“Memory is an act of redemption. What has been remembered has been saved from nothingness. What has been forgotten has been abandoned.” – John Berger, from About Looking
My daughter asked me once, “Why are you so interested in the ancestors?” She was genuinely puzzled, and truthfully, once you get into the genealogical mire of dates and names, it can appear to be mindless preoccupation with past glory. My grandparents’ generation could rattle off the ancestors, and in this part of the country, great pride was attached to this ability. The elders sat the young ones down, or paraded them past the portraits in the hallway, attaching story to the names.
The photograph illustrating this post was taken behind the tombstone of my grandfather many generations ago now, the Reverend William Hutson (1720-1761) who was a minister of this historic circle of a church on Meeting Street. The Circular Church, also called The White Meeting House, was home to a mixture of Protestant dissenters that included English Congregationalists, French Huguenots, and Scottish Presbyterians. The magnificently preserved slate carved stones on either side of William Hutson’s, are of my grandmother, Mary Woodward, and his second wife, Mary Sarrazin Bryan Prioleau. The graveyard is one of the jewels of Charleston, containing some of the most beautiful headstone imagery in America.
But much of my generation, with the revolutionary eyes of the 1960’s, were just not interested in hearing about history that was complicated by the South’s role in segregation. Consequently, many of us do not know the family histories by heart anymore. But the ancestors simply called me, when I tripped over a headstone of a Woodward cousin, in of all places, Miami, Florida, while in college working on a photography project. One might call it serendipity. I remain motivated by the colorful stories that appear as unexpected surprises, like finding artists among us (more later on 18th century Rosella Torrans!) and I suppose I am hoping to revive the Lowcountry tradition of knowing our histories.
Whoopi Golberg said, about her own complicated history as an African American, ” When it becomes habit in us to be able to rattle off our individual histories it will calm our spirits…….” Indeed. The supporting spirits of the ancestors, too, are here, with my every step.