Filling in the gaps in history through art and text


Lauren Russell’s exploration of her family’s history has led to an upcoming book, a collaboration with a visual artist and a Year of Creativity workshop to help others imagine their ancestors’ lives.


When: 6 to 9 p.m. March 17

Where: Center for Creativity in the University Store

Register for the event here.

In 2013, Russell, assistant director of Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, acquired a copy of her great-great grandfather’ diary. Robert Wallace Hubert, a Confederate veteran, fathered several children by three of his former slaves, who also were sisters, after the end of the Civil War. One of those women, Margaret “Peggy” Hubert, was Russell’s great-great grandmother.

As Russell was typing up the 225 photocopied pages, “I just became really fascinated by what was being left out,” she said. There was barely any mention of Peggy, even though she bore nine children, all fathered by Bob Hubert, between 1867 and 1885. Before the war, the family had moved from Georgia to East Texas, bringing their “human property” with them.

She did some historical research — “In the 1880 census, … they’re actually listed together. Bob Hubert as the head of household and she’s listed as his cook, and all of their children, who are listed as mulatto, are listed as his children, which is interesting.” But in the end, she was not able to find out much about Peggy, including when she died.

In her book “Descent,” which will be published later this year by Tarpaulin Sky, Russell is “imagining into those spaces of what was being left out,” through poems, prose, images and documents. She researched oral histories from that time to try to establish a voice for Peggy, which she ended up writing in iambic pentameter — “That really seems to fit because her life is constrained,” Russell said.

She also tried to look at Peggy’s life “as not just oppression. There would be moments of joy, even within the trauma.” One inspiration was an essay by Alice Walker about “black women finding ways to be creative, within the constraints of their lives.”

Some of Russell’s other ancestors and the gaps in their lives also get attention in the book. Bob Hubert was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and in a prisoner of war camp for two years, but he never talked about that in the diary. There are poems in Hubert’s voice, as well as in the voice of one of his grandchildren — born to Peggy’s sister, Priscilla — who went on to play in baseball’s Negro League.

“There are some poems about the later generation — my grandfather, who remembered Hubert, … would say he would take them on the whites-only section of the streetcar, which seemed interesting if that’s true, and say these are my grandchildren and they’re sitting with me,” Russell said.

In the book’s notes, she makes clear that she’s not a historian. “I’m calling it biomythology — an extension of Audre Lorde’s biomythography, but with more emphasis on myth,” she said. “I’m interested in what we don’t know, and I think they’re things that historians would have traced a lot further. … I was just telling someone recently that I don’t really want to know how Peggy died. I did at first, and then at some point, when I couldn’t find it, I imagined all these different ways she might have died and wrote that, and now I don’t want to know.”

That intersection of history and imagination is what Russell will explore at the “Creating into Archival Gaps: An Interactive Art and Poetry Workshop” event from 6 to 9 p.m. March 17 at the Center for Creativity in the University Store. The hands-on workshop is open to faculty, staff, students and community members. Russell will be working with artist Sarah Stefana Smith, whose artwork is on the book’s cover and is collaborating with Russell on an installation — “For Peggy: Hauntologies of Descent” — using visual, spatial and textual components to fill in the gaps.

Smith has gone through the book and highlighted colors (blue for Peggy), materials like mud, Texas wildflowers and cotton, and sounds, such as whippoorwills. Those elements will be combined with text from Russell’s book for the installation.

Part of the project will be created during the week in studio spaces provided by the Department of Studio Arts and part of it will be displayed in the vault at the Frick Fine Arts Building, but Russell and Smith plan to continue working on a more complete version. The workshop and installation also are supported by the Year of Creativity and the Creativities Project of the Humanities Center.

Participants at the workshop will be asked to bring an historical object, such as a journal, heirloom or archival photo, to the workshop — “Anything that is meaningful to them, that they feel there is a gap, that there is something to create around what is missing.” Smith and Russell will lead participants through a series of visual and poetic exercises to imagine and fill in those  gaps.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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