“I beg you to allow me to take pictures of your utmost suffering.”

Eiichi Matsumoto, Photographer, Hiroshima

By Anne Farrow

Almost 20 years ago, I began studying slavery as an assignment. My editor at the Sunday magazine had received a request from the editor in chief, who wanted the magazine to discover and explore the life of an enslaved person in early Connecticut.

I thought this was, simply, a story assignment. Find the person, do the research, write the story, and then move on to the next task.

But I had reckoned without Pegg, without Phylis, without a man who ran away with his violin. I had not expected that these long-dead Black people, all held as captives, would step into my daily life, my dreams, and haunt me.

I expected that my colleague and I would excavate the story of a real person, re-imagine the world that person lived in, and then help readers try to understand an experience they had not thought about before. I did not expect to be recreated. I did not expect these suffering and persecuted people to change me and to make everything that came after them seem smaller.

God blesses writers who study records. The court documents, wills, newspapers, and diaries of colonial Connecticut showed me that the narrative of brave and hardy New England, that world of white steeples, town greens, and patriots, was indeed a world, but a floating one. It floated on a deeper world of stolen labor and misery and murdered human beings.

Once I saw Pegg, whose Litchfield County owner wanted to sell her because she would not stop crying, and Phylis, a child in central Connecticut sold with two cows, and Venture, an adolescent who was beaten and hung from a meat hook, I could not unsee them.  The extraordinary regional and national prosperity that followed from their abuse did not distract me from their human pain, and the pain of countless others.

My colleagues and I entered their world, but everything I learned about New England and the slaving trade, the men and the ships and the Caribbean money that made of these American colonies an economic powerhouse, did not enlarge my frame. The anguished persistence of these betrayed black people kept my focus small. I couldn’t get past what they suffered every day.

When critics said that I was failing to “contextualize” the story, and that I needed to see the larger picture, I thought, what on earth is the “context” for a small girl in a booming port city being beaten by her owner with a bull whip and dying of her injuries?    

Zeno haunts me too. She died in the city where the man in a wool coat fled with his violin. I wonder if he made it to freedom, although his odds in mid-18th century Connecticut, where blackness most often signaled enslavement, were poor.

The context for New England slavery – that mother country England had been at the helm of the slave trade for four centuries; that there was a labor shortage in this New World; that trade in lumber, crops, and humans was lucrative – those all seemed like excuses, not reasons. They never made me understand how New England became a society with slaves.

At the state library one day, I read in a ship’s log of children being rowed in small boat out to the slaving ship. For the first and only time in my life, I forgot where I was. I was in the longboat with the children, and I saw them being handed up into the larger vessel. I saw their small brown arms being grasped by a white crewman and heard the gulls screaming overhead. I felt a nudge, and a genealogist on the opposite side of the research table pushed her Kleenex box toward me.

“Your people,” she asked?

 Anne Farrow is a former reporter at The Hartford Courant, and co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery (Ballantine/Random House, 2005). She is the author of The Logbooks: Connecticut Slave Ships and Human Memory (Wesleyan University Press, 2014). She lives in Bath, Maine.


3 thoughts on “Changed by an Assignment

  1. I’ve this. So human. At a time when the news includes regular stories of the mistreatment of others, your words show that little has changed.

  2. Hello Anne, Good to reestablish contact in this strange new world. The temptation is to focus on the local, but the Atlantic world, which connected peoples and economies, provides the context to understand the origins of American racism and the efforts toward African American identity. Years ago I dug out a lot of details on free blacks in colonial New Haven but didn’t get them into publishable form. Now the project is documenting the context for enslaved and free blacks in colonial Groton. Covid set in before research was quite complete, and postponed the lecture date indefinitely, but it’s a powerful story and fully tied to the connection between New England and the Caribbean sugar islands. And of course these research projects give us new perspective on the “patriots” who espoused independence while dragging their heels on emancipation. No easy answers but lots of details to interpret. Best wishes for the holidays!

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