Where is the wall that brims the height and progress
of the Nigras?
Sheetrock record of crosscut backs,
split hymens, slit bellies, sold-away sons.
— from “Hash Marks” by Nikky Finney
I see these people everywhere here. In the way the fields outside my bedroom window lay against the morning sun. In the stones that sit almost upright in the cemetery up the road. In the brick that sits stacked with its mates outside the blacksmith shop. In the walls that swing out over this land like brushstrokes or scars.
I see them everywhere – Mahala and Elias and Minerva and Lucy and Isham and Ben – everywhere here.
But most people don’t. Most people see mansions built by rich white men. They see vast swaths of land untouched by development. They see heritage, clean and pristine like a brochure.
Because that is what we are trained to see.
At UVa, 195 boxes are full of documents. 195 boxes of letters and receipts and stories about courtship and child-rearing and illness. About faith and travail and Temperance and (halting) abolition.
These documents are also full of stories, unspoken, etched out stories that have to be inferred from the hash marks of names. “Your letter came by Phill.” Phill, the postilion, the man who got a new suit every year, the man who also sometimes collected or delivered payment. The man who was (quasi) trusted.
I want these documents to say, “I trust Phill. He’s a good man. Today, his daughter came to sit and read with Louisa and me. It was a pleasant afternoon.”
I grow weary of reading story in mentions . . .
until the hash marks of history draw me to Joe or Carol or Bill or Stacey, the people for whom these hash marks are THE only story.
For them, for us, for me, I put my head back down and decipher again amongst the receipts, and the incomplete inventories, and the bricks discarded beside the blacksmith’s shop.