There have been many tributes to Toni Morrison in the past week following her passing at age 88. This excerpt from my dissertation, which spawned Remember Me to Miss Louisa , my first historical monograph, is one way of also acknowledging Morrison’s legacy on my own work:
“[The newly freedwoman Avenia] White’s uneasiness might have also been an outcome of simply being in Cincinnati, a city that bordered Kentucky, a slave state. That proximity carried with it the constant threat that catchers might kidnap and resell her, [the also newly freed Susan] Johnson, or their children into slavery. Many white northerners, some aided by black spies situated along the Ohio River, were eager to re-enslave free people of color. Suggestive of the swiftness of slave catchers was the case of Margaret Garner a few years later after White’s 1838 arrival. No sooner had this mulatto woman arrived as a fugitive in Cincinnati with her husband, children and eleven other slaves than she was discovered in the home of one of her relatives and returned to bondage. So dramatic was Garner’s story, it was chronicled in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Rest in Peace, Morrison.
Postscript: This passage references my attempts to sort through White’s possible return to slave territory to live with or near her former master Rice Ballard. He was a domestic slave trader-turned planter who relocated from Virginia to the Deep South amid the rise of the so-called Cotton Kingdom in the mid-1830s. Her five surviving letters to him are at the University of North Carolina. There is also a letter from a plantation manager referencing the death of a woman, possibly in White. As I continue listening to tributes to Morrison, I will be thinking through the limitations and possibilities of the lives of people of African descent and especially women, past and present. White’s precarious status even in Ohio, a free state, bears witness to the systemic limitations before her.
What toll did such a situation take on her even with well-meaning abolitionists, whose political positions were not entirely easily aligned with the well-being of those they wished to “save,” surrounding her?
Since the publication of Morrison’s Beloved and other writings including my own book Remember Me to Miss Louisa, Nikki Taylor has probed Garner’s seeming madness. What all could still be said about her experiences and those of others – including White – in desperate situations around challenged borderlands, past and present?
This, too, is on my mind.