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Determined to Remember: Harriet Jacobs and Slavery's Descendants

“I HAD MY grandchildren with me. Trying to have a nice time. But that’s what we ended up talking about. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.”

I met Mr. Griffin on a quiet road in Edenton, North Carolina, where he passed our group in his motorized wheelchair and changed direction to come ask what we were doing. I chuckled to myself as he approached. An older Black man in a baseball cap, he reminded me of the watchful elders from my youth whose presence usually kept me from trying to sneak around. What I took to be his nosiness quickly turned into a pleasant conversation about the town. Mr. Griffin had approached our group as a public historian was leading us to various sites related to Harriet Jacobs, who was born and enslaved in Edenton. At age 29, Jacobs escaped to the North. A decade later, she authored the first book-length autobiography by a formerly enslaved African American woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

Edenton resident Susan Inglis was with us on this tour. She descends from the town’s most prominent families—those who benefited most from slavery—and she knew everyone we encountered. Mr. Griffin was no exception. She nodded as he went from casual ease to intense frustration about the pillory that had been preserved as a historic relic, between the town’s courthouse and jail. The wooden structure is unmistakable. One immediately imagines a person bent over with their head and hands restrained. It is not surprising that Mr. Griffin’s grandchildren began asking questions as soon as they saw this contraption.

Susan kept nodding, acknowledging Mr. Griffin’s frustration. I nodded too. I thought that’s all any of us could do. Then, another woman from our group, Michelle Lanier, stepped forward to address him. There was palpably high regard in her demeanor as she leaned in to look directly into his eyes. He reciprocated—he was all attention. Not startled by her sudden proximity, not defensive. Simply beheld and beholding.

Michelle explained that she was responsible for the pillory he said he didn’t like. As director of the North Carolina Division of Historic Sites, she is responsible for preserving the state’s history. And she owned up, directly and with respect, to the fact that she is the reason the device is there to be confronted.

Michelle’s exchange with Mr. Griffin is one of many moments that lives with me after my first visit to Edenton, birthplace of Harriet Jacobs. I have long treasured Jacobs’s work, but it took witnessing and experiencing Michelle’s embodied intellectual rigor for me to truly commune with Jacobs’s dynamic legacy.

Michelle is a presence. She makes bold choices in self-presentation that somehow never seem over the top. That day, she wore a multicolored coat like nothing I’d ever seen, somewhere between plaid and a rainbow. She also wore a chunky white necklace that hung well past her chest. She told Mr. Griffin that she had left the pillory standing because its presence is a reminder of the torture that took place at the site. It is not enough, in her view, to encounter the town jail when Americans are so likely to think nothing of its cruelty. The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, but Americans take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the brutality in our midst. Even worse, the brutality is in our name, supposedly motivated by a commitment to public safety when what makes citizens safer is ready access to food, clothing, and shelter—exactly what so many Americans are convinced only some people deserve.

Michelle and Mr. Griffin talked for several minutes. It was an intimate exchange. The sense that it was okay for me to listen came and went, so I didn’t catch everything that was said. But I was mesmerized by the energy. I witnessed and experienced—even if from a slight distance—the powerful understanding that intellectual engagement is most rigorous when it maximizes embodied connections.

By the time Mr. Griffin rode away, he was promising Michelle that he would have another conversation with his grandchildren. He now appreciated the importance of their understanding what Black and Brown people endured. It was unfair and unjust, but there is nothing to be ashamed of in acknowledging this injustice so boldly. Widely accepted American practices denied these people’s humanity, but when we remember their experiences and their human dignity, we can borrow inspiration as we encounter injustices today.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books