In 1825 in Litchfield, Conn., William Grimes wrote and published the story of his life as a slave and of his subsequent escape to freedom.
Almost two centuries later, his great-great-great-granddaughter Regina Mason picked up where her pioneering ancestor left off, with a book, a documentary and her own story of self-discovery through a rigorous commitment to her family’s past.
On Monday night at the New Haven Museum, Mason and filmmaker Sean Durant presented Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes, a new documentary about Mason’s 15-year pursuit to research, publish and celebrate the life of a family member (and former New Haven resident) who wrote the first autobiographical slave narrative.
Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (1825) was written decades before more familiar entries in the first-person slave narrative genre, such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). The book represents a very early account of the violence, degradation and arbitrary cruelty of American slavery, told from the perspective of a courageous and resilient individual who actually lived through it.
An 1855 edition of the book resides at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library. An original copy of the 1825 edition resides at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Well over 100 attendees filled the museum’s upstairs lecture hall to watch the movie and to listen to Mason talk about how a simple family genealogy project led to a breakthrough in American literary history.
Gina’s Journey is a hybrid of historical reenactment, talking head interviews and voice-over narration (the latter done by actor Keith David).
The movie interweaves two primary storylines: that of Grimes in the South in the early 19th century as he is passed from master to master, from state to state, enduring the brutalities and humiliations of slavery until he manages to escape by ship to New York and then to Connecticut; and that of Mason in late 20th century California, as a budding interest in family history leads her to nearly two decades of painstaking research into just who William Grimes was and just how much he accomplished.
Through its historical reenactments, Gina’s Journey visualizes some of the more remarkable episodes from Grimes’s life. At 10 years old he was sold away from his enslaved, black mother soon after his free, white father shot and killed a man simply for trespassing on his plantation. He was beaten to within an inch of his life by a volatile young master who had misplaced his own umbrella. Sympathetic free, black sailors carved out a space for him to hide amidst bales of cotton on a merchant ship bound for New York City.
But Gina’s Journey does not reserve the drama of its historical reenactments only for its slave narrative.
As a light-skinned child in late 1960s California, Mason was told off by darker-skinned peers for singing James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” since her complexion was not dark enough. As a new mother committed to passing down the family history to her children, Mason browsed through the family Bible at a Memorial Day barbecue in 1993, tracing her ancestors’ names from generation to generation all the way back to 1800s Virginia. As a university registrar in the mid-2000’s without a college degree or any formal training in writing, Mason found herself writing scholarly annotations for an academic edition of Grimes’s story to be published by Oxford University Press.
Mason and Durant unveil Grimes’s story to the audience in parallel with Mason’s own realization of the power of her words, and of the depths of her commitment to preserve her ancestor’s story.
“His virtues have reached across generations to me and have empowered myself and my children in ways that are amazing,” Mason said during the post-screening talkback. “I had no idea that I could be a writer. I had no idea that I could make a film. But I followed his example. He didn’t know how he was going to get it done, but he was bound and determined, and he gave himself permission.”
But Gina’s Journey is not simply an inspirational film about finding great courage and accomplishment in one’s family tree. It’s also about the traumatic realization that the history of slavery has never and will never exist simply in the past or in the abstract.
Slavery is an inescapable, personal story that carries through in the blood and bodies, as well as heirlooms and memories passed down from generation to generation.
Mason recalled learning in fifth grade that her mother’s grandfather had been born into slavery. A conversation with one of her aunts revealed to her that one of her ancestors may have been involved with the Underground Railroad. These sparks of recognition, followed by the avalanche of information that Mason discovered about Grimes through her late-night and lunch-break explorations of academic libraries, connected her not just with her family history, but with the country’s foundational history of racial violence.
Through the movie’s intersecting narratives, Mason and Durant achieve a certain alchemy that both preserves a history of torture and exploitation in all of its gory reality, and transforms that history into something that somehow fortifies the highest ideals on which this country was built.
“I hope some will buy my books from charity; but I am no beggar,” Grimes wrote at the end of his 1825 narrative. He was in his 40s by then, and had built a family and a career and a new life in his 10 years in Connecticut. But he had also had to give up his home and all his savings in order to formally purchase his freedom and prevent his deportation back to the South.
“I am now entirely destitute of property; where and how I shall live I don’t know; where and how I shall die I don’t know; but I hope I may be prepared. If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will leave my skin as a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious, happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave bind the charter of American liberty!”
Mason and Durant have screened Gina’s Journey at a number of film festivals around the country, including the Oakland International Film Festival and the Buffalo International Film Festival. They are currently shopping the movie around to different television networks for potential distribution. Learn more about the film at https://www.ginasjourney.com/.
Click on the audio player below to listen to an interview with Regina Mason on a recent episode of WNHH’s “LoveBabz LoveTalk.” Click on the video player below to watch the New Haven Museum’s Facebook Live recording of Monday night’s post-screening talkback.