Program Notes

Hear Our Loss

The separation of biologically related peoples into racial categories “is at the heart of an unresolved American identity crisis…and makes the resolution of the general race problem virtually impossible.”
— Carlos Fernández

Hear Our Loss is a collaboration between Dance ’18 and the Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories (MCRC) Project.  The MCRC Project mobilizes the transformative powers of the arts to present an assumption-shattering narrative about race. The popular assumption asks us to see differences in skin, eye color/shape and hair texture as the evidence that race exists. The MCRC Project presents RACE as a label imposed on biologically insignificant physical differences. The 400-year history of race as a concept (since 1607 Jamestown) tells us that race is a highly toxic, relationship-severing invention put in place (with legal force) to purposely and unequally divide families, friendships and ancestors into categories such as Asian, Black and White. Grasping this, changes our assumptions about who we are and evokes a softer, mournful quality, to the way we see race and different race-labeled peoples. This transformation mentally prepares us to have the conversation that so many in the United States have been waiting for. 

Five student choreographers collaborated to produce Hear Our Loss, which gives expression to the national tragedy that resulted from racial classification. Words cannot convey the emotional trauma that resulted from the separation and loss that racial categorization mandated. As Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova puts it: "If I could have said it, I shouldn't have had to dance it."  The choreographers use the “language of the body” to tell us about that which is otherwise incomprehensible. 

The choreography is inspired by the Robert and Margaret Garner story. The Garners were an enslaved couple who escaped from Kentucky in January 1856 to freedom in Ohio with their four children all under age six and a baby on the way. The children appeared, according to newspaper reports of the day, as “negro,” “mulatto,” “almost- /nearly- white,” and “light enough to show a red tinge in the cheeks.” Their mother Margaret was described as having “1/4 to 1/3 white blood” and Robert as dark-complexioned.  When the family finds themselves surrounded by deputy marshals, Margaret responded “as best she could” to save her children from a return to enslavement.   Margaret slashes two-year-old Mary’s throat killing her, hit nine-month old Cilla across the side of the face with a coal shovel, and wounds four-year Samuel with a knife. When Archibald Gaines (Margaret’s master) arrives on the scene he orders deputies not to harm the children, at least two of whom are rumored and appear to be his.  Archibald enters the room and picks up Mary’s lifeless body, refusing to let go or to relinquish her body to authorities.

Hear Our Loss implores audiences to hear about this tragedy in all its complexities and reflect on:

  • Margaret’s ability to care so deeply for children who were the product of her master’s acts of rape and sexual abuse;
  • Robert’s ability to care deeply for the children that were presumably not his, two of whom appeared a different race than he but  shared his legal classification (Black and enslaved);
  • how the children regarded the two men—Robert and Archibald;
  • how the siblings comprehended their physical differences;
  • Gaines’s reaction to the death of a baby daughter that he owned–a baby who appeared White but legally followed the enslaved condition of her mother Margaret.

These questions speak to our nation’s unresolved identity crisisHear Our Loss is a family drama about people gravely affected by, and coming to tragic terms with, a categorical system.  This story of profound turmoil and loss on so many levels is presented in six scenes:

Prologue - The performance opens with a plea to listen to a story that our country has not yet been able to process, or even acknowledgeKnow that “It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak and another to hear” (Henry David Thoreau).  The dance and music speak the truth, but the audience must listen and absorb that truth if it is to be heard.

Scene 1 - Biological Ties “Who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves?” [1] Margaret who is 21 years of age, is Mulatto-classified and the mother of four children with a fifth on the way.  Biologically, at least two of four children, as well as the baby in her womb, are likely Archibald’s.  While we can despise their father, what do we make of the children who are the offspring of this union?   In this scene we meet Archibald Gaines (the master), Margaret and her husband, Robert.  The choreographers have chosen to feature two children:  Mary (age two), who appears “almost White” and Samuel (age four) who appears Mulatto.

Scene 2 - Swaddled by Category Margaret, who is pregnant, with a child that is not Robert’s, must surely wonder what “category” her unborn child will appear to be. She knows that the condition-of-the-mother law ensures that her baby, no matter its appearance or biological father, will be classified as enslaved and Black. But will her baby have the skin shade and hair texture of the man who owns her? Or will the baby’s appearance fail to advertise this connection?

 Scene #3There is No Father How does Margaret (like all women in her position) come to terms, however uneasy, that Archibald is both the biological father and the baby’s owner? One answer is to tell herself that “the baby, the baby would make everything perfect” and decide “there is no father.”

 Scene # 4 - I Love You with All My Weight Here weight is a reference to the symbolic and social weight of racial categories. How does Robert relate to his 2-year-old stepdaughter, Mary, who likely thinks of him as her father?  Robert appears Black and enslaved and his stepdaughter appears White and free (even as she shares his enslaved status).  Still he loves her despite all the “weight” and strain their differing appearances put on the relationship.

Scene #5 - What Did We Do? Scene 5 has two parts, each distinguished by a Negro spiritual, Were You There? and Walk Together Children.

Were You There? - The Garner family crosses the Ohio River to freedom and make their way to a safe house.  In time, the house is surrounded by deputies at which point Margaret takes matters into her hands.  The explanation Margaret Garner gave as to why she killed Mary and managed to wound two others follow: It [Mary] was my own, given to me of God, to do the best a mother could on its behalf.  I have done the best I could. I would have done more and better for the rest! I knew it was better for them to go home to God than back to slavery.”   

An adaptation of the 19th century Negro spiritual “Were You There?”  by Kelly Moffett (Professor of Creative Writing) is sung by tenor Jason Vest (Professor of Voice) asks:  Were you there when she pierced the baby’s neck? Were you there when she had to kill her child? Were you there when she did the best she could? Of course, none of us were there, but publicly raising these questions evokes remembrance and mourning of a national tragedy. Margaret, herself a child of the Black- and White-classified, bore children of the White- and Black-classified.  U.S. laws forced these children of Black and White into one category—Black—by putting a legal structure into place that both incentivized and forced (willing and unwilling) the White-classified to abandon their children who showed even the smallest trace of African descent. 

 Walk Together Children - How do the Garner children—the children of the Black and White-classified—move on from this tragedy?   One answer, however inadequate, lies in the words of the Negro Spiritual Walk Together Children

Walk together children

Don't you get weary

Walk together children

Don't you get weary

Oh, talk together children

Don't you get weary

There's a great camp meeting in the promised land

Epilogue: Don’t Go - Samuel and Mary do not appear to be the same race but they share a mother and a father in Robert.  Both are children of the Black-and White-classified.  They are family. The choreography cries out to us to look at the four as family and to work hard to transcend the classification system that has taught us to see race without regard for family ties.

The oppressive grip of this classification system drove Margaret to try and kill all her children. Consider that if the Garner family had succeeded in gaining freedom, the little girls who appeared White would more than likely have disappeared into that category when they got older, never to see their mother, siblings and stepfather again. What we did to the children of the White and Black-classified matters and what we still do to them matters. The White-classified have not acknowledged their losses or thought to thank the Black-classified for taking in and caring for their children they outright rejected and/or that the laws forced them to give up. The laws cared not whether these children were conceived out of love, rape or something in between. The children of the White- and Black-classified did not fit easily within the Black category as they carried in their DNA vast deposits of unresolved and unfinished grief. Note: it would be a mistake to think that the “almost white” are the so-called mixed race among us.  This population is not small—the children of the Black and White classified are every shade on the color line, including the so-called White.  It is likely that all of us have ancestors classified a different race than the race we identify with or are perceived.

Mourning is one of the most profound human experiences that it is possible to have…The deep capacity to weep…is one of our noblest human traits.
— Edwin Schniedman

These program notes were written by Joan Ferrante (Professor of Sociology) in collaboration with India Hackle (International Studies Major) and in consultation with Tracey Bonner (Dance), Lynnissa Hillman (Sociology), Renee McCafferty (Dance), Kelly Moffett (English), Robert Wallace (English) and Kris Yohe (English).  The scenes were inspired by the poetry of Betsy Ball (“Afterbirth” and :First Born”),  India Hackle (“I Love You With All My Weight” and  “The Ohio River”) Kirsten Hurst (“That Time I Talked to Race”), Madison Pullins (“The Note”), Mark Yousif (“Birth Observer” and “Escape Night, List”).  The five choreographers and the 21 dancers conveyed the emotional complexity that words in these program notes cannot. 

[11] These are the words of Harriet Jacobs in the 1861 autobiographical slave narrative, Incidents of a Life of a Slave Girl.