Tag Archives: history

What would you tell these people?

A few mornings ago, I think before I had even heard the alarm clock go off, I was bombarded by friends who were not pleased (and as it turned out, I and other sane people were not pleased) with a review of Edward Baptist’s latest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismThe review appeared in The Economist, which has since apologized for printing it.  In part the reviewer stated that Baptist wrote in a way that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” An image of Lupita Nyong’o who portrayed Patsey in the award winning film, “12 Years A Slave” was captioned “Patsey was certainly a valuable property.”

Slavery in the Atlantic World operated for centuries upon the labor of human beings from Africa and their descendants in the European division of North, Central, and South America into colonies as well as in the Old World (though to a far lesser extent). I am not going to here recount the details of enslavement across time and places; but, I will simply ask what would a defender of slavery say to these people who experienced the institution?

 

Could you tell this woman that she was better off enslaved?

 

Detail of a South Carolina woman. Library of Congress.

Detail of a South Carolina woman. Library of Congress.

Could you tell this man that he was better off living in a system that often did not allow him to protect his wife and children? Mother? Sister? Friends?

 

Detail of Virginia man. Library of Congress.

Detail of Virginia man. Library of Congress.

Could you tell this child that she was more valuable enslaved?

 

Detail of a Richmond, Virginia girl. Library of Congress.

Detail of a Richmond, Virginia girl. Library of Congress.

How honest could you be about how these children got their light skin?

 

Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans. Library of Congress.

Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans. Library of Congress.

I read Melvin Collier’s post tonight that really struck me from the honesty contained in a death certificate. When Nancy Cole died in 1914, her son noted that he could not hazard even a guess as to the names of his mother’s parents because she “was bought from a slave trader in 1845 aged 14 years.” How would Nancy Cole feel knowing that in 2014 there could be anyone who could say or hint that “slavery wasn’t that bad?”

 

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The Tension Within

Some readers of this blog may have seen the recent outrage and subsequent cancellation of Ani DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” where songwriters, poets, and performance artists were to relax and find creativity at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

First, let me say that I have never been to Nottoway Plantation (or anywhere else in Louisiana); but reports from Eichstedt and Small’s Representations of Slavery and some friends of mine who went last year makes me wonder about how they are coming to terms with the issue of enslavement and the struggle for power and citizenship that went on at the plantation during and after slavery.

That being said, I commend my friend, Nicholas Redding, executive director at Long Branch Plantation who has extended an invitation to Ms. DiFranco. Why should there not be a retreat of poets, songwriters, and performance artists at a plantation site? The opponents cite “genocide of black people” that took place at the plantation as their major reason for opposing the event.

Plantation sites are among many sites that have complex, complicated histories that are not always uplifting. Nor are they always sad. Readers of this blog know that I am opposed to moonlight and magnolia depictions of plantation sites. Violence and resistance are powerful themes within these sites that too often has been ignored in favor of presenting kind and gracious property owners where the labor of virtually everything occurred as if my magic (or what friends  of mine know I call the “Beauty and the Beast” syndrome ). These sites, however, did not routinely feature genocide ( which is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group; see  T. Marcus Funk, Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 1).

The process of  the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and 17th and 18th century slave adaptation to the Americas and Europe generated social and religious alterations of various ethnic and/or tribal traditions within the slave communities and millions of people perished. However, the goal was to maintain a labor system to benefit a minority of European land and people owners. By the 1800s, with the African slave trade legally stopped (though illegal trading continued) in the United States and with natural increase of American born and bred enslaved people much of the social and cultural trends had already cemented and few people had any real knowledge of Africa as a continent (not to mention the variables of people, climates, flora, and fauna of that vast continent). These American born slaves considered themselves American and thus entitled to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the Constitution. So the enslaved community at Nottoway (and the thousands of other slaveholding properties) experienced periods of pain (physical and emotional), suffering, and desires for freedom; but, the Randolphs (and their contemporary slaveholders) did not systematically destroy Africans and Americans of African descent through mass extermination.

I believe as I have said here before, those of us entrusted as stewards of the plantations and the stories associated with these sites, have to create methods for understanding the histories (I am purposefully use of the plural because not everyone had the exact same experiences) of these sites while working with visitors to create meaning making and complicate modern understanding of historical people. If we do our jobs and people are paying attention, we may consider ways to see inequality in the present and make our own world better.

What the outrage does illustrate is that everyone needs to realize that this nation was created and maintained with biases for gender and race. We do not live in a utopian American culture. Thus there is no “post-racial” because of a dual election of Barack Obama. There is no “post-gender” because of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan.

But back to the basics of this retreat and why I think poets, songwriters, and performance artists can go to plantations and honor the histories (as messy as they are) of these sites. The plantation owners battled for what they considered their rights. Extreme violence in the form of war developed to sustain slavery. Enslaved people, including women, battled for their rights in obviously different ways but still on the same turf.

Enslaved people sang songs to strengthen one another and to encourage resistance. They played drums and danced to celebrate. They told stories to make fun of slaveholders. They crafted mourning rituals to honor the dead. Some remained Islamic. Some Africans were already Christian when they arrived in the New World or Europe. Some hung on to elements of different African groups’ traditions and melded them with Christianity. 

Belisario01

So I close with a performance artist who survived slavery, who was a feminist, who was brave, and who challenged what people thought she ought to do. Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” has different versions but this is the earliest transcription from June 21, 1851. The artist’s name was Sojourner Truth:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Sojourner Truth

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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.

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About “Ask A Slave”

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.

As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.

One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.

Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”

Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”

Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”

Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”

I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.

My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).

I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”

Daughter: “Oh.”

She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”

I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”

The father and daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”

Family: “Oh.”

Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.

This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.

At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.

All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:

“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]?  I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”

Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:

  1. Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
  2. What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
  3. What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
  4. What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
  5. Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
  6. Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
  7. When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
  8. Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
  9. What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
  10. What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
  11. What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?

These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.

Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.

I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.

Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.

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For readers in the Charleston area

As I like the challenges we must face with discussing history, I believe this should be a good panel. I’m only sorry I cannot attend.

This Friday, August 30 (sorry for the late notice, I didn’t know about it until right now)  there will be a free event addressing Charleston’s relationship with freedom in the era of the Revolution and the Early Republic and slavery, a feature in South Carolina from founding until the end of legal slavery in 1865. One of the neat things about this is that my friend Joseph McGill will be staying in a slave quarter on the campus of hte College of Charleston as a part of his Slave Dwelling Project.

Even if you can’t go, it’s nice to see that things like this are happening more and more.

http://news.cofc.edu/2013/08/26/panel-charleston-holy-city-andor-slavery-central/

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Upcoming Conversations about History

Dear Readers,

September looks to be a busy month. I’m planning to travel for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia to do a timeline event in mid-September. I’ll report back on the details of this event once I return.

However, there are other things that I’ve agreed to do and wish to make you aware of, especially for the Virginia readers.

On Saturday, September 21st, I will be giving a presentation that I keep returning to: “Diamonds, Education, Emancipation, and Race: The Family of Silas Omohundro”. This presentation will be at the Museum of the Confederacy located at 1201 E. Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia. Parking is free with validation at the Medical College of Virginia’s parking deck located adjacent to the Museum. The presentation lasts an hour from 11-12. I will plan on speaking for about 45 minutes to leave time for questions and comments. This presentation usually leaves everyone a little stunned for a moment but then opens up interesting dialogue about the construction of race and the slave trade in pre-Civil War America. I want to thank Cathy Wright (fellow UNCG alum) for coming to hear my presentation earlier this year and inviting me to do this. I can only echo what has been said many times…this isn’t your grandfather’s centennial commemoration of the American Civil War. The cost is included with Museum admission. More information about the admission cost can be found here.

Also on Thursday and Friday, September 26-27, the Joseph Roberts Jenkins Center at Norfolk State University and the Hampton History Museum are hosting a conference focusing on 1619: The Making of America on September 26-27, 2013.  This conference will focus on new questions of biology, literature, law, society, race and gender. 

The conference will take place at the Hampton Roads Convention Center on Thursday, September 26, 2013 and at Norfolk State University’s New Student Center on Friday, September 27th.  Each day will feature different scholarly and community leaders speaking on a variety of issues that faced Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in Virginia and beyond.

On Friday, the 27th at 11AM, I will be in a panel with Robert Watson and Michael Cobb. I will speak about interpreting the experiences of enslaved and free and then freed blacks in mid-19th century America. I envision the session will feature a lively discussion about the successes, failures, and challenges on presenting the myriad of actions and feelings of people of African descent during this period.

Additionally, later that evening I will be doing a first-person presentation about Private Peter Churchwell of the 23rd United States Colored Troops. Churchwell’s life began with him as the property of the Gordon family of Orange County, Virginia but he escaped from slavery in 1862, enlisted in 1864, was captured in the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, survived a second round of enslavement and became a citizen in a turbulent late-19th century America.

The conference fees include $40 per day or $75 for 2 days. Evening sessions are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. You can learn more about the conference at http://www.1619makingofamerica.com/.

I’ll hope to see old friends and meet new people at both of these events!

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12 Years a Slave from Memoir to Movie

Imagine being offered a good job. One that can support you and your family. A job often defines a person’s identity, especially to a man in nineteenth century America. A good job was even more meaningful to a free black man in the 1800s. Imagine some men tell you about a job and you go to them only to be drugged and sold into slavery by those men who are actually slave catchers.

You don’t have to imagine because it happened. Countless times people of African descent in the North who were free-born (I’m not talking about runaway slaves though it tragically happened to them too) were captured and sold into bondage. One of the best known incidents of this in mid-19th century America happened to Solomon Northup (born July 1808 and died sometime between 1864 and 1875, the circumstances of his death are not known). He was from Saratoga Springs, New York and was enticed to go to Washington D.C. in 1841 where he was then transported to New Orleans and sold. Having floated through a few families in Louisiana and spending twelve years in bondage he finally regained his freedom in January 1853.

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Mr. Northup’s memoirs can be found online thanks to Documenting the American South and Google Books.

This October, Fox Searchlight Pictures will release the theatrical movie “12 Years a Slave” based on Northup’s memoirs.  The cast includes some big names like Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, and Alfred Woodard. There are relatively newcomers whose popularity has soared recently like Benedict Cumberbatch and Quvenzhané Wallis. British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor will be Solomon Northup (who also appeared in the film, Amistad back in 1997). 

I admit, typically, I avoid Hollywood productions of history, but I am going to see this and be excited to do so because Northup’s story is one that is horrifying but also highly emotional. The link to the trailer is attached here and I hope you’ll check it out.

Which brings me to a question: What stories of enslaved people do you think should be turned into a documentary, TV-miniseries, or movie? How can they be done so in a way that draws in audiences and makes them want to learn more?

If you have thoughts, leave ‘em in the comments. I’m building a small following here and while many of you write to me private electronic correspondence, I think the other followers may like to build in-depth conversations on the blog here. Thanks!

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