Fall 2020

Lift Every Voice

In examining her ancestry, a poet finds the voices history has silenced.
Photography by
Heather Kresge

The poet is hunched over her desk, scrutinizing the papers before her. They are copies of copies—more than 225 pages of faded notes on weather and farm tasks and other 19th-century minutiae. She’s carefully transcribing each word into a computer document.

It took a year for Lauren Russell (A&S ’14G) to transcribe the diaries of Robert Wallace Hubert, a white slaveholder, a Confederate captain and the Pitt alumna’s great-great-grandfather. She’s fascinated by what he wrote, but even more interested in what he never recorded—the silences between the lines.

There’s a woman named Peggy, for instance, whom Hubert names as his “cook.” What he doesn’t note—but which Russell knows through family lore and genealogy research—is that Peggy was a once-enslaved African American woman, the mother of a number of Hubert’s children and Russell’s own great-great-grandmother.

Descent by Lauren Russell book coverThe poet, the former assistant director of Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, obtained a copy of Hubert’s diary in 2013 and soon embarked on a journey to resurrect the voices of Black women and family members history has silenced. She combed over material from a historical society in Wisconsin and genealogical museums in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. She spoke with other descendants of Hubert scattered in California and Texas. She uncovered photographs, documents and other artifacts.

The result is “Descent,” an award-winning book of essays, poems, history and images that brings light to the obscured patches of her—and other Black Americans’—complicated family lineage. To give Peggy a voice and to highlight the importance Black enslaved women have to the historical record, Russell created a “biomythology”—a tapestry of poetics, census documents, oral histories and creativity.

As a poet, Russell says she is untethered from the same restraints as a historian and was “able to step into that history with imagination” to offer perspectives that history is unable to provide. The idea to have a book that crosses genres was sparked, she says, by Pitt poetry professors while she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. At Pitt, she says, “I became a much more versatile poet.”

Through the process, Russell, who was recently named director of Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Center for Poetry, was often surprised by what she found. But more than anything, she was gratified to imagine the rich voice of a woman whose journey would come to shape her own.



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Cover image: Lauren Russell

This article appears in the Fall 2020 edition of Pitt Magazine.