By Tracy K. Smith and Gregory Spears
The creators of Castor and Patience would like to acknowledge that this work is being performed upon the unceded traditional territory of the Delaware, Miami, and Shawnee tribal nations. We pay our respects to elders, past, present, and future.
This work of fiction is invested in the joys and complexities of home and family, and it asks us to ponder certain questions: What and who is home? What can we ask of the people we love? What do we owe them? Are the things we inherit meant to set us free, or bind us more tightly to one another? For the Black family at the heart of this story, these questions inevitably lead forward into possibility and back toward a many-layered history.
The ancestral home of Castor and Patience is rooted in the American South where Black citizens’ claim to property has historically been fraught. In 1865, the U.S. government initiated an effort to allocate Confederate land to formerly enslaved Blacks. Months later, following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, one of Andrew Johnson’s first acts as president was to undo this groundbreaking “40 Acres and a Mule” initiative and redistribute nearly all of the land in question to whites. A great many Black families were pushed into sharecropping or tenant-farming arrangements, and thereby wedged in the rungs of the racial caste system known as Jim Crow.
However, some newly emancipated Blacks in coastal Georgia and South Carolina managed to purchase land from the U.S. government during Reconstruction. What was once a site of their enslavement became home to a host of autonomous Black communities—some of which exist still despite more than a century’s worth of threats from erratic tax practices, eminent domain, the complex legal issues surrounding heirs’ property, and other means both legal and nefarious. Although, as the value of property along the Southern coast soars, zealous developers contribute to the rate at which Black farming communities are being replaced with golf resorts and luxury enclaves.
It is this legacy that provides the backdrop for the original libretto for the opera Castor and Patience, which takes place at the beginning of the 2008 financial disaster, a moment of economic crisis with its own links to land and real estate speculation. In the opera, the character Patience is committed to hanging onto the land her family has owned since Reconstruction. But she is an heir-in-common with Castor, whose parents left the South for Buffalo during a late wave of the Great Migration. In building a life of opportunity and even thriving for their children in the North, Castor’s parents swapped Jim Crow for policies of redlining, housing segregation, gentrification, predatory lending, and displacement through eminent domain.
What and who is home? What can we ask of the people we love? What do we owe them? Are the things we inherit meant to set us free, or bind us more tightly to one another?
If we were to regard this story from an even further vantage point, we might see that Castor and Patience are contending with an even older legacy: that of land theft, displacement, and genocide which can be traced to the first days of European settlement on these shores. Or, to put it differently, we might be nudged to admit that, no matter who we are or where we call Home, History is always here with us, pushing up from the ground beneath our feet.
Tracy K. Smith is a two-term U.S. poet laureate (2017-2019), author of five collections of poetry, and recipient of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Life on Mars. Harvard Professor of English and of African and African American Studies, Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Harvard/Radcliffe Institute.
Harvard College '94; Chief Marshal at her 25th Class Reunion. Featured speaker at Harvard Alumni Day this year. Former member of the University's Board of Overseers.
Gregory Spears is a New York-based composer. His opera, Fellow Travelers, with libretto by Greg Pierce, received its world premiere at Cincinnati Opera in 2016. He attended the Eastman School of Music, Yale and Princeton.