Sherri L. Burr is the president of New Mexico Press Women and a long-time member of SouthWest Writers. She holds degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and Yale Law School and is Dickason Chair in Law Emerita and Regents Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Law. A national and international speaker, Sherri has also authored 27 nonfiction books. Her newest release, Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia, 1619-1865 (Carolina Academic Press, 2019), was timed to coordinate with the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving on the shores of Virginia. You’ll find Sherri on her UNM faculty profile page.
What is your elevator pitch for Complicated Lives?
Complicated Lives examines the lives of Africans who arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619 and what happened to them, their progeny, and subsequent arrivals. This book challenges beliefs about slavery that all Blacks were slaves, that all Whites were slaveholders, and that slavery only took place in the South. This book illustrates how Free Blacks integrated into the fabric of a land far from their homeland.
When readers turn the last page in the book, what do you hope they take away from it?
I hope readers have been transformed in their thinking about how slavery developed, how wrong it was, and how we must work to make sure that it never happens again.
What would you like readers to know about the foundation of the book?
Complicated Lives was written to make difficult history accessible for the general public. It’s a page turner and I hope readers continue until they have read the last word and contemplated the book’s meaning for our current lives.
The Amazon category for the book is African American Demographic Studies. You’ve combined fiction and nonfiction writing techniques for Complicated Lives—how do you personally categorize this work?
I categorize the book as a good read for people interested in learning more about U.S. history, particularly why slavery has been so difficult to discuss.
Tell us how the book came together.
Complicated Lives evolved out of serendipitous events and discoveries. I wanted to know why my great-great aunt Lillian had chosen to live in Wyoming. When I knocked on the door of her former home, I was invited in by her former neighbor and friend, Ms. Lucy Vigil, who had been born in Wagon Mound, New Mexico. A few months later, I was flying into Salt Lake City to attend the National Federation of Press Women conference when a seatmate suggested I visit the Family History Library. Thinking I would check it out for 15 minutes, I walked out three hours later with a stack of census records showing that Aunt Lillian’s father and my great-great grandfather had been born free in Virginia in 1847. I was hooked!
There were many starts and stops in getting the book published. I worked with an agent who sought to sell it to major publishers. In the end, the book was picked up by Carolina Academic Press after I engaged directly with the publisher at a national law conference.
What are a few of the most surprising facts you discovered while doing research for this book?
I was shocked by how indentured servitude evolved into perpetual enslavement, and how often legal changes impacted the way people chose to lead their lives. After Virginia passed a law requiring newly freed slaves to leave the state within a year and a day of receiving freedom, several families who had purchased their relatives out of slavery were left in a quandary. For example, as she was dying, Sarah Spears, a Free Black woman who had purchased her husband’s freedom, chose not to free him but rather willed him to her free-born children so he would not have to leave Virginia.
What was your favorite part of putting the project together?
I loved researching in libraries and archives all over the world. When I lost track of time at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, that was the first of dozens of times where I entered a flow state while researching material for this book. When I found a nugget of history that shed light on so many forgotten elements, I was thrilled.
You recently participated in a ceremony honoring your ancestor, John Pierre Burr, who was the son of Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States. What did you take away from that experience?
The John Pierre Burr headstone project began when I drafted a grant proposal to the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society (PAS) to place a small marker and have a program discussing his anti-slavery activities. After the PAS gave only $500 for a reception to the Aaron Burr Association, ABA president Stuart Johnson scrambled to raise donations for the headstone and its installation. In the end, the entire project cost about $7,000. John Pierre Burr was a person any Founding Father would have been proud to call a son, and Aaron Burr deserved to have John Pierre Burr added to his legacy.
Along with his wife Hetty Elizabeth Emery, John Pierre Burr was an avid abolitionist who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The Burrs hid self-liberating slaves in their attic, cellar, and a concrete hole in the backyard, while their front parlor was used as JPB’s barbershop where he cut the hair of white patrons. As I researched their history, I found their names on just about every anti-slavery group formed in Pennsylvania during their adult lives. I tell a tidbit of their story in Complicated Lives to illustrate the roles of Northern Blacks to free all blacks from bondage.
What does a typical writing session look like for you?
I typically write in 90-minute sessions and take 30-minute breaks in between. If I keep my workload to a maximum of three such sessions a day, then I conserve energy for the next day. I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to over-work on a particular day, because then the next day is far less productive.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on Aaron Burr’s Family of Color. The activities of both of Vice President Burr’s children of color were so extraordinary that readers might wish to know more about them and his relationship with them.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.