Tag Archives: Kyra Gaunt

A powerful letter from my great-great-grandfather, who escaped slavery in 1855

Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history. On June 19, 149 years ago, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in the United States. In this piece, Kyra Gaunt shares a letter written by her great-great-grandfather – a slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad – and reflects on why so few of us seem to remember slavery and its history. 

According to the Office of Minority Health, in 2012 there were 43.1 million people who identify as African-American. I could lay money that, next year, fewer than 1 percent will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called United States. It was on this day in 1865 that, two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America.

Many African-Americans don’t have detailed stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape. At least, my family didn’t. When I grew up, no one in our community talked about slaves. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner. The talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved African people).

We were property, not human beings whose culture and nationality was stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip. So I was struck to my core with tears when I recently read a copy of a letter written by my great-great-grandfather in 1855. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. When he reached Philadelphia, he sent this note to a friend, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail — left behind as a casualty of his emancipation.

Here is the letter, unedited and in full:


BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.


Yesterday is the fust time i have heard from home Sence i left and i have not got any thing yet i have a tear yet for my fellow man and it is in my eyes now for God knows it is tha truth i sue for your Pity and all and may God open their hearts to Pity a poor Woman and two children. The Sum is i believe 14 hundred Dollars Please write to day for me and see if the cant do something for humanity.

I wept deeply when I read this letter and an accompanyingaccount of a merciless whipping before his escape. His writing spoke of options I never, even as a professor, realized a slave could have.

Here was a literate man well versed in writing by 1855, who clearly articulates the value of his freedom, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from theCompromise of 1850 – which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class-ranking Jim Crow laws. He could have been snatched back to Virginia if ever found in Boston by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence of a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned by a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, in his humanity and in the justice of being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone I am related to, someone I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery. Reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and contemporary youth must be remembered to this kind of inscribed evidence of our cultural evolution. Evidence of owning not just one’s liberty but one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendence from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction.

The cherry-picked popular slave narratives or mediated memories from Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots are like secondhand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all: they are broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s beloved story of a mother killing her children rather than let them live as chattel slaves. Non-blacks aren’t the only ones who resist remembering slavery.

My great-great-grandfather lives first-hand: “i love my freedom.” We know slaves taught themselves to read and write. In this exchange of ideas written in 1855, Sheridan Ford speaks to not just valuing but owning his own freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Spielberg or Tarantino could ever aptly capture. Now I can’t wait to tell about his second wife, my great-great-grandmother Clarissa Davis, who escaped to freedom dressed as a man.

Ethnomusicologist and Baruch College-CUNY professorKyra Gaunt, Ph.D,. is a 2009 TED Fellow. Her scholarship focuses on black girlhood, with special attention to their offline musical play and online content creation. She’s the author of The Games Black Girls Play.

Arming rebels with art – Esther Chae’s memoir of teaching in Nigeria

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers,  in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film. 

A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.”  I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.


How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?

That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.

In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film.  Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.”  Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.

The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time).  This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”


Filmmaking class.

Filmmaking class.

In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class.  He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms.  He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust.  I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.

The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and  less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll.  I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.

I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.

When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s.  They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

But later, I understood why.  Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…

One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”

Well, that was helpful information.  No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly.  Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.

The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again.  I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.




Free e-book: WHAT’S DYING TO BE BORN enjoy!

An International Women's Day Gift – What is Dying to be Born?

If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.

~ Toni Morrison

Click the link and you can download the book: http://tinyurl.com/ybn9lld

My piece is called TRANSPARENCY.

Enjoy and definitely let me know if you enjoy the e-book but more importantly if you do not and share what was missing for you.


?uestion: Are We Being Served?: Lunch Counters, Racism, and the Real-Time Web of Twitter

(rev. 2/5/2010)

My day started with an amazing Haiti Teach-In at Baruch College-CUNY with my colleague Haitian Carolle Charles, who was featured on the cover of the NYTimes this same day (above the fold, no less). That was immediately followed by a great 3rd meeting of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology class where I introduced social constructs. Did you know that the “weekend” is a social construct?

a social construct is an idea which may appear to be natural and obvious to those who accept it, but in reality is an invention or artifact of a particular culture or society.

The “weekend” do not exist in nature, per se, and yet it is perceived as natural and obvious though at some point long, long ago, human beings invented it as a sort of technology to deal with the work week. Social constructs are odd discourses, like race, because changing something we have agreed seems so natural and real (“that’s the way it is”) requires a lot of hard and endless work to achieve simply because we have forgotten it was invented. LOL. Signs of its persistence abound but in reality we keep social constructs around by talking about them over and over again. Thus the persistence of stereotypes and all the larger structural implications of racial discourse. When I returned to my office in the late afternoon, I learned that a whole brouhaha had erupted hours earlier about a “Fried Chicken menu” at NBC’s 30 Rock cafeteria.

Almost to the day fifty years ago, a group of “Negro” students from North Carolina A&T staged a non-violent protest at lunch counters in a fight for equal rights for all. Because of their darker skin, they were refused service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. To protest, they remained seated while waiting to be served. The anniversary of their pivotal acts of non-violence remind me of how young people’s actions turned the tide of the Civil Rights movement.  Twitter wants to become a similar platform for people to voice their racial dissent in real-time. The only problem is that certain geographical and social disconnects of class and nation between “black” actors cannot be galvanized in the same way as the sit-ins. Life on Twitter is much more unexpected and unpredictable leading to clashes of culture as was experienced today, February 4th, around a tweet about a menu in honor of Black History Month. The tweet transformed NBC’s ordinary cafeteria, at least for a NY minute, into a 21st century “lunch counter” of racial stereotyping about fried chicken and black-eyed peas.  The sit-ins of the past because a tweet-in of the present over what and who was being served at NBC.

IS FRIED CHICKEN TOO P.C. FOR NBC OR ARE WE? (#blackhistorymonthfail)
In honor of Black History Month, the NBC menu read: “Fried chicken, collard greens w/ smoked turkey, white rice/black eyed peas, and jalapeno cornbread” @Questlove, aka Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, currently of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon fame, tweeted a link to a photo of the menu that he captured himself along with “Hmm HR?” The menu seemed to offend many in the Twitterverse as I scanned through the day’s streem of tweets. One tweet that followed read: black.history.month.fail. Sparked by hundreds of retweets, NBC Universal replied on Twitter: “The sign in the NBCU cafeteria has been removed. We apologize for anyone who was offended by it.”

Read more: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2010/02/04/oops-nbc-offends-black-musician-fried-chicken-cafeteria-special-honor-bl#ixzz0edH7tEBJ

Fueled by popular (meaning “everyday”) perceptions of NBC as unfavorable to black audiences and actors (think 10 seasons of NBC’s Friends devoid of funk in the whitest New York City ever witnessed on Must-See TV), the tweet by Questlove would inadvertantly trump the local efforts of black folk working behind the counter who had spent the last two seasons of Black History Month at NBC struggling to get their culture ON the menu not off.  What’s ironic about the brouhaha is that the menu was actually requested by black staff for Black History Month. One disheartened cook from the cafeteria explained (see video). Their efforts were eclipsed, though not necessarily forever, by all kinds of blogs and reports about the reaction to the tweet. For instance, if you Google “NBC” and “Blacks” right now, all the top hits are about this controversy without much mention of the folks who took a stand for minority representation in their own workplace. They, who work beyond the glare of cameras and late night jokes at NBC Universal, learned of the thwarting power of Twitter by those who have access versus those who don’t. 

For Questlove “Hmm HR?” was likely a perfectly innocent tweet for a man who once called himself “BROther ?uestion”. But as I told my students earlier this week, people often take their views of maps as if that’s the way the real world looks, as if North is actually UP (see the Peters Map or a South-Up Australia-centered map). Questlove made an assumption from the surface about what might be going on without considering the other implications as most people on Twitter do day in and out. Somehow I think this links to the ways in which race as skin-color works. Such a cursory glance presumed everything about a person just from the surface of their skin.

There are menus and then there is the meal. If you eat the menu, you will NEVER be satisfied–social constructs 101. When we consume ideas of race and racism or even look for injustices at the level of individual, sometimes we get caught in the flatland or a superstition like the once held “truth” that the earth is flat. Thinking from ideas that are not based in reality—or initial perceptions are often disconnected from the social resources, labor, costs and technologies of intellect and community that lead to the moment. It often leads to what I call “kooky” behavior. Jumping to conclusions because things seem perfectly real or obvious often leads to a dangerous, slippery slope to hell where our perceptions severely limit our perspectives and the possibilities of seeing beyond the moment to connect to others’ liberation that may not look like sitting at the lunch counter. What does it say that the protest is being lodged from BEHIND it? (rev. 2/5/10)

Since its Black History Month, here’s a little trivia for you. What was NBC once endearingly called by many blacks in the 1940s thru the 1960s? The “Negro Broadcast Company”! My mom, who was raised in the D.C. area, recalled that NBC was the only channel that prominently featured blacks. From my own research on Ethel Waters (1896-1977), the richest woman (and I didn’t say black woman) in Hollywood and the most powerful on Broadway during her day, was the very first black to have her own TV show The Ethel Waters Show on NBC in 1939. It was called an “experiment” at the time. The Nat “King” Cole Show is more popularly remembered as the first show on television featuring an African American which was also on NBC. It was a fifteen-minute weekly musical variety show in November 1956.

In more recent decades, with the exception of the Bill Cosby era of the 1980s and its spinoff A Different World, NBC is no longer considered an innovator in Black programming. The only caveat might be the fact that The Roots are the house band on the LATE show (visions from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled are dancing in my head right now SMH). I should be glad the brothers are getting paid every night. Everybody’s gotta sleep n eat, right!? <tongue deeply in cheek>. One outcome of their regularly being in NYC is their regular $10 shows at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan. The sit-ins of 1960 will be remembered in pictures just as the tweet-in yesterday might be, sparked by a pic Questlove sent about fried chicken on the NBC menu. But there are many other “lunch counters” where a tweet-in might redefine rather than disrupt everyday workplaces that need to be transformed. When Twitter starts making a meal of such social inequities, a 21st century March on Washington is a distinct possibility. Hope we don’t have to wait til 2013.


Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us….I supposed that all the objects (presentations [i.e., tweets]) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had
in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams (René Descartes, 15)

Questlove wrote about 8 hours ago i think i need a twitter break. i done started something. and now i must put out fire.” The discourse–the process of reasoning–surrounding race and racism, whether face-to-face and on Twitter, are a special kind of conversation or languaging that we take to be real–they were invented not much differently than maps and passed around, displayed and we simply forgot it’s not the thing, its our view of things that upsets us. Upsets persist as if they are as real as the color of my skin. They are not.

The social construct of race spins its complicated web over time and space and a “real-time” tweet launched by a popular black musician on Twitter with 1,287,559+ followers at the time of writing this piece, calls a popular proverb to mind: “Too whom much is given, much is expected”. Said in redux “Too whom many follow, much is expected”. Tweets ignite meaning. Folks are listening to those #140 characters or less and running with them, often without context. But such lessons in the real-time Internet are to be learned in hindsight. And perhaps ought to be so. Twitter needs to add the new three Rs to the old set–Reflection, Relationships and Resilience (Daniel Siegel) and that comes with time.

Despite Twitter’s treasured values of transparency, connectedness and blurring the walls that more or less separate top from bottom in society and despite the ascension of Obama as POTUS, conversations of race and racism on Twitter are not any less complicated than they are in real meatspace (face-to-face). They might be that much more complicated by the lack of limitations in a real-time Internet. We have forgotten that tweets are still laced with racial residue from its senders, that past injustices seep into the Twitter stream through the pigments of our social and historical hands that grasp and hold on to the ideas of our racialized bodies with the same national and international discourse of white privilege ingrained in our subconscious..

We have yet to really deal with a future full of diverse followers ready to tweet hundreds of cliché reactions about race and racism into the Twitter stream. Tweets that at their start may be misconstrued or misunderstood observations. Last summer’s twensorship of the #thatsafrican trending topic is perfect example, but that’s a story for another anniversary.

As some people celebrate Black History Month, others do not. They choose instead to celebrate black culture & history every day.  While some of us (“us” here in all instances means all people not just black), while some of us love fried chicken and acknowledge its Southern and/or black roots, others do not. They choose to disassociate with it because, well, it’s too black, too fried or too chicken (for the vegans in the house).

So I ask why don’t we just Agree to Be Offended and Stay in the Conversation i.e., Stay Connected. Perhaps we can have our fried chicken and collard greens with smoked turkey (instead of hamhocks) and celebrate America’s history too. As I said in a quibble on Twitter two days about repeating the stereotypes about angry black women in praising Mrs. Michelle Obama’s appearance on…yes NBC’s Today Show, perhaps the dismantling doesn’t need our additional pointing to the past that once was. Perhaps it also doesn’t mean rejecting our love for traditions, fried chicken and black eyed peas. Collard greens and, yes, watermelon because it really doesn’t mean all that mumbo jumbo anymore. Yes, there’s fried chicken on the menu AND perhaps we won’t need a segregated month of history to cure our social indigestion.


Kyra D. Gaunt, Ph.D.  
2009 TED Fellow
Associate Professor at Baruch College-CUNY
Voicing “the unspoken” through song, scholarship and social media

An idea worth spreading: Agree to be Offended & Get Connected (TM). Reveal the remarkable Oneness of Humanity.
“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers” — Kahlil Gibran