Published August 17, 2022
Kari Winter, professor of global gender and sexuality studies, is writing a screenplay for a four-part television miniseries that she hopes will bring the life of Jeffrey Brace, an enslaved man who obtained his freedom through military service in the American Revolution, to an entirely new audience.
Winter’s screenwriting, at this point, is a speculative passion project driven by her enthusiasm to tell a story that otherwise might not reach people outside of academia. She has no producer waiting for a draft. There is no steaming service or network that is preparing for the series’ presentation. But that hasn’t disrupted her drive for the project.
She’s a historian who knows a good story, and there’s no one more familiar with Brace’s story and the important reasons for sharing it. Winter began writing the screenplay in 2017. She recently finished part three of the series, and has recruited professional actors for a table reading in the coming weeks.
But her research on Brace has much earlier beginnings.
In the mid-1990s, she first read Brace’s largely forgotten slave narrative in the Special Collections of the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont. Winter’s research on the book reanimated a valuable piece of American literature silenced by two centuries of obscurity.
Now, through television, she wants to introduce a general audience to the story she shared with historians and other researchers through republication of Brace’s narrative.
“Very little of what scholars are learning about slavery is reaching the public,” says Winter, an expert in 18th-century history and literature. “It’s a huge chasm that we can help bridge by making Jeffrey Brace’s life part of American popular culture.
“I want to make that happen, and television is a powerful way of achieving that goal.”
Brace (circa 1742-1827) contributed to the rich archive of African American slave narratives by writing one of the genre’s few examples told from the viewpoint of someone who was born in, and remembered, Africa, his capture and the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Brace’s autobiography travels an extraordinarily complex narrative arc that moves from freedom on one continent to enslavement 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 iconic works by Frederick Douglass and William Grimes, like most slave narratives, were authored by people born into slavery in the Americas.
Brace’s book, though not the only slave narrative written by an African author, is the second-longest such narrative in that select group. It’s also one of the few instances of a Black combat veteran of the American Revolution writing and publishing his experiences as a soldier and sailor during the war. Unlike the longer narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” which recounts the story of enslavement in North America to freedom in Great Britain, Brace’s memoir describes two decades of enslavement 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 actually global history, in ways we don’t see in other literature of the period,” says Winter. “Every component of his life is mind-expanding.”
But it’s also a life that was lost to history for more than 200 years until Winter began the process of authenticating Brace’s “The Blind African Slave,” a title she calls “unfortunate” 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 leading up to the start of the Civil War. Brace’s book was published in 1810, two years after the U.S. followed Great Britain in abolishing the Atlantic slave trade,” says Winter. “The book didn’t have a large audience because for many the victory had been won by making the slave trade illegal, so it had no organization or movement to promote it.
“It’s also about slavery in New England, which had mostly been phased out at the time of publication.”
At the time Winter began her research on Brace, there were two known extant copies (two more have since been discovered) of his book. The few scholars aware of its existence weren’t certain if the book was autobiographical or a novel, perhaps written by an abolitionist.
Several years later, when asked to consult for a series on African Americans in Vermont, Winter felt that the proposed one-hour episode focused on Brace couldn’t adequately tell his story. So she started writing her own screenplay.
Grants from Just Buffalo Literary Center and UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development in conjunction with the university’s Humanities Institute have allowed Winter to conduct table reads with local and national actors.
Those informal rehearsals have allowed Winter to revise her script. She’s a historian, in this context, writing as a dramatist, but she sees similarities in the disciplines.
“Drama should be full of surprise, and history is in fact full of surprises — incredible surprises,” she says. “If I could reach my dream, it would be to create something that’s historically accurate and emotionally and dramatically engaging.”
And she won’t stop.
“I’ll keep working on it, even if I end up re-writing it for the theater,” she says. “The story is unique, compelling and too important to do otherwise.
“I want people to know Jeffrey Brace’s story.”