George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Honors College student uses poetry to explore lives of enslaved people

May 9, 2019

On Wednesday, April 24th, students united through art at the “Mason's Legacies: Listening to the Ancestors” event to highlight the lives of those enslaved by George Mason IV, the university’s namesake.

The event took place in the Johnson Center’s South Plaza and served as a continuation of the Enslaved Children of George Mason (ECGM) research.

The ECGM project is a web-based exhibition that gives a glimpse of what life was like for African Americans at Mason’s Gunston Hall. The research has spawned numerous projects across campus, including a planned memorial in honors of those enslaved to be completed by 2021. The ECGM project is the culmination of multiple Honors College student contributions.

Students perform at the Mason's Legacies event.

Students perform at the Mason's Legacies event as part of the ECGM project. Photo by Leah Antler.

The idea to tell the stories of enslaved people through art began with Dr. Michael Nickens, better known as Doc Nix, and Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott, who was one of the faculty advisors for OSCAR Impact Grant-funded Enslaved Children of George Mason research. While art may seem like an unusual approach to research, for Honors College Madison Gaines, blending the two is valuable for understanding humanity’s emotional connections to historical and current issues. Throughout her time in the Honors College, she has sought ways to combine poetry and research.

“The arts make things accessible. Using those methods is what’s making research accessible,” said Gaines, who conducted her own interdisciplinary exploration of poetry and research in the Honors College’s Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects Seminar.

Once Doc Nix and Dr. Manuel-Scott began putting their plan into action, they looked for students like Gaines who could bring their vision to life. The group of student performers at the Mason's Legacies event was tasked with creating art to present for the event. 

Dr. Wendi-Manuel Scott speaks to the Mason community.

Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott, Associate Professor of History and Art History and a leader of the ECGM project, speaks to the Mason community. Photo by Leah Antler.

While composing her poem, titled “A Proper Education in IV Parts,” Gaines engaged documents and books that had been previously explored in the ECGM project.

Gaines explained that people tend to erase the histories of enslaved people and that her poetry is designed to encourage us to remember. Gaines made it a point to make one section of her poem just the names of some of the people enslaved at Gunston Hall, stating that she refuses to let herself forget these people and their stories.

Gaines used her poem to explore her own personal history as well as the histories of these enslaved people.  Gaines stated that she had not previoulsy learn much about such narratives in her earlier education, so the process of engaging with them at Mason felt like important and enlightening work.

“I’m biracial, so this was an opportunity to delve into that side of my identity.”

Madison Gaines

“I’m claiming both sides of this [history]. My ancestors were literally going against each other,” Gaines continued, deliberately acknowledging and holding true to her biracial identity.

One goal that Gaines has for her poem and for the project’s impact on campus is to make people feel uncomfortable that they are motivated to address these important issues.

“Being complacent is unacceptable,” said Gaines, who summarized the project in her own terms with the last two lines of her poem: 

“There is no mercy in a memory / There is no justice in the forgetting.”

Madison Gaines

For Gaines, the ECGM project breaks down the “false reality” that white supremacist and whitewashed understandings of history have created. She hopes that events like these keep the messages from the original research alive and get more people interested in learning the narratives of enslaved people.


Reporting by Zaria Talley. Photography and Videography by Leah Antler.