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Looking for York in Terra Incognita

September 08, 2010

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    Valerie White (right) with artist Alison Saar at the dedication of York: Terra Incognita.

by Valerie White, Lewis & Clark Ombudsperson

As a black woman, I am moved beyond language to be here when we honor those without names or status, people who made a difference in large and small ways. I am the granddaughter of an immigrant and a descendant of a Virginia slave who was York’s contemporary. I marvel at how my ancestors’ sacrifices and love have cleared the way for me. They could never have known through what woods we’d travel for me to be here today. Terra incognita.

My father always said there’s no such thing as “can’t,” but I think that, for most of his life, York would have said, “Yes, there is.” On some days, I’d agree with York because structural obstacles or intransigence look insurmountable. Most days I understand my dad’s belief, because if, with support from others, you’ve worked hard enough to prepare yourself, you might be lucky enough to be standing near the door that cracks open. The trick is to believe my dad’s right, because then you keep trying.

Each of us has our own stories of facing huge odds. This is part of what makes York’s story so compelling. We’d understand if we learned that he felt crushed by some of the horrific conditions of his life. In York’s birthplace, Virginia, conditions could be terrible for most slaves—or for free blacks, for that matter.

According to the expedition journals, York, as a slave, did everything expected of him: killed buffalo, carried dead deer, swam a river for fresh food, scouted for game, acted the statesman or entertainer with Indians, tended the ill, dug holes, built things, voted. As a man, he went well beyond what was expected on that journey, even demonstrating compassion.

We know he asked for his freedom many times over the years. But Clark didn’t think York had done anything special enough to warrant it. Instead, Clark felt he deserved whipping and harsh treatment.

But there was a constant theme for York: he persisted because he wanted to be with his wife, who lived elsewhere. York was a family man without his family. Terra incognita.

Like York, my great-great-great-grandfather Captain Henry Jackson was owned by a prosperous man. Even though the State of Virginia made it very hard to free a slave, his owner did free him in 1811, close to the time York sought freedom from Clark. My greatgreat- grandpa William Jackson was, therefore, born free in 1818. One of the many things Grandpa Jackson did was help slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. When I reread parts of his journal recently, one of the entries electrified me in a new way:

“June 15, 1857: I am revived and more lifted up in my mind than I have been for some time past, I have during the past week been very successful in helping two men to obtain their freedom, one from Washington and one from Kentucky.”

Kentucky! York had left Kentucky and was long dead by then, but maybe the Kentuckian was a nephew or friend of York’s. It doesn’t really matter for us today, but it mattered to the former slave. And it matters to his descendants, wherever they may be. Terra incognita.

And so here I am today at Lewis & Clark. I love my job, and I’m blessed to be with our students. But I have to tell you: I’ve thought a lot about us as we wonder together whether we’re a community.

Terra incognita. I don’t think it’s so much about the distance between here and there, or home and away. It’s the space between you and me. If I’m sure I know what I see in you, the Truth, which can only be my truth, there’s no room for your story. There’s no way to bridge the divide. It’s like thinking that I’m looking through a window to you, when I’m really looking into a mirror.

Clark, shaped by his times, knew for years he was right to keep York chained. He was sure he was justified when he beat York or criticized his attitude after the expedition returned to St. Louis. It’s more than bitter irony that Clark, a consummate family man, couldn’t fathom why York wouldn’t let go of his wife in Nashville. Clark’s truth was that a slave shouldn’t care about family.

I can’t make my way to us if I’m unwilling to be wrong about what I’m sure is the Truth. If I lecture you about the Truth, all I probably ensure is that you’re flattened by the volume, and can’t hear me as you try to keep yourself together. I have to be as willing to be changed by you, your thoughts and feelings, as I hope you are by mine. I have to risk a gentle step closer to you, lean in a bit, and say, “I’m ready to listen.”

York couldn’t choose whether he’d go through unknown territory. But I can. And today I say, in front of him and you, “Yes. I’m ready to listen. Please tell me what this is like for you, when you’re ready.”

This essay was adapted from White’s remarks at the May 8 dedication ceremony for Alison Saar’s newest public sculpture, York: Terra Incognita. For more information about the York project, see Honoring York.