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“The Stripes on My Back”: The origin of America’s first fugitive slave narrative

By Kaila AllisonMay 9, 2017

Gina's Journey
Gina's Journey Sean Durant
"If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave, bind the charter of American Liberty."  - William Grimes, The Life of William Grimes


William Grimes had always known a life of violence. The offspring of a wealthy plantation owner and his neighbor’s “favored” slave, the field was the only place that Grimes could think of as home. But there was something about Grimes that made him stand out amongst his fellow slaves: his light skin. Being the son of both master and slave embedded in him two sides of history, allowing him the liberty of sometimes being able to pass as a white man. Still, the feeling of whip against flesh became as familiar to him as a daily prayer. While shuffled between ten different owners throughout the American South, he went on a hunger strike, tried to break his own leg with an axe, and made a break for Connecticut to live as a free man. Would he be condemned to a life of enslavement or would he find the relief of freedom? In the end, Grimes had more than a story to tell, but a legacy to create.

In another world far into the future, California 5th grader, Regina Mason, is dealing with a struggle of her own. She’s sitting in the car, singing along to the radio to James Brown’s 1968 hit, “Say It Loud,” ("I’m Black and I’m Proud"). A couple of kids in the adjacent car scream at her, “You’re not black, you’re white!” While fair-skinned, Gina has always identified as black. But this moment makes her question her true identity in more than one way.


What she is about to find out is revolutionary, not just for her family, but for all of history.

What challenges her next is a school assignment in which she’s required to research her family’s roots. When asking family about the origin of her ancestors, a couple of interesting and mysterious names come up. One of which is her great-great-great-grandfather, who according to legend, traveled along the Underground Railroad, helped free many slaves, and bought his own freedom. This initial assignment sparks a 15 year long quest to find the man called William Grimes. Through an undying curiosity to discover her roots, she learns that Grimes was the author of the first fugitive slave narrative in American history. What she is about to find out is revolutionary, not just for her family, but for all of history.

Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes most recently screened at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York City. The film starts historically with wide shots of a stunning American countryside. A trespasser approaches a man’s property, and is promptly shot. The shooter: Grimes’s father. It’s a harsh scene to kick off an epic (and true) tale of an extraordinary man who suffers intense physical abuse, but is able to overcome his hardships on his journey to freedom. 

The documentary presents parallel narratives that complement each other in thoughful sequencing. The first is a dramatization of Grimes’s life, cleverly interspersed with narration from the afterword of his published book, The Life of William Grimes. The other is a dramatization of Gina’s quest doing research and discovering amazing twists and turns in her family’s history. When she finds out that Grimes has written his own story in hopes of selling it to buy his freedom, her goal and obsession becomes to show it to the world. With the help of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scholar, she’s able to see an annotated edition through to completion in 2008.

Grimes’s narrative is a critical addition to the slave narrative canon, and his story is beautifully rendered by Director and Producer Sean Durant of Oakland-based production company, Your Media 2. According to a statement, it is Durant’s “sincerest desire that viewers of the film not only grow an appreciation for Regina Mason’s long road to uncover her past and of the unimaginable conditions that faced William Grimes, but also are inspired to research and understand their own histories. For the better we understand the past and those that came before us, the better we understand ourselves and our place in the world.” 


Grimes’s narrative is a critical addition to the slave narrative canon.

The film premiered to sold-out screenings in February 2017 and is the winner of the 2017 Oakland International Film Festival Roots Award. Part history lesson, part drama, part story of trial and triumph, Gina’s Journey would make an appropriate addition to history classes across America or anyone’s personal video library. Without the interest of a steadfast descendant, Grimes’s story might have been lost to the world. Gina was able to add Grimes’s voice to the chorus of known slave narratives, to help us further excavate our past and inform our future, whether we're scholars or citizens. For anyone with an interest in family, identity, and history, here’s a story you need to hear. 

For more on Gina’s Journey, view the official film trailer here.