Northern Florida, south of the Georgia border
28 October 2016
In 2016, AD Burks sings one of the best renditions we’ve heard of “Old Folks at Home/Swanee River” and keeps it real. (Original uncensored 1851 dialect.)
What is that song?
In the back of your mind … a memory … a tendril of chorded melody from long ago that maybe you heard on an old black-and-white movie on TV or some old folks humming – a few bars – but didn’t pay much attention…
Crystallizing into consciousness.
A very famous song from 1851, in a dialect “historically spoken” by enslaved African people, written by a very famous white American songwriter from the North, Stephen Foster, “the father of American music”.
A song that sounds racist today but describes a slave’s lamentation after he is sold to another plantation and sent away from his family, at a time when Africans in America were rarely allowed to speak for themselves.
Foster wrote “Old Folks at Home”, otherwise known as “Swannee River” (sp), in this dialect when American black folks were not even allowed to read or write but expected to speak English.
Man how people loved their families, so much that the trauma of being sold away from family was used by abolitionists as one of the main arguments against slavery, even beyond the physical brutality and bondage.
Maybe in such a rough world, love was all people had.
What’s it like to canoe 10 miles down the infamous Suwannee River in north Florida, south of the Georgia border, step over the underwater wood ribs of a sunk Confederate ass steamboat, and dive 60 feet into springs where fresh water is just shooting out of the belly of the Earth?
The green plastic canoe paddle dipped into the 2016 river water that had live oak trees lining its banks like 1851. Tannins from decaying palmetto roots, oak leaves and other plant matter give the water its dark tea color. I kept looking for a Gulf sturgeon.
These big old armored fish have been around since the dinosaurs and swim up from the Gulf of Mexico into the Suwannee to live and give birth during the spring, summer and fall. Sometimes they jump and accidentally kill somebody.
For long stretches there were no human industrial sounds at all, no machines, no distant background engine noise, just the river, the canoe paddles, and occasionally our voices.
DIVERSe Orlando dive crew canoeing down the wilderness water trail of the Suwannee River in north Florida.
The Suwannee is one of the wildest rivers in the United States, definitely showing us what we’ve lost and forgotten everywhere else.
Every once in a while an engine roar would rise and soon a speed boat rammed past, not slowing down.
At its widest the Suwannee River is only 250 feet.
The side waves from the boat’s wake walloped into our canoes and kayaks, gladly offering to swamp us.
“Redneck highway,” I grumbled as the waves rolled themselves out against the shore and the river reclaimed its composure.
Quiet enough again that a few others from the dive club heard me across the water. One laughed, then shut himself up.
I tried to imagine what was beyond the trees on either side of the river.
You know as an artist I think sugarcoating takes away the real. Whatever it is, art defines itself and its time period.
Drowsiness from the quiet. Warm October sun. Water dripping from canoe paddles.
But I had my wires up, tense.
Kind of like sleeping on the NYC subway at night. Back in the day. Where you sleep on the inside of yourself, but keep your “Watchman” alert on the outside.
Occasional signs of human habitation on the banks. A few people might emerge, very white-skinned, faces pink-blushed, in that Old South way that’s been original since Old South days. Sometimes shirtless, cut-off jean shorts. Bare feet. Reddish-brown raggy beards. Stared.
You never know what to think; what could happen.
200 years ago their ancestors were rowing down this same river gripping weapons against Seminoles emerging onto its banks from the live oaks, palmettos, and cypress trees….
….Seminole people originally known as Creeks who themselves rowed down on timber-beamed rafts to fill the gap of the ancient Timucuan people – a nation once 200,000 strong – who had been wiped to extinction from disease and slaughter.
Some old Seminole raft beams are still at the bottom of the river.
I’m always struck by how warm and loving they are to everybody.
At the Suwannee River on our Saturday, October 1st trip, Aubra made a point to remember “Jim’s” name – young, white, skinny, in blue t-shirt and shorts – who drove us and the canoes 10 miles upriver to the launch site.
Heavily Southern dialected, in a regional, teeth-closed manner of speaking, he said he’d lived in this area his whole life.
And likely his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on, back to the antebellum pre-Civil War era.
We drove past Trump yard signs as the van headed out of the town of Branford, FL.
Aubra told me later:
Last year, Erik was invited to speak at the 2nd annual “Slave Dwellings” conference in Charleston, SC.
It was my first time in Charleston and they try to play up the slave market as this wonderful place to be. Oh, it’s full of shops and vendors, but history is literally in your face. To intensify matters, an arbitrary group of (black) people were on the pier dressed like slaves and singing old Negro hymns.
I am literally fighting tears while holding back bile remembering walking along the path I know the slaves walked … being chained and dragged from the nightmarish sea journey to the nightmarish existence as a slave.
The plantation house looked over gardens that were breathtakingly beautiful and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that horrific things had happened on those grounds to my ancestors.
I decided to stop worrying, and relaxed one level down on my tension alert.
The sun nearing 11 a.m. glowed in the clumps of pale-green Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Gnarled branches. Sandy banks. Cypress trees too.
I feel things too much sometimes.
No big beautiful Gulf sturgeon. They can grow to 8 feet long and 200+ pounds. They like to jump.
Only once did I hear a fat splash. Missed seeing him. Ancient fish.
And then we were at Troy Spring. We got our scuba gear ready, suited up, pulled on our dive boots, and slogged through the tannic water toward the spring, carrying our fins.
It was hard to believe that just up ahead was a deep hole into the Earth you could dive into.
But it had a wide mouth and you could feel the force of the outward-expanding water even at this distance and see how it was pushing away the tannins. Lots of sand particles and bits of debris, streaming, in the bluing water.
In chest-high water my foot stepped on something hard and square a wooden beam and I really did not want this to happen, not least because I don’t want to impact anything – conscientious divers try not to touch anything – and also because I am kind of animistic.
The spring water had preserved its wood ribs all this time.
What did those old trees know before their lives were severed and flesh conscripted into war to save that “peculiar institution”?
I stepped off the Confederate steamboat, struggling to not lose my footing in the current, and stepped on another beam that tried to trip me but I kept upright and hurriedly backed away.
Pulled my fins on. After going over the dive plan with Dave my dive partner, we plunged feet first into the cold spring, thumbing the BCD vest release valves held above our heads.
Freshwater is not buoyant like saltwater.
It was dark and greenish and swirling, the sand slopes cascading like a perpetual landslide.
Diving into a bowl of sugar, Rudy, another dive club member, said later.
Dave scuba diving in the depths of Troy Spring, Suwannee River, October 2016. DIVERSe Orlando trip.
At the bottom, I realized we were nowhere near its real bottom.
A smaller opening led into the upwelling torrent. I watched Dave and Rudy swim to its edge, peering in with their lights; astronauts. Their lights made this uprushing throat of the Earth a breathing tendril of fire.
“Their lights made this uprushing throat of the Earth a breathing tendril of fire.” Troy Spring, Suwannee River, October 2016.
My new ass stayed back, holding on to a rock. Cave diving is some specialized training and highly dangerous.
My very first spring dive.
As we began our ascent I noticed Aubra pause. She held her light in one hand. She was looking around.
The entire cylindrical spring, our submersion, a melted yellow-green candle with the ball of Sun a white flame up there in the distant sky the universe leading the way home. Breathe underwater.
My body began to get the shake-shivers I have no fat but the Sun was not too far away. Within reach.
Water dissipates your body heat 20x faster than air.
“I sat on that porch, I walked through the FRONT door and I touched everything in that plantation house because I knew Blacks weren’t allowed to do it before. I was hateful… and I had no control over myself.”
“Emotions that were stirred up in me were unrecognizable to me and to Erik. He was so sorry he had talked me into going and I tried to stop acting out, but I couldn’t.”
We canoed a few more miles down the river. A sense of gradually emerging out of wilderness into civilization grew as occasional houses appeared, built on bluffs above the river, and then we were at Little River Spring, a locally popular swimming hole. Afternoon sunlight.
Here unlike Troy Spring the water was crystal clear.
Diving down into it was liquid silver suspended animation and suddenly I was cavern diving.
It was an open trajectory sloping down and I stayed in the center and it was fine.
The fresh water rushed up at us cold.
Water pooled against the amber cavern ceilings. It grew dim. Far up you could see the distant sky opening in aqua blue, crossed by a fallen-in tree that wanted to be Halloween.
Holes in the ceilings mirror optical illusions.
“Underwater mirrors” on the cavern ceilings of Littler River Spring, Suwannee River, October 2016.
Dave shined his light.
A large freshwater sunfish who appeared to have lost all his color in the dimness perpetually swam face forward against the thrust of spring water. His territory and home. Maybe he would do this the rest of his life without even knowing there was anything different.
Back up top. The skin-expanding October Florida sun.
My very first cavern dive.
Aubra laughed as she sat pleasantly on a rock half submerged as I shook off a second set of shake-shivers. That spring water was cold.
I could tell the year was getting thinner for sure. Even in Florida.
A leak had appeared in one of Erik’s valves so Aubra had gone first, and now he was down in the spring, using her tank.
One group of local white boys maybe in their early 20s dragged a purposely-limp girl by her arms and legs and threw her in. She had her hair dyed burnt violet, and a tattoo on the back of her neck.
They jumped in after her. Splashed around.
The hole into this spring was not that wide and both Aubra and I worried that they would hit their heads on the rocks.
But they and the other locals were all right, and having fun. They said nothing and seemingly paid us no mind.
I know people will smile in your face and think something different behind their breaths so I can be bitter.
In a followup email, Aubra wrote:
“The first time I went out there, I wasn’t a certified diver. Now that I’m an advanced diver on my way to master diver, I love it even more. The Suwannee River is synonymous with peacefulness. Dozens of turtles dot the fallen branches and the occasional sturgeon will gracefully breach the tannic waters, guarding their territory. The trees are bent over or slipping into the banks, greeting you as you drift by. They are gnarly, a little ominous but beautiful. This was my first time diving there. It was magical. It is a natural swimming pool in somewhat of a circle with crystal clear spring water forcing back the tannins. Going into the cavern was such a treat. It’s so much fun! I wish I could share it with everyone. It is important for me that everyone feels welcome when they are with us.”
“Most people just want to be included and that’s what I’m about: inclusion.”
By early evening we made it back to the return location near Branford, Fl.
Jim met us to get the canoes. Dave and his wife Algeria had brought their own kayak.
Aubra and Erik tipped Jim significantly.
Everybody was nice.
I stayed back. Sometimes I just don’t engage if I don’t have to.
I retreated to the pavilion and changed out of soaking wet clothes into dry boxer briefs and basketball shorts, the new clothes becoming skin-damp themselves. No towel.
Braced myself for the 6-hour return drive back to Miami. Hate to sit.
But Miami-Fort Lauderdale is its own tropical country hiding out from the rest of America.
The Spanish moss hung in curls and weaves from the live oak trees, backlit by the western sun, glistening gold almost white.
The antebellum era of Gone with the Wind and all that is so romanticized.
I suddenly had a crazy, very un-pc thought:
You know I’m not only a writer but also work in social change and social justice.
Many black American and American Indian people suffer “generational trauma” or “historical trauma”.
My mind’s eye contrasted antebellum images of genteel Southern life with who and what is often experienced in the Deep South today, i.e. Confederate flags, pickup trucks, guns, bad health, anger and danger.
Bing Crosby and unnamed singers sing “Swannee River”, 1935. (Check out 0.30 -0:44.)
Could it be possible that descendant-survivors of those who lost the Civil War have generational trauma too, because they lost?
A local white family not embodying any of those images just a young mother and father and their two kids ran into the shallows and started skipping rocks. The kids squealed, whirled around, splashed.
Local family skipping rocks on a Suwannee River evening, October 2016.
On the web I researched the Suwannee River and the song, and the music of the past. I read about Stephen Foster’s popularization of minstrel acts.
On YouTube I watched a later Al Jolson, a white Jewish musician from Chicago, sing “Swannee River” in greasy painted black face, surrounded by a whole grip of white folks with jet black paint faces, lips grossly exaggerated white, red or pink white, performing highly-talented shows with all kinds of singing and tap dancing going on.
Oh! Susanna and Camptown Races Medley – Al Jolson and the “Ethiopian Serenaders”, 1940. Music composed by Stephen Foster in 1848 and 1850.
On the web I just stared at performances by the “Ethiopian Serenaders” … and the songs “Oh! Susanna”… Camptown Races”… and “Swanee River”. All minstrel.
Melodious music and creeping horror… working its way into our senses, peeling back the American story.
Music so admittedly good and catchy it stays in the music reel of your mind for a few days and you find yourself trying to stop yourself from kicking your heels and tapping your feet as you walk or shower.
Or, as in “Swanee River”, moved and softened even if you don’t want to be.
Old Folks at Home /Swanee River – Al Jolson, 1940. (Originally composed in 1851 by Stephen Foster.)
I felt like I was standing on the cliff of insanity… like my stomach was twisting up into my head and my eyes rolling out of my head.
The American story is particularly the story of people on the land, and those stories become part of the landscape like layers of sandstone in the soil and the plants growing around our feet.
For some reason I am repeatedly witness to the American story, as exotic and mixed and unbelonging as I am.
And honestly, looking back at so much of the past 500 years, I continually find myself reduced to asking: what could they have possibly been thinking??
Divers look to the water for a new relationship, new stories. For some, it helps put the “nightmarish” part of the “sea journey” into the past.
Me, I’m just a plainsman, a nomad from the ancestral deserts of Africa, a traveler through life. And now a sea man. A diver.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Dive Log 28: Way Down Upon the Suwannee River … Lies This Sunk Confederate Ass Boat” is the latest installment in Jarid Manos’s literary blogstory Fear & Loving: Where Sea Level Meets the Deep.
Like Jarid Manos’ professional page on Facebook here.
Contact DIVERSe Orlando here www.diverseorlando.org.
Contact AD Burks at www.adburks.com.