Hush. You could be whipped to death for being out here among the trees, on your knees on the banks of a stream, holding the hands of other enslaved folks and praying at the edge of a plantation, praying to a possibly unsanctioned, non-Christian god, worshiping life as you saw fit, without having to suffer through the guile of a sermon sponsored by white masters whose only interest was in you obeying them and having that obedience corroborated by Ephesians, as in be obedient to them that are your masters . . . knowing that your Master is also in heaven. These were the circumstances of the hush harbor—sneaking off into the woods, breaking branches and trunks of trees then pointing those broken limbs and bodies in the direction of these clandestine and invisible meetings by bodies of water. The water used to hush the sound of Black folks celebrating their notion of God, imagining and praising a capture-less and master-less future. These were the circumstances of life. This was the risk and the cost of freedom—being whipped to death for imagining yourself in possession of it.
All over the Caribbean and the southern United States—Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia—Black folks waded out and off of plantations, stealing away, searching for some time and space to be themselves, among their own, in community with their bloodlines, gods, and traditions. This practice of gathering—sometimes called a hush harbor or brush arbor or bush arbor—is the beginning of the improvisational practice of Black folks imagining themselves outside the deracination of slavery. Freedom’s first expression is that of a hush, some quiet in the maelstrom of plantation life. Some elsewhere, some otherwise.
I have been searching for where I might go, how I might bring myself some measure of peace, some quiet in the middle of what feels like catastrophe—the coronavirus pandemic, the ratcheting up of racism and anti-Blackness in the United States, the killing of Black folks by the police, state legislatures seeking to pass laws that forbid the teaching of the several genocides that our forefathers and mothers used to hew this country from the alleged wilderness, from the nothing that was already something. Our deaths seem to be in every siren—whether ambulance or police. In the floodwaters and forest fires. In going down to the rambles of a park to watch birds or merely sitting at the edge of a river and reading a book. Sometimes, our deaths are in walking to the mailbox. Shortly after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, my daughter asked me, while walking down the street to collect the mail, if the sirens we heard were coming to kill us as they had killed Floyd. A few days later, more sirens, and my daughter pulling her face away from a bird’s nest that had been woven in our little pines in our front yard, my daughter, again, asking if those sirens, too, were coming to kill her. Since the death of George Floyd, when my daughter hears sirens, the question always follows: Who have the sirens come to kill? My answer: “I don’t know. Hopefully, no one.” I never promise her that the sirens don’t mean death, that someone’s death may not be at the end of them. I cannot offer her this easy solace. Nor do I want to. Our deaths from sea to shining sea. All of it gratuitously displayed on screens in bars, at our jobs, in our homes, our deaths—the deaths of our kin—traveling in our pockets.
Where is there to go when our deaths feel so imminent, as if waiting for us in front of the case of oranges in the produce aisle at the grocery store, in my daughter’s every question, in her face when a siren comes blaring past the car? How did our people build peace during slavery when they were spied-on and speculated flesh? How did they dredge it up from swamps, lift it out of rivers in the midst of banal and sometimes outlandish and savage forms of subjection? This peace was not a calm, after-the-disaster-is-over peace, one that came after one weathered the storm. The hush harbors built in hollows, dug out from ditches, erected in the middle of forests, existed within the confines and borders of the plantation. Sometimes, hush harbors appeared in the middle of a slave cabin. The peace, the hush enslaved folks sought was dirty, impure, catch-as-catch-can, enacted in the middle of disaster. How did enslaved Black folks create peace right there in the uprooting din of slavery?
And might we, we whose community is occupied and patrolled by the police, we who die at higher rates from disease because we cannot access the medicines or infrastructures of health that our white peers can, we who are the center of the carceral state’s dreams, might we need to call on this tradition of seeking a hush, some peace in the middle of our dark days? What would the architecture of our peace look like? What is the practice? What would our ecstasy look like? In Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, Albert J. Raboteau cites archival records that describe the ecstatic nature of these clandestine meetings during slavery: “If anyone became animated and cried out, the others would quickly stop the noise by placing their hands over the offender’s mouth.” Shouting, courting ecstasy, were essential to the hush, to the peace enslaved folks sought while subjugated. It’s ironic, for sure, that one must seek quiet, some peace through noise, through ecstatic movement, but this irony is the vernacular physics, the vernacular subversiveness, of surviving and imagining life inside a nation that thrives through and on its genocides, through deciding if and when you will live and if and when you will die.
Might we need to go down into the wilderness again, reconvene what our ancestors knew resided there when we collected ourselves near those bodies of water? I’ve been thinking about what this might look like, what we might need to know and feel with the warming up of the planet, with our children being attacked in schools, with my daughter being told her skin was “feo” by one of her white classmates. What might we need to bring again to each other that cannot be hewn out of marching down the brightly lit thoroughfares of our city shouting, “NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!” or petitioning our negligent legislators for rights and redress?
So down into the rambles and hollows of books I went, looking to find what our ancestors left in the archives, in their recorded testimony, in the opacity, pauses, and ambiguity of their description of hush harbors. I went looking to understand how I might cultivate not only a little peace for myself but for friends here in Austin: Starla, Ashante, Tyson; for Naima, my daughter, and her mother, Monica. For us. How might they and their gifts help me bring peace close, hold ever-roaming peace still for a moment? Starla, whose singing voice sounds as if scooped up and out from the earth’s inside, a knot of flame, brown and rich as a muddy diamond. Ashante, who practices care as an art, who brings fish and loaves of bread and water to the mouths of the hungry, who gives and gives even when they have little to give. Tyson, who hunts and knows the earth, whose large hands are never diminished in caring for the sick in his nursing job. Sometimes, I see in us a hurt, a desire to heal the hurt in others. But when we get together, what rejoicing sometimes spills from us, rings in the house, shakes the very walls of our dungeons? So I searched in Raboteau’s Slave Religion, Noel Leo Erskine’s Plantation Church, Paul Harvey’s Through the Storm, Through the Night. But I was not prepared for where the archive, and where my ancestors, would send me.
When, as a teenager, my grandmother moved from South Carolina to New Jersey in 1954, she went from attending a white clapboard two-room schoolhouse in a small, one-road town, where a King James Version of the Bible was the only school book, to Burlington City High, a high school near Rancocas Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, Philadelphia’s skyline emerging just behind the chemical plant and factory smog. At Burlington City High, a school several hundred times larger than what she grew up with in Black Creek, my grandmother fell in love with physics, graduated two years early, and fielded scholarship offers from various colleges. This was 1956. Her father, however, forbade her from going to college because, as he said, women who went off to college just got pregnant, brought the baby home, and he would be responsible to raise the child. And he was too old for that.
My grandmother often told this story in the evenings while my mother, who was in college, and I would be eating dinner or doing our own school work at the table beneath all those spider plants that hung from every available shelf and cabinet in her house. Since my grandmother wasn’t allowed to go to college, she did what most young women in her position did: she married and started a family with my grandfather, who would come by the high school in his Navy uniform, with his winning smile and laughter, to court her. Because there were very few job prospects, she sought out any employment she could find. Her sisters and cousins who had also come North had become domestics, cleaning house for wealthier white folks in Medford Lakes, Moorestown, and Cherry Hill; they suggested she do the same and brought her along to help them clean the larger homes. Eventually, my grandmother started to build up her own list of clients—the Lazars, the Parones, the Goldsteins, the Rostans. But she also cleaned house for Black women who taught at Temple University and Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), some of the first Black women to earn PhDs from universities and colleges like George Washington University.
Whenever my sister or I were sick, or there was an unexpected day off from school, my grandmother would take us to the houses of Dr. Gloria Dickerson and Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas. With a vacuum cord coiled in her hand, she’d urge me into their libraries, to look at the books on the shelves, not to be afraid of the African masks on the walls, the wooden faces, their open mouths. Papers spilled from the desks, all sorts of scribblings that I didn’t understand, but my grandmother would later tell me were the beginnings, middles, and ends of books and essays they were writing. They wrote on Black women and slavery and work, and about other books, other writers. Often this work on Black women sent them off to libraries and to archives, a word I wouldn’t learn until graduate school. When they weren’t away sorting through old books and dusty file folders, these educated Black women worked from home, which I had not seen before. My grandmother and mother—and all the women I knew really—left the house for the majority of the day, worked in somebody’s office, bank, restaurant, grocery store, beauty salon, hospital, or house.
After school, I’d let my sister and me into our house, and after making sure homework was complete and snacks were eaten, only then were we allowed to traipse about the neighborhood, jumping fences, playing jailbreak, kill-the-man, and hot peas and butter—all games whose reward was dodging violence: a belt, a slap, a tackle. None of the academic Black women my grandmother tended house for had children. They spent their time researching or hosting parties in the evenings that my grandmother sometimes worked. Like my grandmother and great-aunts, they spoke loudly when on the phone. While my grandmother cleaned, I sat quite still in their living rooms or studies if they weren’t occupied, listening to their voices on the phone, ear-hustling, trying to catch a little gossip, though mostly getting quite bored.
Over cups of tea, my grandmother sat with them, the Doctors, at their kitchen counters or in their living rooms, talking and laughing. They were never without their titles despite the intimacy my grandmother shared with them. In fact, their titles invoked or realized an intimacy for her. It might have been my grandmother bringing something far-off near: her reifying her desire to go to college and get a PhD; her defying her father’s proclamation and order that women who went off to college became a burden. Saying their names—Dr. Gloria Dickerson, Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas—defied the yoke, the burden my great-grandfather had placed upon her, made the impossible not just possible but reality. The invisible visible.
It was Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas’s name that would lead me back to my grandmother in my search for peace, for evidence of the hush harbor. While reading Erskine’s Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery, I happened upon a quote that looked as if it might lead me to an important primary source. Hush harbors were clandestine meetings organized by folks who were not always literate, and the possibility of a record or some archive existing was unlikely. I was prepared to read absence—not to fill it in but to actually read it. To allow absence its opacity and fragmentation, to live with its ruptures and raptures, its discontinuities and disquisitions. To take what little the archive gave me and make it a two fish and five loaves of bread, full-belly feast made of abundant scarcity. I didn’t need much, just a little direction. And here was what I sought in the testimony of a formerly enslaved woman named Della Briscoe, who herself attended hush harbors. “Brush arbor meetings were common,” says Briscoe. “This arbor was constructed of a brush roof supported by posts and crude joists. The seats were usually made of small saplings nailed to short stumps.”
Here it was, the architecture of an arbor. Because I hadn’t read much on the design of these makeshift, quickly erected sanctuaries, I did what most researchers would do. I dove into the footnotes looking to see if this quote might take me to the primary source where I might learn more about the arbor: how it worked, who was there, what was said, what did people feel and how was that feeling cultivated. I flipped to the endnote associated with the quote. Note twenty-eight read: “Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice, 6-7,” which means that Erskine had quoted Collier-Thomas somewhere else in the chapter. But was this—no, it couldn’t be, I thought. Was this the same Collier-Thomas that my grandmother had cleaned house for all those years ago? I scrambled to find the full citation. And there it was, there she was—Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas in note twenty-four: “Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 5.”
The archive, my search for what helped my ancestors survive the genocide of slavery, was taking me back to my grandmother, which I thought it might, which I didn’t want it to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to travel back to my grandmother so as much as the difficulty of facing what I would encounter when I did. Though we talked over the phone every few weeks, the conversations were light, tentative.
My mother had warned me that since my grandmother’s stroke she wasn’t the same—her memory, her intellectual acuity. She stumbled where she once was sure-footed, loping through all sorts of thorny discussions about politics, the South, the history of the family. I worried that her memory and lucidity might have been taken from her. Erased. I was fed on my grandmother’s wild, sometimes heartbreaking stories and fabrications—the mudpuppy down at the well who licked children in the face if they got too close, jumping down out of a tree onto the back of a horse named Old Dan, the “as-a-fizzy” carried in a pouch and hung around a baby’s neck to keep away evil spirits, the black snake she once rode on as a frail and sickly child, her older brother lifting her from the back of the snake before it disappeared into a brackish swamp. My grandmother taught me about the medicine in water, how to use a spider web to heal a cut. Were these stories, these knowledges still with her, in her? Was she still the same woman who called white folks devilish to their faces, who taught me to ask “what about your beauty?” before I ever read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Aimé Césaire? Since the stroke, I tiptoed in our conversations, not wanting to corroborate any of my fear—that like a hurricane, the stroke had blown everything down in her and dashed it to splinters and fragments.
To delay calling my grandmother, I called my mother. I told her what I had been working on—this essay on hush harbors, underground political action, freedom—and that I had found a woman Nan may have worked for who has written on hush harbors. I was thinking of calling my grandmother to ask about the scholar, I told her. My mother said that the name sounded like that of the woman my grandmother worked for, and she said that I should call her. “She’s probably at home.” What I didn’t ask was—is she good? Is Nan up for such a conversation? Would she even remember working for these Black women scholars? If my mother heard any tentativeness in my voice, she didn’t let on that she did.
I waited. I sat in my bedroom looking out of the window. It was December, one of those rare overcast, bloodless, chalk-white-sky days in central Texas. The day—in its cold, in the rain running down the window—reminded me of sitting in my grandmother’s Nova, pulling up to one of the houses she cleaned, her flinging the door open, dragging out vacuums, spray bottles and sponges, cleaning cloths and feather dusters, and finally me.
I called her landline, which my grandmother is dedicated to keeping as much as she’s dedicated to her ever-growing garden of plastic bags beneath her sink, her jar of rubber bands on the counter, and her drawer full of twist ties. Her collecting is the result of being a child of the Great Depression—nothing wasted because you never know what you’ll need.
After a few rings, my grandmother answered. “Hello, Roger,” in that ebullient, fluvial voice that had greeted me since I was a child, one that always pronounced the second syllable of my name as “jah,” Because of my grandmother’s pronunciation of my name, in third grade I began spelling it the way she said it. Rajah.
Surprised that she answered, I stumbled in saying hello back. Though my mother told me my grandmother would be home, that was not a guarantee. Despite the pandemic, my grandmother is the type of woman for whom staying in the house is anathema. She is constantly moving. Like most Americans, she did her requisite few months of lockdown, but with a vaccine in sight, lunches at the church, doctor appointments to keep, and soup kitchens to staff, her social calendar could no longer endure the virus or our federal government’s inadequate response to it.
“Nan,” I said. “I have something to ask you.”
Though she said nothing, I could tell she was smiling on the other side of the line.
“I’m working on this essay, a project really, about hush harbors, about enslaved folks sneaking off into the woods to have church service by themselves, on their own terms, and I came upon a name. And it sounded familiar.” I was rushing at this point from the excitement of finding Dr. Collier-Thomas’s name in the archives, and in fear—several fears really. I feared that my grandmother would find what was exciting to me insignificant, would be just her grandson bellowing on about something; I feared that in trying to get her to remember an eight-decades-ago past I would expose her decline, what of the past was lost to the past, to her aging, her stroke. “Did you used to work for a woman named Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, her name and her book are in this other book I’m reading on black churches called Plantation Church.”
“That’s her,” she said. “I just spoke with her two weeks ago.”
My body tingled. The writing, the thinking about Black folks, freedom, our invisible institutions had taken me back to my grandmother, to the Doctors.
“You should call her,” she said. “Let me get her phone number.”
“She wouldn’t mind?”
“No,” my grandmother said, the single syllable held much longer than normal. It was a no that said, “you’re a fool for asking.” Before I could get a pen, she was rattling off the number.
After promising I would call, I said, “Nan, have you ever heard of a hush harbor? Of any of the old folks, your mother and grandfather talking about it?”
She said she hadn’t, but when I described it—Black folks meeting in the woods, in swamps, in ravines, near bodies of water, streams and rivers, arranging thickets and canopies made of branches over their heads to have church by themselves away from the supervision of white folks—she said she had heard of it, she just didn’t know the name of it. My mention of water, in particular, jogged her memory.
My grandmother started to tell me about going fishing at night with the old folks when she was a girl, and how’d they sit on the water and tell stories in the boat—stories about the past as well as secret things, things that could only be told at night, while on water.
Did she remember any of these secret things—any of the past, I asked her.
“Code names,” she said. “They used code names.”
In the background I could hear my Great-Aunt Jewel, who lives with my grandmother, repeating my grandmother’s name, “Elloree,” and urging her to tell me something. What it was I wasn’t sure.
After a moment, my grandmother said, “Roger, they went into the woods and used code names. ‘Wade in the Water.’ When white folks were coming, they would sing ‘Wade in the Water,’ and all the Black folks would get in the water to throw off the scent of the dogs. The water would protect them.”
In the background, I could hear Aunt Jewel saying, “that’s right, that’s right,” and goading my grandmother to say more. My grandmother said that’s all she could remember, and besides, she had to take Aunt Jewel to an eye doctor appointment, so she would have to call me later when she could remember more.
“But call Dr. Collier-Thomas. She’ll talk to you. You might have to call her a few times. I just call her and call her until she answers,” she said.
And with that, she hung up.
My first call wasn’t to Dr. Collier-Thomas but to my mother to relay what happened on the call, the feeling of awe still overwhelming. I had been coming to this essay, to this thinking, for more thirty years and had not known it until December 2020. My grandmother had been leading me here my whole life. My mother and I marveled at the revelation, at the sublimity of it, which we expressed back and forth to each other as “wow.” Nothing else could be said.
After getting off the phone with my mother, I called Dr. Collier-Thomas. Like my grandmother instructed, I let the phone ring and ring. And ring. And ring. Dr. Collier-Thomas never answered. I called and called and called, but I never spoke with her. I emailed her as well—no response.
I called my grandmother a few days later. She had just slipped on her boots, coat, and gloves. A winter storm dumped several inches of snow on her driveway, and Mr. Ted, her neighbor across the street, had come over to help shovel it. My grandmother had been shoveling her driveway since 1958, as long as she had been in the house, and no stroke or age would keep her from it. Though she said she’d take a moment to talk to me, I could hear the impatience in her voice. She wanted to get out into the cold and shovel. She feels most alive when she’s in her body, sweating, even if it’s struggling with several inches of snow. Though I couldn’t be certain, I’m almost sure that she sat down on the step of the small landing in front of the back door, her white cordless phone in her hand.
Because I couldn’t get Dr. Collier-Thomas on the phone, I realized—more so decided—that my grandmother would be my guide in thinking about hush harbors, in the research, in the quest for how to design some measure of peace for me and mine—for us. Besides, she told me to call her back, and it felt like—I felt like this project had to go through her. It was the course of things, fashioned outside of the rational. It was in the blood. Something had to be taught, carried through, and whatever it was had to be brought from her body to mine, her mouth to my ear. So I gave in, gave myself over to her, to whatever it was she was going to bring me in pieces or whole, well- or sparsely remembered.
Again, I asked her if she remembered anything about hush harbors since our last conversation, what she might have learned about enslaved Black folks and their religion as a child. She started to answer my question but opaquely so, beginning with her grandfather, Walter Crawford, whom I also met before he died. It is one of my oldest memories, meeting an old, tan-colored man with big hands, lying on his death bed. Later, I would learn from my grandmother that he had been enslaved into the 1890s, that he was the son of his master. This memory of the room, his bed in it, there in the corner, comes back to me, and sometimes I wonder if it is actually my memory or a memory that I have been told so often that I have made it my own. Regardless, my grandmother starts from what I know—Walter Crawford, his slave-master father wanting him to bear his name, wanting the world to know that he was indeed his son. I found this desire of my slave-master great-great-great-grandfather peculiar, but I said nothing, kept listening as my grandmother continued.
My grandmother is a monologist, not a conversationalist. You don’t interrupt, just listen and, when you can, pause the conversation with a “is that right?”
When I could cajole her to tell me more about the family’s history with slavery and church, she said she didn’t know much because her mother didn’t really talk about it. “My mother didn’t complain,” she said, which I interpreted as her mother didn’t want to talk about the hardships of slavery, Reconstruction, sharecropping, and her life intertwined with this brutal history. But what my grandmother said next brought me back to hush harbors, and the need for subversive worship in the middle of the ongoing catastrophe of abject poverty and racism, although I didn’t see it at first. “My mom instilled prayer in us, to pray with your family.” To pray as a way of confronting the brutalities of anti-Blackness and terror.
At first, I thought my grandmother’s monologue about the importance of prayer was a veiled attempt at proselytizing me, nudging me to get back to the church—me, her sin-sick grandson who wore locs, that “girl’s hairstyle,” for all those years. She wasn’t moving away from my questions about slavery, religion, hush harbors, and finding peace. She was moving toward it. In emphasizing her mother’s belief in prayer, my grandmother was describing the logic, history, and efficacy of the hush harbor but not explicitly so; its traditions, sensibilities, holdovers, and retentions were adapted and transformed by my family. The harbor—its subversiveness, its quiet—was all there in my grandmother’s monologue. The hush harbor was speaking, and my grandmother was speaking as a hush harbor. She was answering my questions, my wonderings, but in the way that archives and elders answer questions, which is to offer the gift of the answer, then to offer the gift of the question that you didn’t ask but was underneath or to the side of the first query. Which is why elders often take this monologic, opaque tack to answer questions. They are answering the question you mean to ask, in all its fullness, in all its opacity.
Outside of my grandmother, I’ve witnessed this form of question-answering before, this hush harbor sensibility. Ericka Huggins, a founding member of the Black Panther Party and former political prisoner, sat at a dais at the University of New Mexico in 2006 practicing this sort of discernment. The Black Panthers’ archives were being rehoused at the university, and there was a weekend-long celebration in honor of the fortieth year of their founding and their archives finding a permanent home. Huggins, along with several other former Panthers, including Elaine Brown and David Hilliard, fielded questions from the audience. The questions were sometimes maligned with fear and anxiety. One woman in a long brown winter coat stood up, walked to the microphone in the center of the ballroom, and recalled being a young girl, watching the Panthers drill and practice formations on an asphalt basketball court, their guns and berets overwhelming her. Rather than meet the woman’s fear, her disgust, Huggins stealthily turned from it, from the accusation in the woman’s question toward what was below it. If I remember correctly, Huggins said, “What you mean to ask . . . why was those young men drilling on the court only understood as fear?” In the redirection of the woman’s question, she highlights the irony of Black people defending themselves from the brutalizing occupation of their communities by the police as dangerous to other Black people. Then, Huggins proceeded to answer the question, to delve into the fear of seeing Black folks armed, the misinformation campaigns that the FBI and local law enforcement deployed in Black communities to squelch the effectiveness of the Panthers’ civic outreach, the food and education programs, the radical reimagining of Black communities as autonomous and in control of their lives. I sat and watched in awe. Question after question, Huggins peered into the confused, trepidatious darkness of the conference attendees’ questions, into the misinformation and smear campaigns, and found the kernel of what was being asked, what the longing was. I was twenty-six at the time, and although I couldn’t name it then, I understood that her ability to see into people’s questions, to find the question below the question was not only a gift of discernment but necessary in the struggle for Black folks’ freedom in the United States—seeing what was obscuring freedom and its articulation and getting underneath it, unshackling freedom from fear.
Harriet Tubman understood this practice, this necessity to love opaquely, with difficulty; that in order for Black people to be free, you must see below their doubt, their fear—what might make them turn back toward their captors and masters—and place a pistol to their fear, to their back, and tell them to keep walking toward freedom, toward themselves. “Live free or die,” she was known to say to enslaved folks who tried to turn back or would not go on in their journey, frozen in place in some hollow or dugout.
Journeying toward freedom and peace requires an ironic relationship to disaster, to death. By that I mean you must walk toward disaster, what will seem like certain death. I’ve come to realize that the walking, the stealing away from slavery, is a type of prayer—each step is both a question and an answer. Tubman’s pistol, a type of prayer and an answer to prayer; it, too, was a kind of hush and harbor—as in “hush up and keep moving”; harbor as in “shelter is at the end of this. I am aiming toward the peace you seek.”
Listening to my grandmother talk of prayer is pointing me toward my peace and back to the hush harbor. The harbor, like prayer, was a place of practicing the invisible, allowing the imagination all its theology, orthodoxy, and profligacy—to wander, wonder, and be. For the enslaved, prayer became a preparation, a tilling of the ground for the future in the present, an articulation of the sequestered or unsaid, what had to be hushed or hummed about while working in rice fields and in rows of tobacco and cotton underneath the watchful eye of the master, overseer, and even other enslaved folks. Prayer, like a spell, reifies a potential through the apparatus of the voice, through sound gathered and bent toward presencing what is absent. What does not exist in form, something like freedom, can exist in practice, in the trying out of one’s voice, in throwing one’s voice toward what one desires. It’s bringing down the walls of Jericho, or in this case bringing about freedom, peace, a sense of wholeness, before one can achieve it in the physical realm. The hush harbor offered a place, a physical location, to speak of the invisible and imagine a bondage-free future.
In Slave Religion: “The Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, the late scholar Albert J. Raboteau writes of the subversive nature of prayer and the subsequent penalty for being caught praying, citing Gus Clark, a formerly enslaved man. “My Boss didn’ ‘low us to go to church, er to pray er sing,” says Clark. “Iffen he ketched us prayin’ er singin’ he whupped us.” The penalty for getting caught praying or singing in a hush harbor was particularly severe. Henry Bibb, a formerly enslaved man, reported that he “was threatened with five hundred lashes on the naked back for attending a prayer meeting conducted by slaves on a neighboring plantation, because he had no permission to do so.” Ironically, his master, who threatened him, was a Baptist deacon. If there was anybody who believed in prayer, it would have been his master, it seemed. Raboteau also recounts the oral history of Charlotte Martin, who asserted that “‘her oldest brother was whipped to death for taking part in one of the religious ceremonies.’” According to Raboteau and the oral records of the formerly enslaved, white folks worried that enslaved people might be praying to God to lift them out of bondage.
Of course enslaved folks were praying for such escape. In testimony after testimony, enslaved Black folks reported “retreating” to “private prayer grounds,” “a ole twisted thick-rooted muscadine bush” or “huddling behind quilts and rags,” which had been thoroughly wetted to “keep the sound of their voices from penetrating the air.” The blankets would then be hung, explains one of the narratives Raboteau cites, “‘in the form of a little room,’ a tabernacle.” The forms of subterfuge and masking of sound in these vernacular zones of study were vast. “On one Louisiana plantation, when ‘the slaves would steal away into the woods at night and hold services,’ they ‘would form a circle on their knees around the speaker who would also be on his knees. He would bend forward and speak into or over a vessel of water to drown the sound.’”
Iron pots turned upside down, teakettles placed at the thresholds of cabins, teakettles placed at the threshold of the harbor in the woods, washtubs and pots hung bottom upwards from the eaves overhead in the “little brush church house”—any and everything was used to court privacy and silence. In fact, privacy and silence were presiding principles over the hush harbor and Black spiritual life. One formerly enslaved person remembers his parents telling him not to reveal to the master what went on in the slave quarters at night when they prayed for deliverance. “‘My master used to ask us children . . . do your folks pray at night?’ We said, ‘No,’ cause our folks had told us what to say. But Lord have mercy, there was plenty of that going on. They’d pray, ‘Lord deliver us from bondage.’”