Numbers

There was another moment at the Freedom Center.  Another moment I wasn’t prepared for, but which I’m glad the librarian was.  This came right after the weirdness of her asking me if I liked to cook.  We found Samuel in a census from 1870, and he was 21, which means he was born in 1849, possibly 1848 depending on when his birthday was in relationship to the census.  I already knew he’d been born a slave. Although my mother probably told me, his name hadn’t stayed in my memory, but his existence as a slave stayed.  One of the only things I’ve ever known about him was that he remembered emancipation, remembered the announcement that he’d been made free.  So in 1870, he’s a free man on the census, counted just like all the white people he was living with and working for.

But that’s where the path into the past turns cold.   As I looked at the 1870 listing for Samuel, the librarian turned toward me, and I could feel something in her change.  I didn’t know what she was about to say, but I knew it wouldn’t be something silly like asking me about cooking.  I looked at her and waited.

“We won’t be able to use census records to find out anything about his parents or find out who his siblings were,” she said.  When I didn’t respond, she gave a small smile and continued.  “You know he was a slave, so we can’t look for him on the census.  They didn’t record slaves’ names.  They would be listed with a number along with their owner.”

Of course.  Of course, but somehow I wasn’t prepared for that, hadn’t thought long enough about what I would be looking for and finding if I went into that room to be prepared for that.  It’s not shocking.  It’s not news.  It’s just a reality I wasn’t prepared to be focused on.

Tonight I started looking for slaveholding records, thought I’d try to narrow down a list of possible owners (on my father’s side of the family this will be both easy and difficult: the state is neck deep in two of his families, one from my grandfather’s side, one from my grandmother’s).  I found an 1850 slave schedule on Family Search, one of the sites the librarian recommended.  The schedule is a long document, almost 100 pages.  I wasn’t going to look through all of that.  But I didn’t have to.  There, on page 4, on the 29th of July in 1850, I found my first possible, found my first list:

  • 1 Female 47, Black
  • 1 Female 27, Black
  • 1 Male 29, Black
  • 1 Male 40, Black
  • 1 Female 12, Black
  • 1 Male 5, Black
  • 1 Female 6, Black
  • 1 Male 1, Mulatto

Just give me a minute.

Just give me another.

It’s not shocking.  It’s not news.  It’s just the reality of my family’s life as chattel noted in neat, carefully beautiful penmanship. I continue to be surprised by the level to which all of this is affecting me.  Not because I have come to think of myself as made of stone, or some such.  But this really isn’t news, is really something I’ve known for a long time before now.

One
number.
If I reach
far enough back
I have no more names.
A
number.
A gender.
A noted “M”
only sign of rape.
No
faces.
Suddenly
I am the crowd —
anonymous, blank.

natpoetrymonth1

__________

An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

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4 thoughts on “Numbers

  1. Oh, Stacie, this bowled me over. You are right that it is not news, but it is history made more personal, and therefore more real.

    It makes me think of the two types of memory, which are processed and stored differently in the brain. If I understand it correctly (and it’s sort of new information to me), there are differences in the short term and long term storage of factual memories versus personal memories, which was in part discovered by the study of patients with amnesia. (I recently saw an article here: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/04/amnesia_patient_kc_was_kent_cochrane_the_hippocampus_makes_memories_personal.2.html ) In any case, it drives home to me the importance of writing and sharing stories of history in a personal way.

    That list of people, itemized and tallied in that way, affects me deeply. I find myself wondering, as surely you must be wondering, which of the listed women was little the one-year-old’s mother, not to mention wondering about the fate of those other young children.

    Thank you for sharing this. I know it will stick with me.

    Like

  2. No, it isn’t news, but it’s one thing to know in the abstract what your ancestors suffered, and so different to see your great-grandfather’s name and specific facts about him that make that abstraction so very real.

    Like

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