We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The title of Randall M. Miller’s “Dear Master”: Letters of a Slave Family gives it all the allure of a personal diary brimming with secrets. But though it may seem like you’ll become a fly on the wall of a slave cabin by reading it, be sure, “Dear Master” is a gateway to the Big House, where an eerie diplomacy abounds. For more than two decades, the Skipwiths, a family of arguably privileged slaves—including a slave driver, a female house servant, and emigres who were set free only to be colonized in Liberia—wrote reams to their master John Hartwell Cocke (pictured). During a time when at least 90 percent of slaves weren’t allowed to read or write, the Skipwith correspondence produced one of the largest collections of slave letters in the world. But dripping with accommodation, saturated with Christian rhetoric, strewn with reports of sickness, and girded with pleas for financial and social assistance, the Skipwith letters are as much about what they conceal as what they divulge. With sycophantic lines like “i am your sincear and humble servant” or “i remane yours,” the Skipwiths’ guarded correspondence suggests they rarely forgot to whom they were writing—the man with the whip. But honestly now, if your family’s lives depended on your ability to curry ole massa’s favor, what would you reveal? Accompanied by dramatic readings of some of the book’s letters by a Cast of Thousands, Miller will discuss “Dear Master” at 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 12, at the National Postal Museum’s Discovery Center, 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Nefretiti Makenta)