Spotlighting Our Revolutionary Ghosts of the Past in ‘Mother Swamp’

Jesmyn Ward explores the ghosts of the ancestors that haunt us in her short story “Mother Swamp”. These ghosts encourage us to face ourselves.

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The ghosts of the past are coming back, and they are finding their voices in the literary world. Jesmyn Ward’s “Mother Swamp” is one of the many transformative tales in A Point in Time, a collection of stories about life-changing concepts from the past, present, and future. Ward’s narrative follows a girl named Afirce. She is the last of nine generations of women who have survived enslavement, sickness, and hunger. The narrative follows her solo journey through the Louisiana swamps to follow the trail of her ancestors.

mother swamp book cover

Historical Background

The story takes place in Louisiana where Ward references the Maroon communities of the deep south. Maroon communities came about when large groups of enslaved Africans escaped to secluded areas throughout the Americas. In “Mother Swamp”, Ward draws up an imaginary settlement of women who escaped from enslavement with their daughters.

Afice must explore how her foremothers came to settle in their swamp land. It all began with First Mother escaping from the sugarcane plantation with First Daughter. Together, they discover an island of Filipino-American men, historically known as the Manilamen. Moving forward, the Maroon women’s interaction with the Manilamen grew consistent. The women would find a man to partner with and reproduce. Notably, they would keep the girls and return the boys to their fathers.


Building a New Life

This is also how Afice is conceived. While the women limited their interactions with the Manilamen, Afice could still observe the loyalty between her mother and father despite their vast differences. This aspect of the story emphasizes vulnerability, especially as it relates to race relations. Still, this vulnerability does not come without the Maroon people’s own self-reliant nature.

The existence of Maroon communities challenges the glorified perspective that these enslaved people were obedient and highly dependent on their enslavers. These women, through their own effort, became hunters, weavers, foragers, and more. Ward’s imaginary settlement of Maroon women speaks to the fighting spirit that rested deep within their souls. This spirit would then emerge in Afice as she tries to figure out how to honor her ancestors while embracing her own future.


A Healing Narrative

This is not a linear journey either. Like Afice, the reader embarks on a wading path that moves back and forth through time. With her, we must empathize with the past in order to create a better future. Her ancestors, the foremothers in this case, laid the foundation and are getting the opportunity to tell their stories. Furthermore, Ward stresses this practice of historical consciousness, even with our own lineages.

Throughout the narrative, Afice does this by speaking in the collective “we” when referring to her actions, because her actions are similar to those of the women that came before. They are the ghosts that linger beside her, guiding her with their own truths. In African American lore, the ghost is nothing to fear. At its core, it is a being looking for understanding, especially in a world that attempts to deny their humanity.

This is just one of Jesmyn Ward’s many haunting tales. She also wrote Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Sing, Unburied, Sing. These stories offer different perspectives from characters young and old, ancient and modern, to unravel the complexities of finding freedom in an oppressive world.

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