Diary of a Creative Writing PhD student: Why Write About Emancipated Slaves?

There is a recognized formula for grief. Experts say we grieve in stages; in cycles. Because everyone grieves differently, there is no set time frame for the stages. Still, society often tells those in grief when enough is enough. When we grieve a marriage friends, family and coworkers have a certain amount of sympathy before encouraging us to “move on” romantically. If we are adults when our parents die, we are granted a period of mourning before returning to work, a little sad and less productive perhaps, but we are expected to reach full capacity within a few weeks. For most losses there is an imagined timeframe, an allotted time for grief.

How long are we granted to grieve a child?

The loss of a child is an ongoing loss with consistent reminders throughout life; there are lost birthdays, holidays, graduations; there are no weddings, no grandchildren, no continuation. The loss resonates in the laughter of school children; the cry of random babies; the familiar shape of an eye, a walk, a tilt. Society grieves with and for parents whose children are murdered, kidnapped, or in any number of ways lost. It allows them time to heal; freedom to be angry; and forgives them their outbursts—unless they were slaves.

Emancipated slaves certainly had reason to celebrate: after centuries of forced bondage, humiliation, degradation, violence, rape, torture, disenfranchisement and racism, emancipated slaves had reason to be hopeful. But not for long. Freedom did not come with a voice. Not only were they often subjected to the same racism that allowed the acceptance, adaptation and continuation of slavery, but emancipated slaves were not granted the freedom of their own emotion. Society declared emancipated slaves should be grateful to be free; not angry to have been enslaved. They should be humble and prayerful, mindful and respectful, they should strive and be happy to strive to be less than, still. The lessons of slavery were ingrained in generation after generation, how could they be shed without reconciliation? How could they be written about—who wanted to read them?

Emancipated slaves were discouraged from grieving their lost years, lives, opportunities.  Their voices were stifled and often curtailed. Perhaps America hoped they would forget the centuries of abuse; that all would be forgiven. Perhaps it thought it had nothing to be ashamed of.  It seems that few people wanted to hear the truth about the lives of the formerly enslaved and if they did, they didn’t want to publish it. There had been Emancipatory narrative that explored the surface of slave life in such a way that did not offend the reader, but what literature could come from the lives of the formerly enslaved? Was America ready to read it?

Perhaps. But were they ready to publish it? It is impossible to say that publishing had its finger on the American throat so accurately that it knew what people wanted to read. It would seem that few works were published about life after slavery and even fewer fictions explore the emancipated slaves’ journey to reunite their family. It is time to give them a voice. My research will allow me to explore the lives of emancipated slaves as they try to reconnect with family, to rebuild community and to find themselves. 


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