Paying Respect To Ancestors Who Wrote About Enslavement
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to tell you about a remarkable event that took place in Buffalo this weekend. This was a gathering of descendents of men and women who authored books about their lives as enslaved Americans, believed to be the first such get-together of its kind. The purpose of the three-day retreat was to pay respect to these ancestors, but also to talk about inventive ways to carry those stories forward to the future. It was organized by Kari Winter, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Welcome, Professor Winter. Thank you so much for speaking to us.
KARI WINTER: Thank you.
MARTIN: My other guests are Regina Mason. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of William Grimes, who wrote the first fugitive slave narrative published in the U.S. Ms. Mason, thank you so much for joining us.
REGINA MASON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And Rhonda Brace also joined us. She is a descendent of Jeffrey Brace. He was captured by slave traders in West Africa and brought to America. And his is one of the few works written in English with a direct tie to Africa, and he served in the American Revolution. Welcome to you, as well. Thank you for coming.
RHONDA BRACE: Oh, thank you. My pleasure.
MARTIN: Professor Winter, you've said that - I think many people know that slavery has been practiced throughout history, but you said that American slave narratives are unique in world history. What does this work do for us that other forms of literature do not do?
WINTER: As W.E.B. Du Bois said, there is no story as dramatic and powerful as the story of somebody who has been enslaved and survived that experience and lived to tell the tale. If you look at the history of the English novel, we see many powerful stories of people who suffered and triumphed, but nothing is as dramatic, as powerful, as moving, as fully human as the narratives of people who suffered slavery and survived.
MARTIN: Do people understand that this work was, in fact - that these were first-person accounts? I mean, you can imagine that people who had no exposure to these practices might not want to believe it.
WINTER: Even with the most documented events in history, like, say, the Holocaust, there are people who are going to deny what they don't care and don't want to believe. And because slavery was a very political and divisive institution, there were always people who denied the credibility of the people who told their stories. But we have, in most cases, ample capacity to authenticate, document, supplement these narratives. They're as demonstrably authentic as any work of literature.
MARTIN: Rhonda Brace, what about you? Your ancestor Jeffrey Brace wrote one of the first narratives in English by an enslaved person. What did it mean to you when you discovered this connection - that this history was there?
BRACE: You know, finally, it helped me to connect myself to Africa. I can only trace my family history to Saint Albans, Vt. So I kind of embraced the idea that my family, my lineages is connected to another land. It gave me more of who I am once I discovered the narrative of Jeffrey Brace.
MARTIN: Professor Winter, do you want to pick up the story there?
WINTER: It's an amazing story. So Jeffrey Brace grew up in a village in Africa, probably in the area now called Mali. When he turned 16, he was went with 13 16-year-old boys to celebrate their birthday. They went swimming in a river. And all the sudden, the river was rounded by dogs and slave traders. Two escaped. The other 11 were captured, taken on the river to a slave ship. So here he is, a 16-year-old. He has seen rape. He's seen murder. He's seen torture of children - unbelievable suffering he's experiencing. And it's an astonishing - like, who could survive all that? Who could cope with all that? And yet, he does.
MARTIN: Regina Mason, let's go to you. Your ancestor William Grimes was one of the originators of the slave narrative. You published a new edition of his writing in 2008. How did you come across this? And if you can even remember, what was it like for you when you discovered this?
MASON: It made such a huge impact on me. I literally could not hold my body up. I can remember just weeping to make this connection because if you read the man's story, he talks about such horrid abuse. He wrote about slavery in a way that I had never - or was never - prepared for. And so with his mindset that he was capable - that by extension reached to me and told me that I was capable, too.
MARTIN: And, Professor Winter, do you want to just give me one more final thought about what you hope people will glean from this or what you hope will be accomplished by bringing all these families together and also working with them on telling these stories going forward?
WINTER: My main hope for the workshop is that these powerful stories will galvanize public interest and awareness that black history matters. Black lives matter because black history matters. Black history matters because black lives matter. And everybody has a story worth finding out about.
MARTIN: Professor Kari Winter organized a gathering of descendants of writers of slave narratives this weekend at the University at Buffalo. Regina Mason and Rhonda Brace were among the participants, and they joined us from member station WBFO in Buffalo. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
WINTER: Thank you.
MASON: Thank you.
BRACE: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.