2.03.2007

Benya

Alison and i have tentatively come up with a name for the puppy. It's Benya.

Wanna know what benya means? Well, first off it's a corruption of "been-ya," and secondly hang on to your hat and i'll eventually tell you...

Charleston is full of little endearing phrases, and "been-ya" is one of them. Many of these phrases (if not all of them) are stolen from gullah, the creole spoken by many local African-Americans. See, here's the deal:

Prior to american black people being able to walk around enjoying only a minor level of hostility like they are today, and before they ate in separate cafeterias like they did at Vanderbilt hospital when i was a child; before they could attend public schools like when my dad was in his late teens, or before they could vote easily in the south like when my grandmama 'Dene was getting married; before our country even passed a law that allowed black people to vote at all, like when grandmama Dene's mother (one of the early caretakers of my father) was a child, white people owned them--much like Alison and i now own a dog.

In Charleston, white people owned lots of black people. These black people, or slaves (as some of our neighbor's great grandmothers were called) had been knocked cold one morning while they slept, or maybe they were caught in a net like Charleton Heston was in Planet of the Apes, and were transported from some part of Africa to this part of America to grow rice for the white folks.

Now these white folks liked the set-up they had quite a bit: mostly they spent all the hot, malarial months of the summer in their homes downtown--right close to where Alison and i live now--and they made those slaves do all the work out on nearby islands. Right about 1863--about the time my grandmother's great grandmother was born--Abraham Lincoln signed into being a document called The Emancipation Proclamation that ostensibly freed all those American black people.

Now, it didn't really work, of course. Those white folks were lazy, lazy white folks. These white folks, with names that sound a lot like the names of streets around here now, were so lazy they couldn't grow their own food, and they for sure couldn't get along without all that slave labor. So, they did the only thing they could do: they sent mostly poor white men's sons to fight for them. It didn't work. 250,000 southern men died of injury and disease before the end. (ironically, many of the poor ones today seem to hope we will resume this fight at some point).

Anyway, having lost the war, the lazy rich guys had to give up ownership of all those black people. That was the bad news. The good news, on the other hand, was that at least most of those black folks lived, all isolated and stuff, out on those islands.

And there they stayed. Having been brought in from locations all over the world, they spoke many different languages and had many different cultural customs. All this stuff--much like white america's "melting pot"--got thrown in together and formed one big ole culture: The one we now call gullah culture.

But, unfortunately, this isn't the end of the story. Yeah, i said "and there they stayed" but that's not really true. I should've written "and there they wished they could've stayed."

But they couldn't.

Eventually the white folks took notice. They saw the places where the gullah people had farmed, lived, loved and died for over a hundred years--and they said hell, that land's worth a lotta money!

And so they bought it.

And for the second time, there was a diaspora. The people of these islands and their cultures were spread across the greater lowcountry, and what had been their ancestral land was turned into private islands and golf courses and 6,000 square foot homes.

Now, that rich heritage of religion and language and folklore is all but gone. Well-meaning white folks have taken up the banner of preserving it all by starting funds for tours and museums and other ways we tend to preserve our dead things. Ironically, all of this is taking place right now while the actual bearers of the information--the people who still speak the language and still remember the stories--work long past retirement age and call white people half their age "suh."

And so, now i come to that part of the story where i tell you what a been-ya is. But first...and yes, after all that i just wrote i really do have the nerve to say "but first," so, seriously:

I wanna tell you what a been-ya is, but first, i'd like to add one more thing to the pot. It has occured to me that someone may think it kind of strange or flippant that i can combine something so whimsical and happy as a puppy name with something so dark as human slavery. I mean, I think that's kinda weird, too.

But i know why i can do it.

I can do it because i don't believe in big deals anymore. I admitted to myself that I am capable--as is everyone else i know--of really dark thoughts and deeds. And owning up to that has kinda cramped the style of the bogeyman that circles 'round and around, protecting all my secrets. Like the abominable snowman on that christmas special after he got his toothache fixed, my bogeyman's not scary anymore. He has been taken down to a manageable size. See, as long as he stayed big and loud and scary--or kept me convinced that he was someone else's bogeyman--i knew i was never gonna do anything about it. But I did do something, and now i can write about puppies and slavery--all at the same time.


A "been-ya" is gullah for someone who's lived here. Been here. Been heah. Been-ya.

Alison and i, by the way, are "come-yas," or, in other words, we've "come here."

And now it's time for a walk with Benya and the Deez.

5 comments:

christiemckaskle said...

I can't remember if I've asked you guys this already: Have you heard the Chuck Brodsky song "Come Heres & Been Heres?"

Congrats on the new puppy!

A. said...

I like the name....it is a good name.

I like pizza...the taste makes me happy.

liking the taste of something means that you like the feeling of it rubbing on your spit covered tongue...

I wonder what pizza would taste like if you dried off your tongue between bites...

Mary said...

I like that name! It will be a good one to make into songs.

Salvador Dalai Llama said...

Walter, you kick ass! I love your history of slavery and Charleston. Amazingly free of ramcack, to use your word from a previous post.

:)

Alison said...

I don't think I've heard that song, Christie--but maybe it could be Benya's theme song.