By Joyceann Gray, Sarah Brown and Monique Hopkins
Joyceann Gray, Monique Crippen-Hopkins and Sarah Brown are “linked through slavery”. Joyceann and Monique’s ancestors were enslaved by Sarah’s ancestors, the Washington family. When Sarah published her most recent post, about her connection with Monique’s family, Joyceann spoke out about her feelings about the piece. The three of them decided that the Facebook dialogue that followed was important, and would be valuable as a post of its own.
Read Joyeann’s blog for her full story: http://jgraydiscovery.com/
Read Monique’s blog for her full story: http://genealogybreakingdownthewalls.blogspot.com/
Joyceann Gray writes:
There are a few who are in a delicate position being a direct descendant of slaveholders and wanting to give what you can of slave history and family connection to descendants of those enslaved by your families. You are in possession of access to all your family papers which affords you a glimpse into your ancestors’ thought processes, emotions, and desires.
The descendants of those enslaved, can only guess what our people thought or felt. We are desperate for any tidbit of information about our ancestors. The norm was to account for our people by number not by name and it was very rare to find a surname. But we have a responsibility to record what we can find of our ancestors and their histories. To tell their stories and as much as possible ensures that when others write about them the facts and impressions are correct and in keeping with the truth. We have a responsibility to them to never let their pain and struggles be forgotten and to ensure their legacy lives on!
Sarah Brown adds:
When I wrote my last blog piece, Part Two of my series “Redrawing A Community – A Washington Descendant’s Journey ( “People” -The Thompsons), at https://linkedthroughslavery.com/2015/03/18/redrawing-a-community-a-washington-descendants-journey-part-two-people-the-thompsons/ – I included a photograph of Solomon Thompson that was provided by Monique Crippen-Hopkins, his 3x great-granddaughter. I described what I saw in his expression. As linked descendants, the three of us have been talking to each other through Facebook, and by phone occasionally. Since I was writing Part Two about Monique’s family, I sent her a final draft to review, but Joyceann saw it for the first time on the Bittersweet site.
Joyceann was troubled by my comments, and sent me some of her own. This started a discussion among the three of us that was sometimes difficult and emotional. In the end we were all glad that Joyceann didn’t shy away from expressing her frustration. Since our talk reflects the difficult work that Coming To The Table is committed to, we decided to edit it slightly and post it here.
Our dialogue brought home one of the pitfalls of writing about slaveholding as a descendant of slaveholders. Attention must be paid to acknowledging the pain inflicted by our families, in words on the page; assuming that the reader knows that the writer is aware of the specifics of abuse may not be enough. History demands a clear retelling of the dark side of the story, and a missed opportunity to do so can undermine establishing the truth.
Dialogue among Sarah Brown and Joyceann Gray and Monique Crippen-Hopkins
(Sarah wrote in her post, about the picture of Solomon Thompson:
“From my contemporary perspective he seems sad or wary, or possibly just unaccustomed to being photographed. His undirected stare might be the common expression of a servant who has learned to be both present and absent, without being able to freely choose either.”
Joyceann starts a dialogue by commenting on that paragraph.)
Joyceann: From your perspective you did a good job of guessing, but you didn’t remark on the pain that he had to have felt or the bad he must have seen and endured!! From my understanding of his history, troubles and struggles, all of which were much more than you or I could ever imagine!
Sarah: I guess I thought that was implied – that he had to be both present and absent, which is pretty much impossible. My whole project is an attempt to address the pain inflicted by my family, but what I hear from you is that I should stress the pain endured more clearly.
Joyceann: Stand on a black rug you really see and feel much differently than standing on a white rug… We feel through the ages what we as a people and in cases individuals felt as they went through their daily struggles, I often have nightmares about the struggle of my Indian heritage, my people and their losses. Not sure what directly; but something bad had to have happen for the dreams are intense.. I have evidence in another part of my family where the husband tried to buy his wife and children, but he was only allowed to buy his wife and a daughter. He had to leave the four boys in slavery.
When he paid the cost for wife and daughter he was forced to leave the state… so can we imagine the pain and agony there??? Nope, as a mother and grandmother I can’t and really don’t want to.
Sarah: It’s a good comment, Joyceann. The next post will have more details also. I’m thinking that the word “servant” should be in quotes, since it was a euphemism.
Joyceann: Coming from an elite and intellectual stand point we have to be careful to not assume or think things are implied….We weren’t servants… servants had options. We only had two options in most cases; do as told or suffer dire consequences
Sarah: Of course he wasn’t <a servant>, although the white families used that term. I shouldn’t assume that readers know the way I’m using it, though. I was saying that he shared a common expression of people regarded as servants – a class thing as well. They had to stand by and pretend to be invisible, and that’s the expression I saw. I don’t see him as only a victim, though – he seems to be conveying a dignity that refuses that classification, although he was robbed of choices in his life.
Joyceann: But he was a victim through and through caught up in a vicious cycle of horrendous cruelty!
Sarah: It’s not easy to write about the black experience as a white person. I tend to feel that I’m writing about the human experience in general. I don’t want to sound only like an elite intellectual. I do use my own voice, though, since anything else wouldn’t be genuine. I would really like it if you added these comments to the blog page – it’s a good conversation.
Yes, all those enslaved were victims of horrendous cruelty. Gosh – there is no way I’m downplaying that! I’m talking about what I see in his eyes – he’s a complex human being rather than JUST a victim.
Joyceann: True but I see more pain I think than you do, I see a man that has endured and seen too much! I see a man that has survived and has YET to really live.
Sarah: It’s a great comment, and I see exactly what you mean. I see that pain. But I chose to write about him as transcending that pain as much as possible. I see him as wearing a kind of mask. Truth be told, I never expected to see an actual photograph of someone enslaved by my family. His dignity and cautious expression really stand out to me – to me, he’s masking his pain.
Joyceann: His eyes are not masking the pain! It is all in the eyes!!
I really enjoy the fact you are conscious of your heritage and of the pain but we have to tread lightly when your ancestors dealt with my ancestors as if they were cattle or horses… and whenever they spoke of freeing their property there was always a condition that had to be met first. For instance George Washington lamented over freeing the slaves, so he waits until he’s almost dead to say oh yeah free my slaves AFTER I die and only then can they be freed AFTER my wife dies too! Now what kind of mental anguish is that, what a torn and conflicted humanitarian he was…Yes?
At least your ancestor Bushrod Washington said flatly; hell no to freeing slaves! Samuel Washington George’s brother didn’t even want to sell Reuben Hatter to his sister-in-law Christian Blackburn!!It took his wife’s badgering him to get him to do it! And even then he made her pay top dollar too!
So Sarah what I’m attempting to do is to get you to see another view of all the “Solomons” of those times…have you ever found a photo of a person who’s been enslaved; smiling?!
Sarah: Joyceann, I’m writing about all of that. I hope that you see that what I’m doing is an attempt to address all of these injustices. I’m going to send you a copy of an article I wrote a few years ago. It was supposed to be published in a journal called Race/Ethnicity, but the journal went under before it came out, so it was never published. It’s important to me that you know my personal perspective. We have to get know each other better, I think. I see that you feel I don’t know how these people suffered, and that I’m downplaying that. If that’s the impression I’ve given, then I want to correct it.
Joyceann: No not downplaying at all. Let me try saying that another way. When looking at old photos of enslaved folks: When you see an uplifted chin you see pride, I see pain with stubborn refusal to give in.
I see at least I felt you were seeing through ” rose” colored glasses so to speak, you were elevating when in fact we need to stand low? Make sense?
I’d love to read your work I’ll do that while we’re on our road trip back home!
Sarah: Yes! It’s the stubborn refusal to give in that I see in the foreground.
Joyceann: Now you got it!!
Sarah: That’s what I was trying to say, but I guess I didn’t say it. Thanks for pointing that out.
Joyceann: Are you ok with our discussion?
Sarah: Yes! It’s kind of painful, but I love that you’ve told me how you really feel. I understand that I left out the chance to comment on the cruelty of Solomon’s situation. But I do want to know that you hear me, too. And I see that Monique is commenting now – great….
Joyceann: It’s hard to write someone else’s story.
(Monique Crippen-Hopkins enters the conversation)
Monique: Yes, that is true, I’m having a hard time writing my ancestors’ story….I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it to give them the honor they deserve.
Sarah: The only way I can write it is to write what I’m experiencing personally – the journey I’m taking myself. So I write about what I see in the picture, my communication with the two of you, and how I feel about my own family.
Monique: I’ve just been reading the comments; it’s a lot to take in, because what is being written is about my family that has come alive to me, and a very painful experience at that. Some of it may come across as just a story to others, but that is my family. I can actually feel for these people and for my grandparents!
I don’t have any real comments…I was just taking it in.
Sarah: Our stories intersect, and I want to honor both of your families without taking over your own stories. I’ve very conscious of my responsibility there.
Joyceann: True but our intersection is only up to the civil war ending when the Washingtons and other slaveholders were forced to free their slaves. Now did the Washingtons work with their formers slaves to help with their transition? Train them? Give them the land to work? Then till now we didn’t have a relationship. We have come together again now as we try to piece things together and make amends….
Sarah: I’m researching what happened at Claymont after emancipation. I’d like to think that my family tried to help those they enslaved, but I think it was the other way around – some of the Thompsons and others stuck around and worked for what was probably hardly any pay.
(to Joyceann) I’m thinking about your comment about how hard it is to write someone else’s story. It’s ironic – what I’m trying to do is tell the full story about my family. So many people have written about George and all as patriots, but not as slaveholders. I think my job is to correct that.
Joyceann: I hear you louder than I’ve been able to express, I do indeed understand also why you are doing this… I’m just playing devil’s advocate here somewhat trying to help you be careful in how you relay others’ history. I am excited to know you are going to tackle writing the hard truth of your ancestors… That will be a bestseller.
Monique: No, just seeing all of this became a little emotional because it made me see and think about some things I never really thought of before.
Sarah: Yeah….wow. This is such a raw subject and that’s why we have to talk about it. Thanks Joyceann!
Monique: Thank you Cousin Joyceann! You have a lot of insight.
Joyceann: So yes it’s a raw discussion but I’m so glad we are not running from it!!
Sarah: When I got the archive with all our wills I felt that someone had to address the wrongs my ancestors had committed. And they were many. Connecting with the two of you allows me to make baby steps toward that goal. You’ve allowed me in – thank you so much!
Joyceann: And by writing your story SARAH you will indeed be helping a lot of people to heal and move on, someone needs to acknowledge the real story !
Sarah: Can I tell you both that I’ve got tears in my eyes? None of us asked for what our families gave us, and we’re all working on making sense of it. I’m so grateful we can do this, raw or not.
Monique: Yes, that’s what this is all about…taking those steps, it’s a lot and we can only try to move on, we will never be able to correct what our ancestors did, we can only help some people move on. What’s done can’t be undone we can only try to help others to heal
Great job both of you in this conversation!!
Thank you because you have given me food for thought.