Said & Done: We have missed something
Possum sitting on a hick’ry limb Hie-away, hie-away home.
The buckshot makes short work of him —
Hie-away, hie-away home.
Put him on a spit and roast him sweet,
And then he’s fit for a king to eat.
Possum gravy can’t be beat!
Hie-away, hie-away home.
Archibald Rutledge was the most prolific of the writers who spun yarns and told tales of hunting in the Old South when a patrician way of life still existed below the Mason-Dixon line. His romantic stories about gentlemen and their hunting exploits filled magazines like Outdoor Life and Sports Afield.
An avid reader of these magazines, I never got enough of Rutledge, or of any of his contemporaries whose stock in trade was dogs and deer, quail and fine English shotguns, or anything else to do with their woods and fields that always seemed somewhat charmingly out of reach of the common man.
Mind you, in his day, Rutledge was prime material. He was very popular at a time when words were still the principal communications medium. The 35-mm camera was not yet available to make field photography a simple matter and magazine illustration was still an infant art. Here was a case when, paradoxically, a word had to be worth 1,000 pictures. Rutledge was the man for it.
Yet Rutledge was illustrated. His publishers did justice to his marvelous sporting essays by hiring an artist to illuminate his writings’ main theme. Inevitably there appeared at the head of a Rutledge piece a truly glorious painting that had in it the heart and soul of the story.
Now that I recall these things, I can see that the patrician Rutledge, though a 20th-century man, was a born-in-the-blood antebellum southerner. In those fine paintings, the black man still stood quietly by as servant to the white gentleman hunter. Rutledge’s kind of life predated the Civil War.
As a matter of fact, in researching hunting and fishing magazines, and my recollections of them, I can’t call to mind a single piece authored by a black American. In Rutledge’s writing, his “man” always drove the field wagon that carried the hunting party to and from quail cover, or held the leashes of packs of dogs that were to be loosed after deer. The black man did the chores, always subservient to the master.
At the head of this column is a lyrical ditty that predates Rutledge by at least a century. The song suggests that black men in America knew something about game getting, and probably had hunting skills that matched in every way those of other hunters whose prowess is recorded in popular hunting books.
As a matter of record, slaves had no guns. The White South wasn’t about to take any chances with an armed black society. That ’possum wasn’t done in by buckshot, but was trapped and struck on the head to “make short work of him.”
We can’t tell what life was really like for black America so many, many years ago. The bits and pieces we have of authoritative black history are isolated and incomplete. There was no popular move in the 19th century to make the black American live in history’s pages with any significant impact and effect.
We can imagine that in the rural South of 150 years ago, cold and hunger plagued the black man. He used wit and muscle to survive. Without a gun he became like the Indians he emulated, an expert trapper with snare and deadfall. Few of us would happily sit down to a meal of ’possum — however rich the gravy offered. Yet ’possum and raccoons served black peoples’ needs then because men and dogs could put them up a tree and catch them.
These bare-boned generalizations are not designed to find a late-day reason to celebrate American black sportsmen, nor to chide publishers for failure to include them in their stories. Let us note simply that we have missed something — that black hunters and fishermen could spin us tales the likes of which we have never read in our white-oriented magazines. We are surely the poorer for this.
I had a charming conversation some time ago with a black Philadelphian whose name is William Pinckney. As a boy, Mr. Pinckney came to Philadelphia from farm-country Virginia, probably to find work in an effort to succeed beyond his rural beginnings.
For all of his long life in the great teeming City of Brotherly Love, he never outgrew an urgency to be in the woods of his boyhood. From time to time the need to leave the city and go back to the farm was overwhelmingly compulsive. An avid hunter and fisherman, Mr. Pinckney talked easily about his deer hunting in Virginia and the Poconos of Pennsylvanian.
For me there was a sad incongruity in our relationship. My ignorance was such that I was completely unprepared to hear a black man discourse knowledgeably and from such experience about Remington shotguns and Sako varmint rifles, nor did I expect him to tell me that in his pursuit of game, he’d bagged many fine buck deer, one head meeting the standards of the exclusive Boone & Crockett Club.
Now Mr. Pinckney is dead and gone. When I last saw him, he was living on memories.
To discover so late this similarity in interests, this comparable passionate love for the outdoors — in my case done up in a white skin, and in Mr. Pinckney’s black — suggests we still have a great gap in our human understandings.
In semi-retirement after 58 years of writing for The Recorder, Paul Seamans of Gill will continue Said & Done on a monthly basis.