Photography, Memory, and Slavery Time in the Storytelling of Andre Le Mont Wilson

Through my research on the legacies of the horrific 1878 Mount Vernon, Indiana lynchings, I’ve become familiar with the remarkable work of Andre Le Mont Wilson, poet, essayist, and storyteller, who has been exploring his family’s rich and complex history in multiple registers and genres. I am especially moved by his 2005 performance piece, “The Story of the Black Cat”, performed at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco, inspired by stories recounted by his grandmother, some of which were audio recorded while she was alive. (For those watching the piece, please note that it involves repeated use of the N-word, and a graphic account of the killing of a family pet.)

The story was transmitted across the generations from the artist’s 2nd great grandmother, Jennie Harris Lindsay (c. 1852-1932), who with her mother was enslaved by a “Mr. Harris” on a tobacco plantation, evidently in Kentucky Jennie’s mother, the story goes, was the enslaved mistress of the slave owner, who fathered Jennie. Jennie, who was light skinned, was afforded some privilege by her father the slaveowner, but was frequently castigated by the master’s second white wife, who deeply resented the child’s elevated status. The alternately tragic and hilarious story centers on a black cat owned by the white woman, which becomes a kind of battleground between the enslaved girl and the white woman.

I am especially intrigued by the use of actual and imputed photography in this single-actor performance work.

The piece begins with the artist playing the role of himself as a child, seated, silently miming picking up a shoebox of old family photographs. Smiling, he lifts up and examines two photographs in turn, but then is puzzled by a third picture, which he peers at intently. He calls out, in the voice of a boy, to his grandmother, speaking the first words of the piece: “Hey, grandmother Jennie. Who is this white woman, in this picture, from this shoe box, that has our old pictures of our black folk?” The artist shifts into the refined voice of his grandmother, explaining that the woman is her grandmother, Jennie Lindsay, for whom her mother named her. The boy is baffled, and his grandmother explains that Jennie Lindsay was a mulatta house slave, whose mother was mulatta and whose father was Irish. The grandmother then states, “Let me tell you the story of the black cat.”

The lights fade, and we are transported to the present moment, as the artist identifies himself as “The Narrator,” explaining that his grandmother Jennie Moore is no longer with us, but that the box of old family photos, like so many photographs, links us to old family stories. He begins to tell the story of his grandmother’s grandmother, transporting us through his voice and gestures back into an antebellum scene in front of a wood burning stove, which will later (like Chekhov’s pistol) play a pivotal function in the plot. The narrator recounts the story of the death of the first white wife and the second white wife’s animosity towards Jennie, and how Jennie contrives to revenge herself through an attack the white woman’s beloved black cat, burning it alive in the same stove she tends each morning. The white mistress is devastated and convinces the white master to whip Jennie severely, Jennie flees is struck in-the back of her head by an axe thrown by the master, who instantly regrets his actions. Jennie recovers, and later, when she, her mother, and “step-pappy” are emancipated and head north, they are provided by the master with tobacco seed for their new farm.

At the end of the performance, the artist returns to his own childhood, and, once again seated, he reverses the opening framing device. He looks again, through mime. at the imputed photograph, and says the name of his great great grandmother, “Jennie Lindsay.” In mime, he closes up the shoebox and places it back on the floor, precisely where the piece had begun. Then, when the lights come up, the Narrator returns fully to the present day and his “real” persona. He addresses the audience, holding up the actual sepia-toned photograph of his ancestor Jennie Lindsay, the very photograph his child-self had encountered in the performance piece and which had transported us back to slavery times. “I’d like to thank my great great grandmother Jennie Lindsay. This is her picture. This is her story.”We see that the actual photograph, protected in a plastic sleeve, depicts a distinguished light-skinned older woman in a black late Victorian pleated dress, standing in what appears to be a turn-of-the-century photographic studio, her right hand resting on an elaborate balustrade in front of a studio backdrop. The contours of her upper head are uneven, consistent with the story of her having been hit in the head as a child.

Jennie Harri Lindsay (Image courtesy of Andre Wilson) . Studio of George Becker, Evansville IN.

Photography as Time Travel

Wilson’s use of photography calls to mind Roland Barthes’ famous commentary that early cameras, created by wooden cabinetmakers and clockmakers, are “clocks for seeing,” that uncannily summon up earlier epochs. For Barthes, photographs enable remarkable, paradoxical forms of time travel. He contemplates the photograph of a condemned criminal on the eve of his execution, which he captions: “He is dead and he is going to die.” A potent photograph, Barthes emphasize, pierces us in such a way that we experience it as living presence, and thus through the photograph the seemingly lost past is regained in ways that may be joyous, intoxicating, disorienting, or terrifying. Even Walter Benjamin, who insists that mechanical reproduction normally robs mass-produced images of their “aura,” acknowledges that early portrait photographs functioned in ways akin to the icons of the ancient cult of the ancestors, bringing the intangible souls of the Dead into the proximate precincts of the living in ways that are deeply life-enhancing. In the resulting optical unconscious, proclaims Benjamin, “we go traveling.”

Such is the traveling through time that the old photograph of his ancestor enables in Andre Wilson’s performance piece. Appropriately, we do not see the actual image at the start of the recounting, but only imagine it, held invisibly between the fingers of the puzzled child. The work of the piece, through his grandmother’s storytelling and his own ventriloquizing of the various characters—the slave girl, the Master, the white mistress, and the black cat—is, in effect, to fill in the previously empty space of the anonymous picture, so that when the lights come up we can actually see her, and in effect, “meet” her across the gulfs of time.

Encountering the actual physical photograph at the end of the performance plays a complex role, I suggest, in awakening us from the dreamtime of the story, through a kind of epistemic shock. We had been in the realm of the Imaginary, in which the image was only mimed, existing invisibly between the fingers of the child; now the adult narrator holds up the physical image in all its undeniable facticity and tactility. We are back in the conventional here and now, and yet, through the uncanny power of the photograph, the ancestral presence still lingers, and the Dead are still with us, still speaking to us. Jennie Lindsay is still with us, as we meet her anew.

In a classical sense, the image of the ancestress functions as a kind of invocation of hte Muse, a quasi sacral being who becomes increasingly knowable as the performance progresses. At the same time, opening up the old shoebox, it appears, functions as a kind of opening of Pandora’s Box, releasing all manner of forces into the world, many of them haunting and deeply disturbing.

The Imagery of Fire

.In this connection, one particular feature of the Black Cat story deeply puzzles me, the terrifying image of the cat burned up inside the fires of the stove. As it happens, this nightmarish vignette strangely reduplicates a terrible incident in the history of Wilson’s family. Daniel Harris, Jr., the brother of Jennie Lindsay (the artist’s great great grandmother) was himself burned by a white lynch mob in October 1878. He was, as terrible as it is recount, thrown alive into the fire box of a steam locomotive in Mount Vernon, Posey County, Indiana, after he attempted to escape white vigilantes who had leveled false charges against him. In a related incident, white lynchers also murdered Daniel Jr’s brother John Harris. The next day, their father, Daniel Harris, Sr. (the “step-pappy” of Wilson’s story, who raised Jennie as his own child) fired a shotgun at the white mob to protect his family, and was in turn brutally hacked to death in front of the County Courthouse by white murderers. That same day, four other African American men were hanged by the lynch mob in the courthouse square.

is it only a coincidence that the Black Cat and Daniel Jr. died in precisely the same way? Is it possible that Jennie Lindsay, in passing on the slavery story to her posterity, displaced and condensed the unbearably painful story of her brother’s death by fire into the cat story? Or is this one of the strange coincidences of history, that the death of the cat in fire, possibly on the eve of the Civil War, foreshadowed the incineration of Jennie’s brother two decades later?

The History of the Photograph?

Andre Wilson explains that the depiction in the performance piece of him discovering the photograph as a child is in fact poetic license. He did not actually encounter the photograph until around 2012, after the death of his grandmother and father. The image would seem to confirm the story that Jennie’s head bore the results of being split by a thrown axe during the time of slavery.

The photograph is undated, but on the back is attributed to George Becker, who ran a photographic studio in Evansville, Indiana. The studio is listed in the Evansville, Indiana city directory up until 1882, but not listed from 1883 onwards. Tentatively, it seems likely the picture was taken in the late 1870s or early 1880s.

We are not sure if Jennifer Lindsay is wearing her own dress, or a dress borrowed from the studio. (Given that Becker also had white clientele, and given the intense racism of the period, he may not have kept garments that would be used by both black and white sitters).

Historical Context?

Is it possible, based on available evidence, to determine precisely the historical location of Jennie Lindsay’s Black Cat story? I review briefly what is known, and consider several plausible scenarios.

Jenny Lindsay’ Death Certificate, in Evansville, Indiana, indicates that she died October 10, 1932, aged 80 years, three months and six days. Her birthdate in Kentucky is given as June 30, 1852.

1932 Death Certificate of Jannie (Harrison) Lindsay

Her father’s name is given as “Daniel Harison” and her mother’s maiden name as Elizabeth Wagner. (The family name was variously transcribed as Harris, Harison or Harrison). The informant for the certificate is Jenny’s daughter, Elizabeth Lindsay Carter of Chicago.

The 1870 census is Mount Vernon, Posey County, Indiana, records the family of Daniel Harris and his wife Elizabeth Harris. The eldest child listed is Jane Harris, age 18, born around 1852, who is presumably the same person as Jenny. (The 1870 census, unlike subsequent censuses, does not specify family relationships, so we are not sure if “Jane’ is the daughter of Elizabeth and Daniel. Yet it seems likely, based on Jenny’s story, that Elizabeth is her mother and Daniel is her step father.)

Jenny next appears in the 1880 census, two years after the terrible lynching of he father and two brothers, residing in Evansville, Indiana, about twenty miles east of Mount Vernon. She is married to Thomas Lindsay, and has three children, the eldest being Mary, age 7, which would suggest her marriage was around 1872, when Jenny was perhaps 20 years old.

That same year, 1880, her widowed mother Elizabeth Harris is also living in Evansville, with most of her surviving children.

Recall that Jenny’s story refers to the male slaveowner as “Mr. Harris,” born in Ireland. The first white wife, who taught Jenny to read and write, died, and then Mr. Harris remarried, to a much less sympathetic white wife. The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules hardly ever list names of slaves, but do give sexes, age, and whether or not the individual is “black” or “mulatto.” Ideally, if all the details of Jenny’s story are correct, we would find a Kentucky slaveowner from Ireland named Harris, who married twice. owning a female adult mulatta and a child female mulatta, born around 1852.

About ten whites born in Ireland named Harris resided in Kentucky in 1850, none of them slaveowners. The 1850 slave schedule lists over 100 slaveowners with the surname Harris in the state of Kentucky. How might we narrow down the list?

Option 1: Thomas D. Harris

The Find a Grave site has Jennie Lindsay’s brother Robert Harrison Sr (1857-1940) lists his parents as likely coming from Hopkinsville, in Christian County, Kentucky.

The 1850 slave schedule records a Thomas D Harris in District 1 of Christian County, KY (about 120 miles south of Mount Vernon, Indiana). owning nine slaves. No adult mulatta female are listed, although there is a six year old female mulatta, who might be of interest. The 1860 slave schedule lists seven slaves, including a 38 year old black female, and a 17 year old female mulatta, born around 1843. Thomas Harris was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, not Ireland. He married Sophia Harris, on 27 November 1841. An earlier marriage record in Grant County, KY, from 22 Februrary 1841, suggests her full name was Sophia Skirvin. In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, Thomas and Sophia are listed without children. Thomas D. Harris is not an entirely satisfactory candidate, in part because there is no sign of remarriage, and the mulatta female child seems too old, but he cannot be ruled out.

Option 2: David B. Harris

A possible hint is that Jennie Lindsay’s birth certificate lists her mother Elizabeth, born around 1837 in Kentucky, with the maiden name of Wagner, which might imply she or her mother had been owned by a Wagner family at some point. The 1850 slave schedule lists about 40 slaveowners named Wagner across the slave states, although none are in Kentucky.

There is however a cluster of four slave owners in 1850 with the surname “Wagoner” in Breckenridge County, Kentucky, (William Wagoner, Benjamin Wagoner, Richard Wagoner.) As it happens, there are two Harris slave-owners in Breckenridge County in 1850: Nathan Harris owns only one slave, while David B Harris, born 1815 in Virginia, owns 16 slaves, all male, with the exception of a 32 year old black female. Harris, listed as a tobacconist in the 1850 Federal population schedule, appears to be unmarried, residing in the home of the local postmaster. I do not, however, see a clear reference to David Harris in the 1860 census or slave schedule.

Option 3: Addison Jefferson Harris (Union County, KY)

Another possible hint is that in 1880, a black woman named Garbrile Harris resided in Evansville, Indiana, with her adult daughters Mary Dunegan and Jane Butter, and their respective children. This same family resided ten years earlier in Morganfield, Union County, Kentucky, about forty miles sounth of Evansville, Indiana. Were these Harris families all connected, and did Daniel and Elizabeth and their children also come from Union County? In Union County, KY, there is only one slaveowner with mulatto slaves in 1850, A J Harris (Addison Jefferson Harris) owns five slaves: Male, age 45, black; Male, 35, mulatto’ Female,30, mulatto; Female, 6, mulatto; Female, 1, mulatto.

His neighbor, Thomas Harris, owns ten slaves.

In 1860, Addison Jefferson Harris own only one slave, a male, age 18, which does not seem consistent with Jenny’s story, unless the individuals in question were manumitted prior to 1860.

We will continue to explore possible scenarios related to the antebellum story of Jennie Harris (later Lindsay)

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