Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
I recall my first visit to Charleston a year or so after Hurricane Hugo. Driving south to north along the coastal roads, I made side trips into the South Carolina Low Country where I found isolation and the remnants of the Gullah people. I had been unbeknownst driving along and through the Gullah-Geechee cultural corridor. And I have to this day a lovely woven basket.
I mention this because a conference I had attended debated “What Is American Literature” with two heated sides: One side argued that literature is the “canon,” the best the world has thought seen and known, and well-fixed with well-known classics; the other argued that the literature is more open and porous.
In the open question period I read a portion of a letter from Annie Davis to President Lincoln in which, on April 25, 1864, she expressed a desire “to be free.” It’s a short letter; she wishes to visit some of her people on the eastern shore, but her mistress won’t let her go. She asks President Lincoln if she is indeed free and what she can do. The question I posed was whether the Emancipation Proclamation was within the canon of American Literature. There was good agreement that it was. If, however, Annie Davis’s letter to President Lincoln revealed issues with that Proclamation, as if, for example, it were a light shining brightly on that text, why, then, wasn’t the letter as much within the canon as the Proclamation?
The open and porous side argued it was and the other side argued it wasn’t because it wasn’t a “classic.”
I mention this account because it’s my belief that such a letter and the Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage reveal important contributions to American culture, history, and literature, more so these days since the people of the low country sea islands are scrambling for solutions as their culture is replaced by one golf course after another, one waterfront retirement development at a time.
Michele Moore’s The Cigar Factory is a novel of Charleston; following a brief prologue, the time period is 1917 to 1946 and broken into five chapters covering those years. It could be just another book concerning segregation, but Moore takes chances with language which adds to the novel’s ambitions. Moore’s etymological historical note on the novel’s language is helpful. She notes, first of all, that the majority of Charleston’s population prior to 1920 were of African descent. Linguistic scholars acknowledge, therefore, the influence especially of West African speech patterns, drawing distinctions among Charleston English dialects, Creole, and Gullah-Geechee. The presence of that latter speech pattern is central to Moore’s story.
The difficulties are the difficulties I mentioned above: dialect has historically been applied unevenly, especially on the page, and has more often than not been used to show condescension and ridicule, clever misspellings that torture the vocal cords. Moore, though, invites the reader to follow along with her “navigational aids . . . channel markers within the Gullah-Geechee/Charleston English spectrum . . . . to listen for the sounds and rhythms of de mores beautiful language whenever a Charleston-born character is speaking.”
The novel is the story of two working class families, one black and one white. The “golden” Charleston aristocracy, the rich white men, are referred to as “high buckruh,” a Gullah-Geechee phrase. The white working class family is Irish, Catholic, and poor. Cassie McGonegal, poorly educated, daily enters the world of the cigar factory where the lung-destroying dust of the tobacco leaves changes the color of her skin and the smell of her body. Brigid McGonegal, Cassie’s niece, is the second generation of McGonegal women to enter the world of the cigar factory. For Brigid, however, the tobacco dust clouds overwhelm her frail lungs, leaving her suffering with a form of brown-lung disease.
The work? To produce the biggest-selling five-cent Certified Cremo and the ten-cent Roi-Tan cigars. And from a workforce presumably dumb and docile.
For anyone interested, the building is located at 701 East Bay Street and is on the National Historical Register. It’s history is played out in Moore’s novel. During the 1930s, the American Cigar Company was Charleston’s largest employer. In the 1940s, however, it was the location of a Civil Rights labor strike. It’s not a moot point to note that during that strike the anthem “We Shall Overcome” rose to prominence.
Moore’s novel, therefore, is an historical novel tracing not only the history of the two families but the politics that suffuse the working days of the factory women, white and black, on assembly lines segregated by gender and race.
The black family workers are, of course, the daughters of slaves, and, as part of the cigar factory’s segregation history, are obliged to enter the factory by doors separate from white workers. Meliah Amey Ravenel, who goes to work in the factory as a young mother, is as much an admirable protagonist as Brigid and Cassie McGonegal.
Black workers and white workers can be distinguished inside the factory by the colors of their working smocks: washed out blue for the black workers and green and white for the white workers. They are also distinguished within the factory itself. The McGonegals work upstairs in the factory rolling cigars by hand until machines arrive to supplement their work. Meliah Amey Ravenal works in the basement stemming the tobacco leaves. The constant repetitive rolling motion damages nerves and dulls the touch. Segregation keeps the two groups divided in their common plight, which includes sexual harassment from the foremen who carry riding crops.
Both families live marginal lives over the historical decades between the two world wars. Entwined, they live, they shop, they cook, they worship, and they go to work, ten hours a day, six days a week, piecework, making cigars. Conditions are poor, the air dense with dust and chemicals; everyone coughs. Moore captures the desperation not only in the factory but also in the lives of the legendary Mosquito Fleet that rows daily, miles offshore, for their catch. When the novel fans out to catch the atmosphere of Charleston’s alleys, she narrates the dialect of Negro street fish vendors singing out their catch in street lingo. Her descriptive powers are superb. Talk and gossip float above and around in language born again in African tribes from centuries ago. “Union,” though, is not a Gullah-Geechee word. It may be repulsive to the factory owners, but in the novel’s historical time it brings a note of deliverance and empowerment.
Tensions abound and in October 1945, after becoming unionized, workers launched a strike that lasted five months. It’s a distinctive moment in South Carolina history which likely marks the beginning of social justice advocacy. Employees finally have bargaining power and common ground.
The novel owns impeccable historical research which adds authenticity to the fictional nuance of combining the story of one black and one white family forging friendships through struggle. To use a Gullah-Geechee phrase, the novelist speaks “true-mouth.” The book is nicely complemented by the late Pat Conroy’s fine introduction; he too, speaks “true mouth.”
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