Don Wycliff

Writing the script of our lives

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I recently attended a workshop on trauma and emotional resilience in children for people who work in the child-welfare system. The keynote speaker kept coming back to one theme: Each of us must write the script of his or her own life.

Now into my eighth decade, I find myself less inclined to write a script than a biography, less inclined to look forward than to look back. And looking back inevitably carries me beyond myself to those with whom I share DNA.

It takes me back to Amanda Gibbs, a great-great-grandmother who was a slave on a plantation in my hometown of Dayton, Texas, and who, according to family lore, bore 10 children by the owner of the plantation. Before he died, my father made me custodian of a tintype image of this woman who apparently was known on the plantation as “Aunt Mandy.”

It takes me back to Napoleon “Paul” Broussard, one of my grandfathers who, like so many black people in our town, migrated from Louisiana as a racial refugee in search of safety and greater economic opportunity. As a child I used to like to sit with him in the evening and listen to Gabriel Heatter deliver the news on the radio in his quavering voice.

It takes me back to Sylvester Wickliff, one of my great-grandfathers and a man who truly did write the script of his own life. “Big Papa” we called him, even though he was quite small in physical stature.

Sylvester was born in 1864, according to his tombstone. Or 1862, if the age given for him in the 1870 census is correct. Or 1854, if you believe the date given in the narrative of his life done by an interviewer from the WPA’s Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

He was born a free man of color in a small town in southern Louisiana, but his account was included in the WPA slave narratives because it was so full of colorful detail about life in his region before and after emancipation. Among those details: He grew up on a plantation owned by an uncle, also a free man of color who was an owner of slaves. 

Big Papa left the plantation when he was 14, he told his grandchildren, because he didn’t want to have to make his living in the cane fields. He had seen cane consume too many human lives. 

He apprenticed himself to an old German blacksmith in Franklin, Louisiana, learned the trade and set off on his own. He made his way out of Louisiana to Texas, briefly to Mexico and then back to Texas, where he ultimately settled in the tiny community of Ames. Along the way he acquired a wife, seven children, a successful blacksmithing business and considerable real estate.

Besides his birthdate, the biggest mystery about Big Papa is his last name. He was born Sylvester Paul, but at some point during his travels he adopted a new surname: Wickliff.

Exactly when or why he made this change is unknown. I recall a day in the late 1950s when I went with my dad and his dad, Big Papa’s oldest son Socrates, to visit the old man. At one point he brought up the subject of his name change and all the adults snapped to attention, hoping to hear him explain where Wickliff came from and why he changed his name. But, as sometimes happens with very old people, he never quite got around to giving a comprehensible explanation.

I like to think that he was just following an old American tradition: writing and rewriting the script of his life, recreating himself in a new place and marking his new life with a new name.