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Still Less Than Equal

Radcliffe Magazine Illustration 2020 Campbell By Baum
Illustration by Hélène Baum

I do not believe in numerology. For believers, 2020 would translate to 2+0+2+0=4. If you, unlike me, believe in numerology, you might suggest that 4 is the universal year number representing stability, peace, and justice. Just shy of 10 months into 2020, and after seven months of isolating and masking my breath, I cannot be convinced.

Author By Crystal Z Campbell Published 01.14.2021 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

I spent the first few months of the year trying to access a former slave cabin that stands behind a university president’s home in the old South. I would walk along the two-lane road from my studio toward the campus, to check on it—to look in on it. On the way, I passed horse stables, saddle seat riders, jumpers. This campus is known for schooling women and housing horses. The horses are “ready to teach and challenge you, whatever your level.” But the local customs have not always been so inclusive. Until 1966, the college remained willfully bound to educating only “white girls and young women.”

Reading by Devonne Pitts ’21

I am thinking about the architecture of the slave cabin on a campus that was once a plantation. On a map of the grounds, the 250-square-foot room hides in plain sight, identified only as a “19th century cabin.” These days, the space belongs to silence and spiders. I peer through flimsy geometric veils in search of antiquated cues. Brochures on the cabin’s history lie crumpled and water-stained upon the floor. Sparsely hung tools, remnants of the site’s agricultural history, dangle from the walls.

Set just behind the big house, the cabin has a view of distant mountains. I find out that this shotgun cabin once housed the plantation’s overseer. The overseer is a complicated part of plantation management, a strategist who had to navigate the vantage point of the master and maintain order of the slaves. I wonder what the overseer saw, and how they defined justice. Did they accept bribes, or favors? Were they favored by anyone? I wonder if they saw the proximity to the big house as a form of surveillance. Or did they favor being in proximity to power? I wonder what the overseer oversaw. I wonder what the overseer pretended not to see.

Down the winding road, a bit to the right beyond a picturesque silvery lake, is a field of overgrowth, dotted by stones that suggest a meandering circle. I check the map: Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Ground. The stones bear no names. If there were ever names, they are now covered by weeds. A field of known unknowns. 

I’m writing on the day that justice was not served for Breonna Taylor. The site of her killing is well-documented and well-known. Once more, a pivotal ground for reckoning has been covered over. I want to believe there is an equation for justice. I want to believe in the potential of numerology.

This essay appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Radcliffe Magazine.

Crystal Z Campbell is the 2020–2021 Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow/David and Roberta Logie Fellow at Radcliffe. A multidisciplinary artist, experimental filmmaker, and writer, she is currently producing an experimental film, titled SLICK, that excavates public secrets through the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and its longstanding effects on the City of Tulsa.

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