One of my friends just published a book called The Slaves Have Names. Andi gives her reasons for writing the book on her website, “The book tells the stories of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised in Central Virginia. It’s the story of my journey to get to know these extraordinary people and to understand my debt to them as well as our nation’s continued struggles around race and the legacy of slavery.”
Slavery is part of the American story, our story. Yet, there are so many stories untold. There are moments where I’ve thought further back in history to the stories told, and how many of those stories are of the elite, of the victors, or of the warriors. That’s not surprising. Written literacy has often been limited, writings may not have preserved, and printing was expensive. Also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that victors tend to write the dominant historical accounts and that people at the bottom of the social ladder, such as slaves, don’t have much social capital to have their personal stories be recorded. No doubt there are exceptions in history.
There are just so many untold stories in the world, and it makes me curious. Today, many of those stories are recorded in some fashion, but there are still stories we’ll never know. It’s hard to foresee what our stories will look like in the future with the advent of social media and the ability to publish our ongoing stories. That is only part of the narrative though. For we are more than what we represent in snippets online. We’re also more than long journal entries, though they may tell a more complete tale. Maybe we’ll be able to construct a virtual persona of a past person based on what he or she said and did, but that still won’t be all of that individual, and it won’t be that person.
We have one of the ironies of today, that we can be so known, yet still be not known. People can read my posts, and still not know me. It’s hard to fully know a person though, save my creator who knows my past and knows my present thoughts. I can be more known than my public persona though, through long time friends and relationships. I’m thankful for that, but I still wonder about all the people in history who we know almost nothing about.
What of all the commoners? What of all the surfs? What about the various slaves? We know much of the Greeks who wrote philosophy. What of all the slaves whose labor allowed them to focus on democracy? Even that can be too melodramatic though, because I can forget that the person I pass by on the street has a story. Once I was talking to people who lived on the streets of Harrisburg. I heard them weave their tales. One woman told her told her story with a poise and wisdom that awed me.
We can be enamored with the stories of the famous storytellers in our society: people like actors, athletes, anchors and politicians. We are storytelling creatures, after all. Yet, there are stories all around us that can be told in first person. That makes me realize that perhaps the stories untold to my eyes are not entirely untold. Slaves and surfs and commoners and everyone else may have told their stories around a campfire or to a friend. And before writing, there was oral history that carried them on.
For my friend Andi who wrote The Slaves Have Names, stories were hard to find, so she imagined for us what they may have been. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s those stories that help us empathize. Maybe we can even find a piece of ourselves in someone else’s story. I don’t know most of your stories, but we all have them, and they are part of what connects us with each other. They are part of who we are.