May 11, 2010

Looking for York in Terra Incognita

Looking for York in Terra Incognita
  • Photo by: Motoya Nakamura, The Oregonian

On May 8, 2010, Lewis & Clark dedicated York: Terra Incognita, a permanent campus memorial created by artist Alison Saar. Learn more about the project in the Lewis & Clark Newsroom. Ombudsperson Valerie Craigwell White offered the following remarks during the dedication ceremony.

Today we honor those who were here before us: the Multnomah Chinooks who welcomed the Lewis & Clark Expedition when they arrived in Portland. The Multnomahs are gone now, only a memory. I remember. There were others here too: salmon, eagles, otters, cedar trees. Today we also honor York and the others of the Expedition who walked, rode, and canoed their way to our beloved Pacific.

Terra Incognita. To whom was this land unknown?

To label the Lewis & Clark Expedition the Corps of Discovery makes it easy to overlook the fact that they weren’t the first here. But it does suggest that someone was back home thinking, ok, good, now our people are there. That said, you can’t argue that from one perspective they were discoverers: a young nation craved easier and cheaper access to resources that belonged to someone else; people were curious about just what was beyond the next bend in the river; and young people longed for adventure, or maybe just a job. Whatever you say about the men, Sacagawea, and her baby Jean Baptiste, they surely tested their limits when they walked their way west and then east across thousands of miles. We remain stunned by what they accomplished and salute them.

As a Black woman I am moved beyond language because I’m here when we honor those without names or status, people who made a difference in large and small ways. I marvel that as an immigrant’s granddaughter, and as a descendent from a Virginia slave who was York’s contemporary, their 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. As poet Langston Hughes might say, you can sit down for a minute, but only to rest a bit before you get back up.

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. And life was especially hard on the Kentucky frontier as there were many armed battles after the Clark family, York, and the family’s other slaves moved there.

Eventually, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark turned their eyes west. According to the Expedition journals, as a slave, York did everything expected of him: killed buffalo, carried dead deer, swam a river for fresh food, scouted, 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. You heard students read Clark’s sentiments. He didn’t think York had done anything special enough to warrant freedom, deserving instead a whipping, and labor under a different and harsh master. But there was something I didn’t realize 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. We can’t imagine it. Terra incognita.

Like York, my great great great grandfather Captain Henry Jackson was owned by a prosperous man. But at a time when the State of Virginia made it very hard to free a slave, his owner did, in 1811, a few years before York might have been freed by Clark. My great great 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. I reread excerpts from his journal to prepare for today, and one of the entries electrified me in a way it hadn’t before:

“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! Of course 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 descendents, 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. With the exception of a few years away, I’ve worked here since 1994. But I have to tell you: there’ve been times this year it’s felt like unknown territory. In addition to the good times, we’ve really struggled. I’ve thought a lot about us as we wonder together whether we’re a community. And I couldn’t help but think about all of that as I prepared to stand before you and York today.

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, 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. As our president said today, I have to call myself to account for what I have done, and what I have not. And I can make a space so others might consider doing the same. 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.”

Thank you.