journalism · silence · slavery

tell a full story

It’s so nice hearing about the news that John Armfield and Isaac Franklin, two notorious slave dealers, are getting. But I hope that we do not fail to tell the story from the point of view of the enslaved and freedpeople, something I have tried to do with Remember Me to Miss Louisa. Not doing so would find us repeating similar mistakes seen on other fronts.

These days, we take care not to parade the people who hurt others with guns without giving full attention to finding meaning in the dead and injured. While making allowances for the particularities of a time, something similar happens in modern-day historical storytelling. The horrific stories in our shared past are real, as I always say. Discovering how the most unlikely people find a way to survive the horrors is equally important. We can’t save any of these historical actors. Making them victims and only victims suggests many things. I think we can do better. I know we can do better.Screen Shot 2019-09-15 at 10.04.50 AM.png

I think of John Mattison, the Buffalo minister-abolitionist, in this instance. He set out to help freedwoman Louisa Picquet tell her story about being purchased as a “fancy girl,” the brand name for typically fair-skinned and pricier enslaved people at age 14 in Mobile, Alabama. She was sold to an aging New Orleans man who freed her six years later on his deathbed alongside two of her surviving four children produced from almost certain horrific acts with him. Her memoir was published in 1861. She used the proceeds from this book to purchase her mother from slavery. Albert Clinton, the first Lt. Gov. of Texas, owned her mom and had tried to earlier buy Picquet who, upon being freed, fled to Cincinnati where numerous fair-skinned women in her condition often settled, sometimes aided by the very men who had raped them.

In telling her story, Mattison was ultimately concerned about getting out  his own message concerning how despicable slave society was in the South. This was a classic north-south feud that had made Picquet’s own horrors just a titillating part of the narrative. But as numerous scholars have pointed out, Mattison takes over the storytelling, and sadly, made the publication as much about him as  it was about Picquet. This is understandable. We are human. But let us not forget the precious evidence in her own voice (he at least kept some of that in the book) and the voices of others that survive in documents that have been available for years including ones in the same North Carolina library that permit us to see how the oppressed felt about men like Franklin and Armfield. At least nine letters from enslaved and freedwomen are in that archive.

I am grateful to so many, including my UA colleague Trudier Harris, and my doctoral adviser Dave Roediger, for pushing me to help tell the story. Sorry to be missing this talk this coming week at UA with Harris sharing the unspeakable about our shared past with Toni Morrison in view.

Some of us many feel uncomfortable with the fuller story. But not including it is flattening the historical record, something that has been done far too often by people with the best of intentions. We are at a remarkable crossroad in our country’s history. Social media has enabled us to get news out very quickly. Being a former journalist, I see value in getting a story out. But let us get out the complete story in the course of  delivering news. Tell the (full) story, said jazz drummer Art Blakey.

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