I have long resisted filling in the blanks of my own history of an enslaved family, refugees from the Haitian Revolution making their way in several North American port cities. I have been able to follow this group through five generations, from the 1780s to the 1880s, but the records are in shards: baptisms, deaths, sales, mortgages, freedom papers, travel permits, court filings, the census. I have no narrative evidence, except that which comes from the slave holders (and even that is slim). Still, when I assemble these fragments, common threads emerge. I see choices that were made and paths not taken. I see signs of what constituted what we would term “family.” For me, the silences are artifacts that demand explanation rather than filling in. Voids in the historical record, and there are so many, need to be left undisturbed. The historian’s charge, as I see it, is to explain the lives of slaves through their very distance from the archive. This approach makes the instances in which enslaved people broke the silence more meaningful.
In this paper, I contemplate another approach. How might fiction, memoir, and a historian’s imagination and capacity for informed speculation produce insight that advances our understanding of the past. Through such approaches, is it possible to know rather than simply imagine slavery?