For far too many Americans, slavery is an opaque abstraction hidden in a sanitized and seemingly unknowable past. For those relatively few African Americans, in particular, whose genealogical family research can go back as far as 1840 or earlier, slavery and its avatars remain concrete living organisms with legatees and legacies.
My extended family includes a retired professor of mathematics who did such tracing as part of a cousin’s retirement research. We have records from North Carolina going back to 1840. My father, who passed away last July in the 102nd year of his life, had a slave grandfather we have traced through such research, and we believe that we know one of the masters who owned us: the Baird family. Recordkeeping “translators” transmuted the family name using the apparent homonym, “Beard,” but my father’s own birth certificate used both versions of the name simultaneously. Dad was listed as the youngest child of Peter Baird, but his own name was given as Stanley Beard. That was the same surname used for each of his 10 siblings.visit of Rev. Natalie Conway and Steve Howard is an extraordinary opportunity to give slavery new flesh. Conway’s genealogical research uncovered the slave connection to the Howards. These descendants of the slave and the slaveholder remain linked many generations later in their shared religious history, but with a profound reversal of roles. She is the Deacon in the Episcopal Church founded by his priest-slaveholder ancestor; together they are part of a worship community in Baltimore sharing in the 21st century both an intimate tie and a commitment to racial healing.
I teach a topics course known as English 262: African American Literature. It has had several different areas of focus in various iterations of the course: the comparative slave narrative, an introduction to African American literature (with a focus on African and Caribbean orality), or the invisible free Black community of the 19th century. Slavery surfaces, in different ways, as part of each of those courses, though the studies converge in the insistence that the cameo appearance of the African in the colonies is a far richer one than that provided, for example, in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapter 14. He did not want to consider the slave in a pre-bondage context, but we encounter the bondsman or bondswoman as a human being, owning himself or herself, with a complex cosmology, a communitarian ethos, the inheritor of ancient oral traditions or polyrhythmic musical invention, and with remarkable artistic acuity that captured the attention of Pablo Picasso.
We contextualize African slavery as a story in medias res with significant centuries of history that pre-date its 1619 manifestation in the American colonies. The courses also insist that the physical and emotional suffering of slavery be told in terms of slave genius for survival in creating codes the master could not penetrate. The spirituals may be religious songs, but they were also used to signal the arrival and departure of the underground railroad or to offer slaves the opportunity to deconstruct the contradictions of the slavocracy and its Christian supports. The favorite Biblical text of the slave was Exodus. It is the remarkable indomitability of the human spirit that we study, even in the midst of life-threatening and mortal abuse in the attempt to destroy the slave’s sense of self. We also recognize what Frederick Douglass asserted: the attempt to degrade or to demean the slave necessarily resulted in the degradation of the slaveholder, so closely were their stories linked.
Yet, in more than 150 years, we have never faced squarely the slavocracy itself and its ongoing bequests. The visit of Rev. Conway and Steve Howard might be an invitation to begin that painful, yet rehabilitative, excavation; these remarkable visitors have ethical commitments to restorative work through the not-yet-tried national lenses of truth and justice. The single narrative we have inherited about American exceptionalism has always been self-serving and amnesiac about this ugly chapter of our history, with its unexplored vantage of white hegemony—even in the anti-slavery struggle—and its myopia that continues to dismiss Black achievement against the odds. This is extremely important work, particularly in our dangerously divisive “now.” It offers the possibility of exorcism in an honest confrontation with a haunted story that has been passed over since the 17th century.
We welcome these two brave colleagues, who come to a campus with its own legacy of racism, in their attempt to restore a human face to all the actors in this reckoning with “the peculiar institution.” We are bound together in our narrative of the past; we are also yoked in the present, and in the futures we choose to imagine together.
In 2018, The Rev. Natalie Conway, deacon of Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill, found out that her ancestors had been the slaves of the extended family of Memorial’s founding pastor, 19th-century cleric Charles Ridgely Howard. Steve Howard, a descendant of the family, still attends the church. On Saturday, Dec. 7, the pair will be at Bryn Mawr College to talk about their story of reconciliation. Learn more about the event.