St. Augustine

May, 2016

It took a mere 36 hours to make the strange transition from the Bahamas to the United States, from quiet, starry nights and deprivation to noisy traffic and modern conveniences.  We sailed from Great Sale Cay to St. Augustine overnight, and have stayed put ever since.  Why? Because St. Augustine is wonderful.

St. Augustine reminds me of home, of Santa Barbara, another city mindful of its complicated history in racial politics. It has a Spanish feel.  It advertises itself as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States.  Unlike most of the other cities we visited on our journey up the coast, St. Augustine remembers that the first foreign settlers of this country were not White and did not speak English. They were Spanish and African.

The city of St. Augustine allegedly recorded the first birth of a slave in North America. It has an ugly history as an early and long-standing hub of the slave trade.  But it also served as a sanctuary of sorts, for slaves both freed and escaped before the Emancipation Act of 1863.  Of course to be protected the slave had to convert to Catholicism, perhaps a different kind of servitude, but that’s a different matter.

Unlike any other city I have visited in the United States, St. Augustine prominently memorializes the ordinary people who fought for universal civil rights. 

Monument to civil rights activists in St. Augustine.  It sits in the center of the tourist district, near a structure that allegedly once served as a slave market.

Did you know that America’s first Black town, headed by the first African-American military commander, Francisco Menendez,  was just north of St. Augustine? According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Sometime between March and November of 1738, Spanish settlers in Florida formed a town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, two miles to the north of St. Augustine. Initially, it consisted of 38 men, all fugitive slaves, “most of them married,” who had fled to Florida for sanctuary and freedom from enslavement in the Carolinas and Georgia. It came to be known as Fort Mose.

The enclave was the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers in Florida and their enemies, the English colonists to the north in Carolina (which did not officially split into North and South Carolina until 1729, and then the Southern part of South Carolina split in 1732 to form Georgia). Fort Mose was manned entirely by armed black men, under the leadership of Francisco Menendez, who became the leader of the black militia there in 1726. It deserves to be remembered as the site of the first all-black town in what is now the United States, and as the headquarters of the first black armed soldiers commanded by a black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia.

Menendez, the first African-American military commander, … was born a Mandinga in West Africa at the end of the 17th century. He was captured and served as a slave in South Carolina until the Yamasee Native Americans fought the British settlers in 1715, during which Menendez managed to escape to St. Augustine, Fla. In 1738, he became the leader of the free black town, and was formally commissioned as captain of the free black militia of St. Augustine

Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of the key role that African-American and Hispanic immigrants played in the early days of our nation.  They do not know that the first Africans came to these shores in 1526 as members of a large Spanish expidition from the West Indies.  They do not know–or pretend they do not know–that it was Africans who knew how to survive in the heat, how to plant rice, how to cure disease, how to work with animals, and how to build houses.

The European immigrants who settled the Southern states would have died of starvation and sickness had the African people forcibly brought to this country and their descendants had not been present. For an account of these truths, please read Peter H. Wood‘s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (NY: Norton, 1974).  This book, along with Islanders in the Stream, A History of the Bahamian PeopleMichael Craton and Gail Saunders, were indispensable guides to my travels this year.

It appalls me that we are still living in a deeply racist culture, that we have so far to go in our struggle for civil rights for all human beings in our country.  Anyone with half a brain in her head and a rudimentary understanding of American history knows that Black Lives Matter.



Reading Melville at Sea: The Project

The Project:


My son, B, is 24 and Moby Dick is his favorite book.  Since he was about 12, he has carried a small, tattered copy of the novel in his back pocket everywhere.  He took it with him to college in Washington State and Virginia.  He lugged it through Qatar and Nepal.  He brought it to California, Idaho, and to Pennsylvania.  Although he has read the big book at least once straight through, he often opens it at random and takes whatever it offers him, reading out of curiosity, boredom, or love.  Had he had owned a similarly sized Lord of the Rings, it very likely would have served him as Melville’s novel has, in the ways a Bible may have served you: as an oracle, a source of comfort, inspiration, rage, or despair, a talisman, a pillow, a hammer, a protection for the heart in lieu of battle armor, or a handy object with which to beat yourself on the head or to hurl across the room.

Sailing Vessel Sophia at Man-O-War, Abaco, Bahamas, where this project began.

Like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Fairie Queene, and Paradise Lost,  Moby Dick is an epic, a work of art that encompass the most treasured elements of the wisdom, history, science, and art of the culture in which it has flourished.  An epic features a remarkable hero who undertakes a journey on which he or she (okay, let’s just say we’re still waiting for her) performs valorous deeds that demonstrate or develop the wayfarer’s extra-ordinary nature.  There are certain stylistic elements that belong to all epics, such as an invocation to muses or deities, and the elaborate comparison called an “epic simile.”

Melville creates an epic simile in Moby Dick‘s first chapter.  The narrator, who has asked us to call him Ishmael—the name of Abraham’s outcast son with the slave woman Hagar, the child who wanders the wilderness—declares that his longing to go to sea is like the ocean reverie that fixes “thousands upon thousands of men,” like the instinct of all country-walkers to always head towards water, like the need of romantic artists to include a “magic stream” in every landscape, like the urge that draws people across vast distances to Niagara, and like the drive of the imprudent “poor poet of Tennessee” to Rockaway Beach instead of to a coat maker.   Ishmael compares his longing to go to sea to the veneration of the Persians and the Greeks for the ocean.  Finally, he insists that it is like the tormenting desire of Narcissus, the youth who drowned because he could not tear himself away from his own watery reflection.

Melville’s epic similes come in prose, not poetry, obviously, as Moby Dick is the first epic novel, still a relatively new form of literature when it appeared in the 19th century.  You might say that the novel as a form reached its mature, even its greatest, iteration in Melville’s epic, which not only encompasses all that has flowered in the civilizations before it, but also expresses what is great in its own time and place, the industrialized New World, the brash, young United States, in a marvelous bloom that future epics will emulate in turn.  As works of art go, it’s hard to imagine a better book that a young American could hit upon for a reference point and friend of spirit. 

As a mother, I am pleased with B’s choice of a book to guide or to drag along with him through life.  As a scholar and former university professor of epic poetry and the early novel in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English literature, I am ashamed to confess that I have never read Moby Dick to the end.  I can therefore say little about what my son admires in the Great Book, arguably not just my nation’s, but modernity’s greatest expression.  You may object, pointing to Ulysses, the more recent epic also pattered on Homer’s lost sailor. You might argue that Joyce’s novel is the novel’s greatest iteration and an even more impressive epic, because more modern.  Perhaps my son’s Irish blood will drive him through that one soon.  I hope so. 

The point of this project, however, is to understand what it is about Ishmael’s story that has so tantalized my son, and so perhaps to fathom the inscrutable lad himself, in the hopes of being a better parent to him.  What in this book has fixated my son, a child of the internet and video games and the economic depression of the late 20th and early 21st century?  Why Melville and why Ishmael, who grasps after what Narcissus fell in love with, in Ishmael’s words: the “ungraspable phantom of life”? That unstable image, Ishmael asserts, is the one that “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.”  Do we all see this this, and is this the image of ourselves?  What does this have to do with my son’s love for Moby Dick?  Will I understand him better if I scrutinize this novel, this his personal Bible?

My project, then, deeply personal and utterly divorced from the politics that drove me from academia five years ago.  Having lately taken to sea myself, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, this project is also an effort “grin and bear”  my own transition “from schoolmaster to sailor,” a metamorphosis that Ishmael also finds difficult, or “keen.”  As an agnostic, which is nothing more than a non-committing atheist, I will keep my commentary on this Bible, Moby Dick,  as a sort of religious duty, covering one chapter every day.   Perhaps by doing so I will grasp something about my son that has so far eluded me.  If not, I hope I will at least reach towards a better understanding of my own relationship to him.  Ishmael implies that narcissistic desire, which drives him to sea, is universal,  the root of all journeys of exploration, all culture, all art. Like Ishmael, like Narcissus, in this effort I am searching for myself. But as Melville suggests, what we are chasing after may be no more or less than “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”