As talks of renaming the Talmadge Bridge and removing Forsyth Park’s Confederate memorial sweep Savannah into the national debate—specifically which history to honor and how—Trelani Michelle Duncan is setting her sights on history worth honoring.
We Speak Fuh We, the artist and writer’s latest book, is a catalogue of local biographies outlining daily African American life from Savannah at the turn of the 20th century through the Civil Rights Movement. Considering the times, it feels pitch perfect.
“I wanted to know what it was like growing up in Savannah,” Duncan says. “How did they have fun? What it was like starting a family here? Any of the struggles they encountered, victories they accomplished, and any memories of their parents and grandparents, who often times had been enslaved.”
I love fishing for people’s memories and studying the cultures of various African settlements around the world, and I’ve long since wanted to give something of very high value back to the city that educated me and shaped me into the woman I am today.
To date, Duncan has transcribed interviews with 20 elders, revealing a city saturated with Geechee and Gullah traditions, one that Duncan pays homage to with her book title. Written in Gullah, We Speak Fuh We acknowledges the necessity of a group of people to tell their own story, especially because they’re so often spoken for, or left out of, historical narratives entirely.
“Without these stories, you only get a fraction of the truth,” Duncan says. “Accounts of black history in Savannah are extremely limited, but these narratives give you a deeper insight into what life was like back then and what the city meant for so many different people.”
And what do the stories tell? That Savannah has long been a place of refuge for many. One such account, that of 86-year-old Madie Underwood, is of salvation.
“[The Underwoods] raised the animals and crops of the rented land in Statesboro. And they weren’t allowed to sell to anyone other than the landowner without permission,” Duncan recalls. “Madie’s father decided to take his chances and sell a pig in order to buy his children gifts one Christmas. When the landowner found out, he gathered a crew to kill her father.”
In We Speak Fuh We, Underwood describes how her father purchased train tickets for his family and plotted how to arrive at the station at the exact time on the ticket for fear of being caught and killed. When the morning came, an opportune thunderstorm helped her family escape—two parents, all eight children and a chicken coop—covered in quilts in a horse and buggy.
I wrote a poem titled I’ma Write a Book, which weaves together excerpts from interviews I’ve done. I read it to elders before interviewing them to more fully introduce the scope of the project and the types of stories I need from them.
While some of the stories in We Speak Fuh We are hard to swallow, Duncan says the anthology as a whole reveals a proud and community-oriented Savannah, one that can shape the future of the city if it’s allowed to share its past.
“For our generation, We Speak Fuh We reinforces many values that have seemingly become lost, such as that solid sense of community, seeing one another as your brother or sister, and really being there for one another,” muses Duncan. “It’s also a huge a-ha! about a lot of what we’ve been learning, experiencing and wondering as it relates to black culture, Southern culture, Lowcountry culture, Savannah culture. A sense of pride, identity, belonging and purpose, for sure, are gained from these stories.”
We Speak Fuh We will be published in January 2018. To learn more, visit https://www.gofundme.com/wespeak.