Through the story of Francis Sistrunk, nineteenth century enslaved and later freedwoman in east central Mississippi, this essay illustrates that, despite few surviving written narratives of early black women’s spirituality, their experiences can emerge from the silences. Much like paleontologists who recreate narratives of the past through fossils, in the present world of literary studies, we have the advantage of an expanse of resources that, when pieced together, can convey voices from the past to the present. This includes resources such as extant oral and written communal and family narratives, generational ideals and practices, digitized records from official and personal documents, and the recent emergence of DNA technology that provides its own narratives. From the earliest arrivals to the Americas, African diasporic populations maintained an understanding of community and spirit as an integrated oneness empowered through the word, particularly in the word-act of naming. Francis’ story reveals that this spiritual ethos was a generative source, not only for survival, but for some black women it was a mechanism for inscribing their presence, their narratives, and their legacies for future generations. Francis Sistrunk’s story re-emerges through the mining of sources such as these, and reveals that enslaved black women reached for and seized power where they found it to preserve the record of their existence and humanity and to record the story of their enslavers’ injustices.
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