The Always-Present Past: Finding a Way to See Slavery and Racism Anew

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Written by Atiba R. Ellis

Much has been made of the recent slavery-era western, Django Unchained.  Director Quentin Tarantino’s narrative about a former slave who seeks to free his wife from her owners has captured the popular imagination and generated significant (though not universal) praise from critics.  Yet, while Tarantino can draw attention by virtue of being Tarantino, the fact that he set his epic in America’s slavery epoch has in and of itself stirred a different, yet significant discussion.  Pundits and reviewers have debated the use of the n-word in the film, and the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of slavery.  Indeed, one reviewer said of the film that the movie was “remarkably, very much about the pernicious lunacy of racism and, yes, slavery’s singular horrors.”

This “pernicious lunacy of racism” and these “singular horrors” of slavery were on my mind as Django is being shown in theaters.  Indeed, I thought a great deal about these horrors while writing my recently published essay, Polley v. Ratcliff:  A New Way to Address an Original Sin?

The essay recites the history of one of those “singular horrors” of slavery, the brutal kidnapping of the children of Peyton Polley, who along with his entire family, had been freed in 1849.  In particular, his children Harrison, Louisa, and Anna Polley (along with seven other of the Polley children) were abducted in 1851 by a gang of slave hunters hired by a creditor of the Polley family’s former owner.   The Polley children were then re-sold into slavery in Kentucky and western Virginia (which seceded from Virginia to become West Virginia in 1863).  The Polleys, represented by the State of Ohio, sued for the freedom of their abducted children in the late 1850s.  They won their Kentucky litigation.  Indeed, they even won the western Virginia litigation, only to have the judgment vacated and suit dismissed on appeal.  The parties supporting the Polleys sued again; the matter, however, disappeared from the records of the Wayne County courts somewhere around 1859 with no final judgment.

Remarkably, the suit reemerged in the twenty-first century.  Mr. James Hale, a fifth generation descendent of Peyton Polley, undertook years of research to unearth his family’s legacy and make accessible the incomplete legacy of the Polley children.  On Mr. Hale’s motion, Judge Darrell Pratt of the Wayne County, West Virginia, Circuit Court held a full trial based on the historical record and the evidence from the 1855 trial.  He then entered a judgment on April 6, 2012 that declared the Polley children were free persons as of 1859.  The judge justified his decision to hear this matter on the grounds that it was within the court’s equitable powers to adjudicate the case, and the case mattered significantly for the history of West Virginia and the legacy of the Polley descendants.

I argue in the essay that Judge Pratt’s willingness to hear this case and enter a judgment to, in his words, “set the record straight” represents something deeper.  Judge Pratt made the choice to use the forum of the courts of West Virginia to address the singular horror of slavery the Polley case represents.  Mr. Hale and his kin were allowed space to recite the historical record in this matter and to raise the historical facts and legal issues surrounding this event.  By entering judgment in this case, the judge not only corrected an apparent omission in the record, the history and legacy left by this case were witnessed with state sanction.  Mr. Hale and the other descendants of the Polley children were made whole in their status, and this making whole was through the sanction and auspices of the State of West Virginia.

This act was transformative for the family and for those in the community who witnessed it (the courthouse was packed that afternoon).  Anisa Dye-Hale, another descendant of the Polley children put it this way:  “Slavery is the greatest atrocity in human history.  For my kids to witness the freedom of their ancestors is overwhelming.”

This is the overwhelming power of truth telling.  And it was done in this litigation not for material gain or for retribution for the harms done, but for the virtues and validation that come with an honest airing of history.  The Polley family undertook this litigation not to seek material reparations or to make a political point; they simply wanted to see the travails of their ancestors and their own identities as heirs of the Polley children’s legacy validated.  The judgment certainly validated the Polley descendants.  Indeed, unlike the fiction of Django Unchained, the Polley children’s story gives us a real life lens through which to frame the “pernicious lunacy of racism.”  The Polley judgment offers us an official record of era, and a reflection of the lived experience that was the slavery period.

Awareness of this lived experience has a tremendous power to frame our modern struggles over race.  Indeed, our modern debates about affirmative action, racial reparations, race and crime, and the like, are devoid of this consciousness of history.  Let me be precise:  our debates are not devoid of the history itself, as recited in facts and figures and trends and speculations.  But they are devoid of the power and validation and moral awareness that this kind of truth telling allows.  We see these debates through our modern lenses, including race consciousness, racial reparations, and even post-racialism.  I imagine that many of us get caught up in our own lens and in arguing for the correct lens through which to view our present day world.  But through this truth telling approach, maybe we can receive grounding that might allow us a different path to resolving our modern-day dilemmas.   I believe that such “Truth and Reconciliation” work could allow us new footing to address directly the “pernicious lunacy of racism.”