BUFFALO, NY — Kari Winter, PhD, professor of global gender and sexuality studies at the University at Buffalo, is writing a script for a four-part television miniseries that she hopes will bring life to Jeffrey Brace, a slave who gained his freedom through military service during the American Revolution, to a whole new audience.
Winter’s screenwriting, at this point, is a speculative passion project driven by his enthusiasm for telling a story that might not otherwise reach people outside of academia. She has no producer waiting for a draft. There is no steaming service or network gearing up for the presentation of the series. But that did not disrupt his motivation for the project.
She’s a historian who knows a good story, and no one knows Brace’s story and the important reasons for sharing it better. Winter began writing the screenplay in 2017. She recently completed Part 3 of the series and has recruited professional actors for a table read in the coming weeks that will bring her words to life.
But his research on Brace has much older beginnings.
In the mid-1990s, she first read Brace’s largely forgotten slave account in the University of Vermont’s Bailey-Howe Library Special Collections. Winter’s research on the book has revived a treasured piece of American literature silenced by two centuries of obscurity.
Now, through television, she wants to bring the story she shared with historians and other researchers to a general audience through the republication of Brace’s account.
“Very little of what academics learn about slavery reaches the public,” says Winter, a scholar of 18th-century history and literature. “It’s a huge chasm that we can help fill by bringing the life of Jeffrey Brace into American popular culture.
“I want that to happen, and television is a powerful way to achieve that.”
Brace (c. 1742-1827) contributed to the rich record of African-American slave narratives by writing one of the few examples of the genre told from the perspective of someone who was born in Africa and remembered, its capture and the horrors of the Middle East. Passage.
Brace’s autobiography navigates an extraordinarily complex narrative arc that goes from freedom on one continent to slavery on another and back to freedom. His book is a first-person perspective that offers a view of American history that few other sources are able to provide. Even the iconic works of Frederick Douglass and William Grimes, like most slave stories, were written by people born into slavery in the Americas.
Brace’s book, while not the only slave account written by an African author, is the second longest such account in this select group. It is also one of the few examples of a black veteran of the American Revolution writing and publishing his experiences as a soldier and sailor during the war.
Unlike the longer story, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, which tells the story of slavery in North America to freedom in Britain, Brace’s memoir describes two decades of slavery in Connecticut, followed by more than 40 years of freedom in Vermont, where he married, established a farm and raised his family.
“The story of Jeffrey Brace, written when he was in his late 60s, reveals critical aspects of American history, and indeed world history, in ways we do not see in other literature of the time,” says Winter. “Every element of his life is inspiring.”
But it’s also a life that was lost to history for over 200 years until Winter began the process of authenticating Brace’s “The Blind African Slave,” a title she calls ” unhappy” since Brace was literate but went blind later in life. He told his story to an amanuensis.
“The peak era for slave narratives is the 1840s and 1850s, the two decades before the Civil War began. Brace’s book was published in 1810, two years after the United States followed Britain in abolishing the Atlantic slave trade,” says Winter. “The book didn’t have a large following because for many the victory had been won by making the slave trade illegal, it there was therefore no organization or movement to promote it.
“It’s also about slavery in New England, which had mostly been eliminated by the time of publication.”
At the time Winter began researching Brace, there were two known copies (two more have since been discovered) of his book. The few scholars aware of its existence were uncertain whether the book was autobiographical or a novel, possibly written by an abolitionist.
Several years later, when asked to consult for a series about African Americans in Vermont, Winter felt that the proposed hour-long Brace-focused episode could not adequately tell his story. So she started writing her own screenplay.
Grants from the Just Buffalo Literary Center and the UB Vice President’s Office for Research and Economic Development in conjunction with the university’s Institute of Humanities have enabled Winter to conduct tabletop readings with local and national actors.
These informal rehearsals allowed Winter to revise his script. She is a historian, in this context, writing as a playwright, but she sees similarities in the disciplines.
“Drama should be full of surprises, and history is actually full of surprises — amazing surprises,” she says. “If I could fulfill my dream, it would be to create something that is historically accurate and emotionally and dramatically engaging.”
And she won’t stop.
“I’m going to keep working on it, even if I end up rewriting it for theater,” she says. “The story is unique, gripping and too important to do otherwise.
“I want people to know the story of Jeffrey Brace.”