Thursday, January 5, 2012

Slave Narratives: Sarah Frances Shaw Graves

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves
It looks like I'm going to be a regular visitor to the digital archives at the Library of Congress. Did you know they have a collection of oral histories taken in the 1930s by people employed by the WPA (Works Progress Administration)? They make for riveting, harrowing, and enlightening reading.

Personal narratives like this are like opening a little tiny window in the fabric of time. Through that window I get to glance back and see an unvarnished, unprocessed, and unadorned view of life at it was. These windows are irresistible--when I find it I need to open it and look through it. Whether it be historical narratives likes these, or more contemporary narratives like the ones told by patients in my office, I'm transfixed. Each window opened gives me another perspective to understand the complex fabric of our shared experience.

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves was born sometime around 1850 somewhere near Louisville. She told her story to a WPA interviewer in 1937. The nameless interviewer wrote this of Sarah:
"Her life story is one of contrasts; contrasts of thought; contrasts of culture, beneficial inventions and suffrage. Not far from her home the glistening streamlined Zephyr speeds on twin rails beside the Missouri River, near the route of the slow-moving, creaking wagons on the ox-road of the 1850s."
Let's open up one of those tiny little windows in the fabric of time and let Sarah speak.
"My name is Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, or Aunt Sally as everybody calls me. Yes'm that's a lot of name an' I come by it like this, My husband was owned by a man named Graves, and I was owned by a man named Shaw, so when we were freed we took the surnames of our masters. I was born march 23, 1850 in Kentucky, somewhere near Louisville. I am goin' on 88 years right now. I was brought to Missouri when I was six months old, along with my mama, who was a slave owned by a man named Shaw, who had alloted her to a man named Jimmie Graves, who came to Missouri to live with his daughter Emily Graves Crowdes. I always lived with Emily Crowdes." 
"Yes'm. Allotted? Yes'm. i'm goin' to explain that," she replied. "you see there was slave traders in those days, jes' like you got horse and mule an' auto traders now. They bought and sold slaves and hired 'em out. Ye'm, rented 'em out. Allotted means somthin' like hired out. But the slave never got no wages. That all went to the master. The man they was allotted to paid the master." 
"I was never sold. My mama was sold only once, but she was hired out many times. yes'm when a slave was allotted, somebody made a down payment and gave a mortgage for the rest. A chattel mortgage." 
A down payment!! 
"Times don't change, just the merchandise." 
I am amazed at how connected I feel to Sarah. Despite having been born more than seventy years before I was, and having died on July 3, 1943, when my grandparents were in their early 20s and neither of my parents were born, I can feel her presence here in my living room as I sit on my couch writing this in an undisclosed location in the Merrimack River Valley. That's the power of a personal narrative.

Sarah gives us a glimpse into the life of a person in slavery that we don't read about in history text books. Her personal story gives contour, shape, and texture to the disembodied facts our teachers lecture about. Sarah also offers us so much more. She was a simple woman. She worked hard and struggled to survive through an era of history that was not kind to people of color. She received no formal education, won no prizes, and left no inventions, books, or other intellectual products behind.

Yet reading her narrative, I'm incredibly moved the the gifts I have received. Sarah mattered not for what she left behind. She mattered because she was here. Her story illuminates her humanity that, in the end, is all we ever really have.

No comments:

Post a Comment