The reader may be surprised to find that, despite its being an otherwise rigorous, nonfictional, and historical account of the experiences of a slave, Celia, A Slave contains a great deal of speculation about the events it depicts. On nearly every page, McLaurin encounters gaps in the historical record and attempts to fill them with educated guesswork. Guesswork is of course important in the study of history, but in this case it may seem exaggerated. Examples of these speculations abound in the book, but to give a few notable ones: McLaurin hypothesizes that Newsom likely raped Celia immediately upon purchasing her. He also suggests that Celia’s defense team broke her out of jail after her sentencing, despite there being no definitive proof of this, only a few scraps of evidence. McLaurin also tries to imagine the private emotional landscapes of the historical characters he is tracking, which are irrevocably lost to history.
To be sure, McLaurin is not a lazy historian. He does not speculate for lack of research. Rather, McLaurin is confronting one of the greatest problems in the telling of American history: the deafening “silence” of slavery. In the antebellum (pre-Civil-War) American South, where slavery was widespread, there was no reason for slave owners to keep anything but the most rudimentary records of their slaves. What we now know of the incalculable human cost of slavery comes from those few slaves who managed to escape, or lived through emancipation. These constitute a tiny percentage of the total victims of slavery, the vast majority of whose stories are forever lost.
Celia presents an interesting case. Because she was tried and executed for murdering her master, a substantial amount of information about her life has been preserved in legal and historical records. However, the information is not enough to paint a full portrait of Celia; notably, there is no account of her life written in her own words, nor, for that matter, is there any information about the first fourteen years of her life. McLaurin thus faces a problem. Celia’s story is of great interest, for one because it opens a window into the lives of people, women especially, who suffered under the institution of slavery, and also because it aligns with some of the larger historical events of the period. At the same time, her story seems almost impossible to tell in full. In a situation such as this, does a historian try anyway, guessing when he can’t know for sure? Or does he simply give up? McLaurin bravely chooses the former option. That McLaurin lacks the details to complete his history of Celia is a testament to the fact that the institution of slavery, while arguably the most painful, ugly, and indelible mark on American history, is also perhaps the most invisible and silent, in that the lives of slaves are fundamentally unknowable. That McLaurin chooses to speculate highlights his conviction that it is of crucial importance to try to know them.
Historical Silence ThemeTracker
Historical Silence Quotes in Celia, a Slave
She was the slave Celia, who, when she arrived in 1850, was approximately fourteen years old, about the same age as Newsom's daughter Mary. Practically nothing is known about Celia's life before her arrival at the Newsom farm.
Afraid that an angered Newsom would harm her, Celia raised the club with both hands and once again brought it crashing down on Newsom's skull. With the second blow the old man fell, dead, to the floor.
Whether Celia's fourth, and emphatic, denial convinced Jefferson Jones that neither George nor anyone else had helped her kill Newsom cannot be ascertained from the evidence. What is clear is that Jones stopped his questioning at this point, probably convinced either that Celia was telling the truth or that it was unlikely that she would implicate George or anyone else under any circumstances.
Whatever his reasons, Harry Newsom's response to the Republican, with its emphasis upon facts and its total disregard for motive, anticipated the approach the prosecuting attorney would adopt during Celia's trial.
The evidence suggests that Celia's benefactors were not prepared to ignore Missouri law totally, so once her original execution date had passed and it appeared that the supreme court would have an opportunity to hear her appeal, Celia was returned to jail.
Those events also suggest that the psychic cost to whites of the defense of slavery, though paid, was high, just as they suggest that the psychic cost to blacks, though paid, was incalculable and enduring.