Why Write About Enslaved People?

“Why do you always write about slaves?”

This is a question I get from time to time. I have come across publishers who say, point blank, “no slave stories.” Some believe that the only reason to write about slavery is to condemn it; anything else glorifies it. And, after all, they say, there is more to black history than slavery.

So, why am I drawn to “slave stories”? In school I learned that black people came to this country as slaves. End of lesson. It seemed that you could only go back so far in black history before you hit a wall. Even my teachers did not know what lay on the other side.

But through the years, the wall has crumbled. Little holes have appeared. I have peeked through. Voice have drifted over the top. I have listened.

There was the slave who was a noted chef. Another who was the second best horseman in the country. There was the enslaved double agent during the Revolution. A woman from that same era argued and won her case for freedom in court, citing the Declaration of Independence.

I learned about family separations, sexual abuse, beatings, and murders. I discovered a people who lost everything but their humanity. And that saved them.

They invented tools to make their work easier; inventions for which they received no credit. They resisted in surreptitious and overt ways. On pain of death, they learned to read. One former slave became the most educated black man in America, and the first to become a medical doctor.

A freed slave advised a president. Another, born autistic and blind, was discovered to be a musical genius. So many people, so many stories, so much creativity, love, despair, hope.

A woman, with a bounty on her head, led 300 to freedom. Imagine the stories those 300 told their grandchildren. There were African Americans who, though not slaves themselves, had their lives shaped by that “peculiar institution.” The first African American female doctor ministered to the newly emancipated during Reconstruction. A New Yorker barely escaped being sold into slavery and became the most famous Shakespearean actor of his time, and then, went on to become a fervent abolitionist.

Their stories are unique, sad, amazing, funny, inspiring, heart wrenching, infuriating, endless.

To tell their stories is not to glorify slavery. No more than to tell the stories born of war is to glorify war. To tell their stories is to affirm and glorify those who were enslaved; to recognize their strength, to honor their sacrifice; to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit; to show appreciation for their lives and mine.

These are human stories and they belong to all of us. They can be told by any of us. Yet I relate to them as the great-great granddaughter of Victor Jones, Sr., who was born a slave in Louisiana. There is only one degree of separation between Victor and me. My mother had fond memories of him as a kind and wise old man.

I relate their stories from a distance. The pictures are dim; the voices, faint. But I will continue writing them as best I can until I see the makers of these stories face to face. They will tell me what I got right and what I got wrong. When we meet in a place where everyone is free.

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