Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories

Part 2: Let Our Loss Be Heard

     Let Our Loss Be Heard, is inspired the life of Margaret and Robert Garner, an enslaved couple who ran from Kentucky toward freedom into Ohio with their four children all under six years of age. The children appeared, according to newspaper reports, 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.”  Robert was described as dark complexioned. There was also a baby on the way.  When the Garner family found themselves surrounded by deputy marshals, Margaret tried to kill her four children (at least two of whom were very likely fathered by her master Archibald Gaines; it is also possible that he fathered a third and the baby on the way). Margaret’s motive was to save them from a life of enslavement. Margaret managed to kill one child—two-and-a-half-year-old Mary by slitting her throat. Archibald Gaines reportedly picked up little Mary’s lifeless body and sobbed uncontrollably over her corpse.  No one could persuade Gaines to put down the child’s body.

Let Our Loss Be Heard documentary tells the story through dance driven by commentary from choreographers, faculty mentors, the dancers and composers.   The film highlights the children’s complexion and ancestry because acknowledging this allows audiences to grapple with a key idea: The 400+ year-long separation of biologically related peoples into racial categories “is at the heart of an unresolved American identity crisis, a dilemma that perpetuates ethnic and racial disunion and makes the resolution of the general race problem virtually impossible” (Carlos Fernández). Audiences to this documentary will witnesses (vicariously) just one of the millions of stories of how family/biological relationships were severed and rearranged to comply with the categorical mandate that was, and still is (minus legal segregation) the law of the land.  The Garner story allows audiences to hear this complex national history and talk about:

  • Margaret’s ability to care so deeply for children fathered and owned by her master who is legally classified as white;

  • Robert’s ability to care deeply for children that were not his, who appear a different race but share his legal classification (black and enslaved);

  • How the children must have felt toward the two different racially-classified men in their lives—Robert and Archibald;

  • How children who appeared different races felt about each other at the time and, later on in life?

  • And, however difficult, the Garner story also asks audiences to find a way to talk about white-classified Archibald Gaines’ reaction to the death of a baby daughter that he owned–a baby who appeared white but legally followed the condition of her mother Margaret. The children of Archibald and Margaret were also the step children of Archibald’s wife.


Meet the Garner Family

(First 1:13 minutes is performed in silence)

     These are the kinds of questions that will help us confront our nation’s complex and unresolved identity crisis. The estranging power of racial categories over the Garner-Gaines family’s lives and over how observers saw and treated them is almost unbearable.  From a family or biological point of view (not a legal point of view), this is a family drama of people gravely affected by, and coming to tragic terms, with a categorical system.  It is a story of loss, separation and abandonment on so many levels. It is a uniquely tragic story in that it is this “extended” family’s experience but it is not a unique story—it is but one of the countless number of stories of how racial categories came to matter in the United States. [1] For more on this story see program notes from a recent dance performance. 



[1] Note:  Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, is very loosely based on the Margaret Garner story. (The “beloved” in this book was inspired by the daughter who Garner killed.)  Morrison also wrestle with some of the emotional and psychological elements of the historical story in the libretto she wrote for Richard Daniel Pour’s 2005 opera, Margaret Garner.  Morrison’s libretto does incorporate some of what is known about Margaret’s, Robert’s and Archibald’s’ lives but it makes many departures for artistic and dramatic effect—such as having Robert lynched and having Margaret hung, neither of which happened in their real lives.  Our mourning project will interpret the historical Margaret Garner story with different lens and for a different end.