As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
I am petitioned by Cato to make a visit to see his wife and to start with I am but not knowing your wish upon the subject and fearing Sam might indulge him in riding your colts thought it best not to let him go. — Overseer Dudley Ragland to his master
It is such a small request – to visit his wife, a woman who – if my research and surmise are correct – is living and working on a very nearby farm. Yet, Ragland will not grant Cato, the enslaved stone mason, permission to leave the farm because he is worried that the master will not approve and that Sam, one of the stable hands, will let Cato ride a thoroughbred colt on the visit. Of course, those are only the stated reasons. Underneath those justifications are all Ragland’s and the master’s fears about escape and uprising.
I read this, and the edges of my chest ache. To make such a request alone was dangerous because of the fears that it stirred, so I know that Cato was longing for his wife in a way that made even that risk worth it. Yet, he was refused. I can’t even imagine.
My biggest fear is that I will die alone. If I dwell on the idea, it can paralyze me, so I don’t dwell. But when I read things of how another person’s fear, how a society’s fear and selfishness kept a man from the woman he loved, how he may have feared, as he quarried giant stones from sheer rock faces with a chisel and a hammer, that he could die at any moment without having seen her again, I use my own fear to find Cato’s pain.
Perhaps the thing I have learned the most from this book is that our human experience – our joy, our grief, our fear, our anger, our hatred, our laughter, our tears – is universal. I’ve known this, of course. It’s a basic premise all writers take on when we decide to put words to paper. Yet, in this place where we often let so much divide us, it is easy to forget how truly alike we all are – scared, lonely, friendly, achy, laughter-filled people.
Today, I will edit the penultimate chapter of this book. (I edited the final chapter weeks ago.) In these few pages, I come to the last thing I know of Cato’s life, and when I think of it, I can almost taste the joy, the way an autumn bonfire lights up the back of my throat with fiery hope. The story in this chapter is more than I can imagine wanting for the final pages of this book, and yet, it is the actuality of the story – the way the story walked around in human bodies – that lights me up.
I do not want to tell you what the story is, what five words on a piece of paper scribbled in an archive made me weep with hope. I want you to read the hope yourself, not as a marketing ploy for the book, but because there is something powerful about finding hope after pain, joy after loss. My prayer is that you will see all of that experience in the pages of this book.
So I leave you with this – Cato, a man, and the promise he was given, that I am delighted to pass on to you – the promise of hope that attends all of us in these human frames.
Despite the fear and the pain, in the midst of the daily rise and fall of life, there is hope. Always hope. On every page.