On a visit with family in Charlottesville, Virginia, in late October, the winter 2022–23 Maine Arts Journal writing prompt kept swirling around in my head. A question from that provocative nudge nagged me: “How do you engage with remembering and forgetting, erasing, and hiding and revealing?” In the course of my stay, I found a few answers.
The first came at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, at the exhibition James Tylor: From an Untouched Landscape. In his black-and-white photographs Tylor illuminates the incompatibility of indigenous and colonial understandings of place by inserting black velvet shapes—circles, squares, and rectangles—to block out sections of the landscape of his ancestors in southern Australia. The redactions symbolize “the imposed order of colonization,” writes curator Marina Tyquiengco, “like lines drawn on a map to contain and define borders.”
Several places in Tylor’s photographs relate to whaling and sealing by colonialists in the 19th century. Their enterprise, global in scale, replaced that of the Aboriginal people and impacted their lives in malevolent ways: “Aboriginal women and children were victims of non-Aboriginal whalers who abducted them from coastal regions,” writes Tyquiengco. The rectangle of black velvet superimposed on the remnants of an early whaling port in Portland, Australia, represents that blacking out of culture.
The exhibition also features Tylor’s simple and stunning renderings in wood of Aboriginal and colonial tools. These, too, reflect the imposed order of colonialism—the boomerang and spear replaced by the cross and rifle.
Tylor’s work hides and reveals; at the same time, it remembers erasure. It is an intervention meant to underscore absence, presence, and loss.
Another answer to the MAJ query appeared as our daughter Emily led my wife, Peggy, and me to the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers on the University of Virginia campus. From a distance, the granite memorial forms a low-lying silver-gray circle in the green grass sward with nothing to alert you to what it signifies until you step inside the space.
There, carved into the smooth surface in a formal gravestone font, are the names of slaves—mostly first names like Sukey, Primus, Tulip, Roda, Jenny—or their occupations—laundress, maid, midwife, stonecutter, glazier, joiner. Where no identification could be made a simple “memory mark” stands in for the person lost to history. Four thousand former UVA slave laborers are present and accounted for, as it were.
An inner ring offers a timeline of slavery at the university, with water flowing over the milestones, distorting parts of them, compelling you to focus on the words. Many of these short texts tell grim stories. The one for 1856 reads: “An enslaved eleven-year-old girl is beaten unconscious by a UVA student. Claiming his right to discipline any slave, he suffers no consequences.”
Isabella Gibbons, who worked as a cook at UVA where a science professor owned her, has the last word. Gaining her freedom after the Civil War, Gibbons became a teacher in a Black primary school, but she didn’t stop thinking about her days as a slave. As she wrote in 1867:
Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten that by these horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, or ever will.
The idea to commemorate—to remember—the lives of these slaves started with UVA students in 2009. In a video of the memorial’s virtual dedication, alumna Jessica Harris calls the site a “space of truth-telling.” Its “broken shackle image,” she says, “represents a freedom from physical bondage.”
On the same grounds where white supremacists infamously marched in August 2017, this cenotaph serves as a kind of counter-statement to that vile spectacle. The creation of the memorial also redoubles the relevance of removing statues of Confederate generals in Charlottesville. And it has had a ripple effect: in 2020 UVA football player Terrell Jana played without any name on the back of his jersey in honor of the nameless slaves.
In many ways, the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers perfectly answers that question about how we engage with “remembering and forgetting, erasing, and hiding and revealing.” It acknowledges the legacy of slaves forced to construct and maintain Jefferson’s university. It uncovers and rescues the past. It reclaims human dignity.
Thinking about the memorial later, I remembered Ashley Bryan’s book Freedom Over Me, published in 2016 when the celebrated author/illustrator from Little Cranberry Island was ninety-three. In this remarkable book, prompted by slave-related documents he had purchased at an auction in Northeast Harbor, Maine, in 2006, Bryan brought to life eleven slaves listed on an 1828 bill of sale.
The slaves on the bill of sale were identified by first name and price—Peggy, $150; John, $200; Charlotte and Dora, $400—no place of birth, nothing more. Bryan set out to paint portraits of each slave, using his own family and friends as models “so,” he told me in an interview, “I could hear them talk to me.” They told him who they were: an iron monger, a seamstress, a basket maker.
After imagining their lives, Bryan asked them what they would have done had they not been enslaved and thereby created their dreams. “When people are reading the book, if they don’t become each person and feel that person as him or herself, it hasn’t made its point,” Bryan told me, adding, “We need to disentangle the racism, to put it aside and act differently.”
The book was one of the most difficult of Bryan’s life. “I had to think of myself as a slave and imagine that if anyone saw me drawing, I’d be brutally beaten or have my hands cut off.”
This is another way we engage with remembering, through brave acts of imagination and resurrection.
As I was working on this piece back home in Maine, news arrived of the murder of three football players, Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry, at the University of Virginia. On my visit to Charlottesville, we—my wife, my daughter’s family, and I—had gone to a football game at Scott Stadium. We watched the band cross the field and a student dressed in UVA Cavaliers garb ride a horse from end to end. We cheered on the players.
In the days following the murders, memorials appeared at the entrances to the stadium: flowers, hand-written notes, candles—the inventory we turn to in America to create shrines to the victims of gun violence. We promise never to forget. We don’t and we do.
Image at top: Tulip, from the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (photo: Carl Little).