gee’s Bend stories are interesting on a number of levels, not least because of the mystery of the author’s identity. The Colored Library catered toward African-American readers and featured the work of African-American authors. (This was a rarity, and was only possible during the late 1880s and early 1890s, the peak period for dime novels and a time when publishers were trying out a variety of dime novels in an attempt to cash in on the craze). Presumably the author of the Gee’s Bend stories was African-American. Presumably she was a woman (another rarity among dime novels), based on the content of the stories. Presumably she was located in Atlanta or Montgomery or Birmingham–the stories show an awareness of both popular literature and Gee’s Bend, something a more rural or Northern author would not have had. And presumably she was politically active or at the least aware: she has Grace Butler voice a version of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech in the first Gee’s Bend story, but also is consciously developing an African-American alternative, and a female-oriented one at that, to the white, male detectives of popular literature, especially the dime novels.

Even more interesting is the way in which the themes of the series become predominant. The author creates a series very much by a woman for women. Gee’s Bend is a very homosocial atmosphere, all about mothers and daughters, with men in a secondary role, either as villains or husbands, who are either supportive and absent or bad and present. In a symbolic sense, the protagonists are symbolically female–communal, supportive, group-oriented, resolution-oriented–as opposed to the stereotypically male protagonists of most dime novels–individualistic, oriented toward conflict.

Likewise, Gee’s Bend is a series for African-Americans by African-Americans. During the initial series of stories the white world is presented as the alternative to Gee’s Bend, lesser but still present, just as white characters appear as antagonists or supporting character. But during the later stories the white world disappears altogether. Gee’s Bend becomes a kind of early African-American utopia, a community of freed slaves who have nothing to do with whites. The outsiders become the high class blacks of urban Montgomery, Birmingham, and Atlanta, rather than whites.

The Gee’s Bend stories are early examples of a number of characters and tropes: early Occult Detectives, following J.S. Le Fanu’s Doctor Hesselius (“Green Tea,” 1869) and preceding E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (1898); early female detectives, following several in the dime novels in the early 1880s and preceding C.L. Pirkis’ Loveday Brooke (1893); early feminist characters, anticipating the New Woman literature of the 1890s and reacting to First-wave feminism of earlier in the century; and early American horror fiction, following Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fitz-James O’Brien but preceding the commercial authors of the 1890s.

It might be asked why the Gee’s Bend stories have been so thoroughly forgotten. In part this is because of the ephemeral nature of the dime novels–Old King Brady appeared in 830 stories, and who now remembers him? But the larger reason is that the Gee’s Bend stories were a reaction to the Booker T. Washington school of thought, of accommodation with the white world, so that the stories were not popular with Washington partisans–but were not nearly confrontational enough for the W.E.B. Du Bois supporters of the 1910s. As a black utopia Gee’s Bend was a unique creature, neither fish nor fowl enough for African-American political ideologues, and it is no surprise that the stories were completely forgotten, when they were not in disrepute, by the time of the Harlem Renaissance.


Full Metal Ox said...


I've not followed you as consistently as I'd like since you stopped posting on Livejournal, but this sort of thing keeps your position as a Living National Treasure of pop-cultural archaeology secure.

(I don't suppose that the adventures of the intrepid spookbusting quilters of Gee's Bend have been reprinted anywhere reasonably accessible?)

J F Norris said...

Is it possible to give the titles of all the magazines and their dates? This is one of the most mind-blowing literary finds I've read of in a very long time. Someone should try to reprint these stories. I'd like to hunt them down and try.