Listening as it Comes Down

People hold signs during a protest asking for the removal of the confederate battle flag that flies at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC June 20, 2015.  REUTERS/Jason Miczek      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1HFBL

People hold signs during a protest asking for the removal of the confederate battle flag that flies at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTX1HFBL

In the summer of 2000, I had just finished my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina. During the previous spring semester, I worked as a page for the House of Representatives at the South Carolina State House. Most of my shifts for that job were spent on the House floor, distributing bills for signatures or fetching sodas for representatives to guzzle between arguments. When the House was not in session, I was assigned odd jobs—stuff envelopes for one representative, pick up fried chicken sandwiches from Kinch’s for another (most notably, our now prominent Congressman Jim Clyburn), and perhaps the most striking—sit in an office and answer a phone line set up exclusively for receiving public opinions about the Confederate flag.

At that time, the debate was over removing the flag from the South Carolina State House dome. In 1962, an all-white state legislature voted to place the flag in this prominent location amidst Civil War Centennial events and ongoing civil rights protests. By the 1990s, a block of white legislatures repeatedly refused to remove the flag from the dome, until the NAACP imposed a national economic boycott that cost the state’s tourism industry billions of dollars annually. In that lonely office, the phone calls about the debate were often long, with the person on the other end of the line offering extensive, passionate explanations about their stance for or against the flag. My job was to stay neutral, listen courteously for however long they wanted to talk, and then at the end I simply checked a box on a list— yes or no. Take it down. Leave it up. I don’t know if anyone ever even looked at that list, but I suppose it made people feel like someone was listening.

Fifteen years later, in July 2015, as we circle around the removal of the Confederate Flag again, I wish I could remember more clearly what people said during those hours of phone calls. The only one that stands out was a call from a man in Alaska, who berated me saying something along the lines of, “Really? What the hell is going on down there? You have got to take that flag down.” I remember that call because eventually I cracked, and against my strict instructions, told him something like, “I’m not supposed to say anything, but I totally hear what you’re saying. Trust me.”

What I do remember with striking clarity is watching the flag come down from the State House dome. The flag removal ceremony took place on July 1, 2000, in the stunning heat of a Columbia summer. I walked the few blocks from campus to the State House grounds to watch with a group of college friends. Amidst the massive crowd, I remember seeing a number of Confederate reenactors in full regalia. I also remember an African American man wearing chains and shackles, defiantly evoking the institution of slavery that the Confederacy fought to uphold. The moment the cord jerked and the Confederate flag began to move, a loud, powerfully dissonant roar emerged from the crowd as thousands of different onlookers simultaneously cheered or protested while the flag changed locations. It was a sound I will never forgot. Shortly after it came down from the dome, two Citadel cadets raised the flag again, on top of a Confederate soldier memorial centrally located on State House grounds near Main Street. As I remember, when that happened, another similarly cacophonous roar emerged.

Tonight, on July 9, 2015, it is creeping towards midnight, and tomorrow we will witness the second removal of South Carolina’s Confederate Flag—this time from the State House grounds entirely. I heard it is coming down at 10 am, and I wish I could say I will be there, to cheer at the top of my lungs, and listen for the sound of the crowd again. Will thousands of people show up to watch? Will it be so dissonant this time, or will the sound be more unified, more joyous, as South Carolinians celebrate a symbolic break from a history of racial inequality and hatred that has long held this state captive? Or will it be a sound of exhausted release, angry and tired from waiting for what should have happened long ago—or just should have never happened at all. To echo the man on the Confederate flag hotline from Alaska, what the hell has been going on down here?

Like many others, since the shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17th, I have been searching for a way to make meaning out of the tragic event, to form a purpose for what to do next. I want to add my voice to the many voices crying out in the news media, on Facebook and Twitter, on paint splattered Confederate monuments, and in rallies, marches, and protests. As a resident of Charleston I should have something to say. As a faculty member at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, where my job is to promote public awareness of the Lowcountry’s rich African American history and culture, I should have something to say. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of slavery in Charleston’s historic tourism industry, I should have something to say. And finally, as a white South Carolina native, whose middle name is Pinckney, the same family name as the great Reverend who was brutally slain—a common name in this state that like a number of others marks the descendants of slaveowners and enslaved—I should have something to say. But for the past few weeks, I found myself stumbling.

Tonight I am still stumbling, still heartbroken, and still working to find the next steps. But I do take great joy in knowing the flag is coming down tomorrow. Great joy. The question that will linger for me, as I listen for the roar of the crowd, is what new noise will we make in South Carolina? Many have passionately called for unity since the shootings, for #CharlestonStrong. But what new understanding of South Carolina and its history are we unifying around? It will be new, right? Dylann Roof was more than clear about the legacy of racial hatred he evoked when he shot down nine lives in the Emanuel AME Church. As many have noted, the removal of the Confederate flag he embraced will not dismantle the ongoing influences of that legacy—there is so much work to be done. We must fight to confront hard truths and unify around a new narrative, one that centrally includes the experiences of African Americans in this state and the complex history of slavery and its legacies of racial inequality. For many it is not a surprise to know that this legacy of racial divisions still permeates the South Carolina we live in today, and it must change.

I cannot go see the flag come down tomorrow because we have too much work to do. I don’t even have the time to try to properly publish this somewhere, as so many of my academic colleagues have been doing, and I applaud their powerful voices. Instead, I am posting this to an old defunct blog I used to keep and then heading into work. The emails, phone calls, and requests for help to my workplace keep mounting, and knowing we can be useful makes me so proud. But I am also overwhelmed and exhausted, as so many are in Charleston. Still, tonight, unable to sleep with excitement, I am hopeful, and listening for what comes next.

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Two Conflicting Ideas

What makes slavery so difficult for Americans, both black and white, to come to terms with is that slavery encompasses two conflicting ideas — both with equal validity and with equal truth, but with radically different implications. One says that slavery is one of the great crimes in human history; the other says that men and women dealt with the crime and survived it and even grew strong because of it. One says slavery is our great nightmare; the other says slavery left a valuable legacy. One says death, the other life.”

– Ira Berlin, “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First Century America”

Throughout the process of drafting the exhibition text for APLA, I constantly find myself thinking of Ira Berlin’s quote above. (From an essay that I have found incredibly useful for articulating issues in my own research and for teaching– I highly recommend reading it.) For each exhibition section detailing a historic event or issue related to the history of slavery in Charleston, I engage in a pedagogical juggling act between conveying the brutality of chattel slavery and asserting that despite this brutality, enslaved Africans and African Americans powerfully resisted their bondage. This balancing act is particularly important for addressing complex subjects such as violence and sale. On many historic sites I observed in Charleston (for my dissertation research), historic interpreters who actually did address slavery or African American history still seemed to avoid or minimize these subjects. They often found them upsetting or complicated to convey in a tourism context. But understanding the central role of violence and sale, or the threat of violence and sale, is crucial to understanding how slavery functioned in the Lowcountry and throughout the nation. In addition to the oppression of involuntary, unpaid labor, violence and sale were the greatest struggles for enslaved people in chattel bondage. As Ira Berlin explains in the same essay I quote above, “No understanding of slavery can avoid these themes: violence, power, and the usurpation of labor for the purpose of aggrandizing a small minority . . . The murders, beatings, mutilations, and humiliations, both petty and great, were an essential, not incidental, part of the system.” In an upcoming article publication, Stephanie Yuhl further describes the importance of understanding the domestic slave trade for generating a constant threat of sale in U.S. slavery. “When the story of slavery begins in the usual historic sites — the plantation, small farm, or city mansion setting — it is too easily domesticated into a discourse about relationships, community, homes, households and intact families white and black, ‘ she explains,  “in such settings, bondage is too readily assimilated; the enslaved too easily become “servants” separated from active enslavers, and the institution of slavery construed simply as an inheritance that is paternalistic and organic in nature.”

As these scholars convey, violence and sale are central to understanding slavery in public history contexts, but resistance is vital as well. Slaveholders and traders could never fully implement the dehumanizing terms of chattel slavery because enslaved people constantly challenged the power structure of this system, in large and small ways. From negotiating privileges, stalling labor, and breaking tools to running away or forming rebellions, historic accounts are full of evidence that enslaved people did not accept the terms of their captivity. To form a full understanding of this institution, however, public historians must be clear about what these oppressive terms were.

Sources:

Berlin, Ira. “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First-Century America,” essay. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, editors. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Yugl, Stephanie. “Re­mapping the Tourist/Trade: Confronting Slavery’s Commercial Core at Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum.” The Journal of Southern History, Summer 2013. Upcoming publication.

Catch Up and Challenging Questions

Commemoration_Ceremony

“I Have Known Rivers,” a ceremony at Brittlebank Park commemorating the Middle Passage and civil rights struggles of African descendants throughout the world, Charleston, SC, March 31, 2013.

So . . . the entire month of March went by without a blog post! My apologies! Personally and professionally it was one of the more hectic months of my academic career, but the good news is it was also productive in various ways. One major task was helping to implement the annual African Literature Association meeting in Charleston, which included a ceremony at Brittlebank Park to commemorate the Middle Passage and civil rights struggles of African descendants throughout the world. This ceremony included powerful musical performances from Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers  and poetry readings by various scholars and literary figures. The poetry readings were in various different languages, reflecting the multinational impact of African slavery in the Atlantic World.

The international nature of this ceremony seemed to parallel the section of the APLA exhibition I was also frantically editing throughout the month of March. The title of this section is “Atlantic World Context,” and the goal is to provide a broad overview of how slavery and plantation agriculture developed in Charleston through a multinational trans-Atlantic system. Broad is the keyword, and challenge, here. After getting edits back from various scholars on my exhibition draft, I felt like I slipped down a rabbit hole. Trying to succinctly explain how the trans-Atlantic slave trade and New World chattel slavery developed over centuries between the Atlantic World regions of west and central Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas is not an easy task. Each historic step involves addressing a series of complicated questions– why did Europeans colonize the Americas? Why did Europeans predominantly enslave Africans instead of other Europeans? Why did Africans participate in trading enslaved Africans into trans-Atlantic slavery? Why/how did chattel slavery become a race-based labor system? The list goes on . . . My historian friends seemed surprised I was even attempting it.

The diverse voices and languages used within the “I Have Known Rivers” commemorative ceremony helped remind me why a cohesive international narrative of trans-Atlantic slavery for a public history exhibition is challenging, but worth attempting. The race and class legacies of slavery are an ongoing and shared international struggle throughout the Atlantic World today. The complexity of this history should not be oversimplified, but we must also remember that these past and present struggles are not isolated, but rather profoundly and internationally interconnected.

Teaching about Slavery

Signs for Plantation Life children's program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on Lowcountry African American history during the Revolutionary War.

Mary Battle, signs for children’s education program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on slavery during the Revolutionary War.

Fully grasping the experiences and perspectives of enslaved African Americans is challenging in the present. I’ve studied the history of slavery throughout my academic career, and continue to appreciate that the complexity and struggles of enslaved experiences will always be beyond my contemporary understanding. Ownership over my own body, labor, and mobility is too deeply engrained as a given in my life.

But recognizing this limitation does not mean that imagining slavery cannot help us develop empathy for the struggles of enslaved African Americans. Imagining can also be a productive teaching tool, even for children.

I was early in my graduate career when I first heard a professor explain that American victory at the end of the Revolutionary War was not a celebration for African Americans. The turmoil of that war provided opportunities for change if you are an enslaved person. As Eric Foner noted in the lecture I described in my last post, military emancipation occurred throughout the history of slavery. Enemies freeing the slaves of their enemies was an effective war strategy, and the British certainly used it during the Revolutionary War, particularly in the Lowcountry. For example in 1782, British forces included more than 5,000 enslaved people in their evacuation from Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston. Scholars estimate that as many as 30,000 African Americans in South Carolina attempted to join British forces to escape slavery during the war. The British sold many back into bondage, but those who left with the 1782 evacuation from Charleston were able to seek freedom abroad as Black Loyalists.

Back to teaching and children — throughout my dissertation research on representations of slavery in Charleston I heard historic interpreters say that the history of slavery is difficult to explain to children. One interpreter recalled that African American schoolchildren could be especially resistant to hearing about such a painful history that involved their ancestors. With this context in mind, I was surprised and pleased to see a children’s education program at Drayton Hall in 2012 that not only effectively engaged fourth graders in learning about plantation slavery in the Lowcountry, it also took on slavery during a complex historic period like the Revolutionary War. The set up for this powerful historic education activity went like this:

The historic interpreter provides a brief historic outline of how the volatile context of the Revolutionary War provided opportunities for freedom for enslaved African Americans (this tied to a lesson in their history curriculum back at school). He then instructs the children that they are all enslaved people during the Revolution, living on a plantation like Drayton Hall. He then points to four signs, and tells them that these are their options for what to do while the war is going on. He then asks the students to line up beyond the sign that states what they think they would do. Once they do this, he tells them that they are allowed to move to the line behind a different sign if they change their minds during the activity.

The day I observed, the activity went like this:

After listening to instructions, the majority of students immediately ran to get in line behind the “Join the Patriots” sign. “Run Away” also snagged a good number. “Stay in Place” only had two students and “Join the British” had one excited student who explained that he just loved the British. The interpreter then asked the first student in line behind each of the signs why he or she made that choice. After the student answered, he asked for input from others, and then explained the consequences. For “Stay in Place,” the girl in front explained that she thought it was safer. The interpreter responded that she might be right, and she could stay with her family for the time being, but she would still be in slavery and could be sold away. For the “Run Away” crowd, he explained that they could try, but they would need a map, food, water, and then bluntly asked– where would you go? And what about any family members on the plantation? At the “Join the Patriots” sign, the first student in that long line quickly stated that he was a Patriot because he deserved his freedom too. The interpreter responded that he was right, he does deserve his freedom, but he would not get it from the American government for nearly another one hundred years. This created lots of mumbling between the Patriots students. Finally, the interpreter explained to the excited student who wanted to “Join the British” that this choice might actually give him a chance at freedom, but just a chance. Many of the students started to move. By the end of the activity the majority now stood with the British. Afterwards, the interpreter told me that shift happened nearly every time he led the activity. In a roughly twenty minute exercise, they could comprehend that much about the importance of freedom to enslaved people during the Revolutionary War.

This exercise showed me that teaching students about slavery was not only possible, but when carefully done with a well-informed instructor, it could also be engaging, generate empathy, and tackle complex historic subjects. I also wondered whether adults could benefit from a similar exercise.

The Fiery Trial: Eric Foner and Public History

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Eric Foner at the College of Charleston on his recent book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner has an admirable presence and discussion style as a historian, the kind that reminds me of why I ever became interested in the academic profession (deep in the throes of the PhD process, and in this job market, I have to dig deep at times to remember). Foner has the remarkable ability to present historic subjects as complex as slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War in a steady, clear, and even humorous manner. You feel comfortable, rather than desperately confused, following him through each point, and by the end you not only feel like you have a better grasp of the whole tangled mess of Civil War and Emancipation history, you even have a totally new perspective of a historic figure you thought you already knew, such as Abraham Lincoln.

I actually saw Foner present twice yesterday, to a workshop group of K-12 teachers and public historians (organized by Dr. Brian Kelly with CLAW and the After Slavery project), and to an auditorium full of historians in town for an academic conference. Perhaps the best demonstration of Foner’s ability was that his presentation style and subject material changed very little for these two groups. I don’t mean to imply Foner didn’t bother two write two presentations– my point is he didn’t need to. As a scholar who studies public history, I find this admirable because too often the complex issues and nuance of history seem to get locked up in academic journals and publications. Tour guides and schoolteachers, particularly in Charleston and  throughout South Carolina, often seem left with more superficial interpretations of history for their students or tourist audiences. This may be their own choosing, but I also believe the resources for developing clear frameworks and language for articulating history in the public realm seem painfully limited, particularly surrounding complex subjects such as slavery.

One of my great, potentially idealistic, hopes for APLA is that it will help make some of the more complex aspects of the history of antebellum and colonial slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry more comprehensible and accessible to a wide range of user audiences. But I am increasingly finding that historic clarity is hard work. In the next couple of posts I will try to untangle some particularly difficult points from this history, to help me think through how to write up this information in the exhibition text. Watching accessible, yet still very challenging and historically rich discussions like Dr. Foner’s presentations yesterday was a great inspiration.

Mobley made an awesome Omeka theme for us!

Today has been a fun digital humanities day, which is not something a person who works in this field can say every day (let’s just say technology is, and always will be, humbling to work with, even for the best and brightest). Tyler Mobley, our digital services librarian extraordinaire at the Lowcountry Digital Library, has developed a customized theme in Omeka for us to use in laying out APLA. Today was the first day I could begin working in it, and it is awesome.

To provide some background, we are building APLA in Omeka, an open source system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, because it includes a very user-friendly and durable online exhibit builder program. One of the downsides of Omeka’s exhibit builder though is it comes with a limited set of options for exhibit appearance themes and page layouts. I found this frustrating because in my earlier work at Emory University’s digital libraries, we used Dreamweaver and later Drupal for laying out our digital projects. These content management systems certainly have their own issues, but for a person like me who is filling in the site content rather than organizing the back end of the system, I grew accustomed to having some sense of control over where texts and multimedia files went in a given digital project, rather than following a template. So when the LCDL team decided to go with Omeka for our exhibits with their set list of themes and page layouts, I had some concerns.

Still the ease of setting up and using Omeka is undeniable, and this a big plus for our relatively small digital library staff. In addition, with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, we are also hoping to make Omeka’s exhibit builder accessible for our institutional partners to use in collaboratively building innovative digital projects based on their digital archives. So Mobley embarked on setting up a compromise. We would still use Omeka, but he built a very aesthetically pleasing and user friendly Omeka theme for our LDHI projects, and made additional page layout template options so that our staff and partners would have many more to choose from in laying out APLA, as well as future digital projects. To clarify, as a humanities scholar primarily, I cannot fully wrap my head around what all Mobley did to make this digital magic happen, but it’s working great so far and I am looking forward to seeing APLA come together with this new online exhibition theme!

150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Day Parade, Charleston, South Carolina, 1 January 2013. Photograph by Mary Battle

Emancipation Day Parade, Charleston, South Carolina, 1 January 2013. Photograph by Mary Battle.

Happy Emancipation Day 2013!

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Charleston celebrated with Watch Night services in churches throughout the city last night, and an Emancipation Day Parade this afternoon. In addition, various blogs and media outlets have been posting discussions about the significance of this day. At the bottom of this post I list links to some article and blog highlights about Emancipation Day in the Lowcountry. Also I assume not incidentally, two blockbuster movies recently came out in theaters that address the significance of slavery and Emancipation in U.S. history (albeit in very different ways), Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Movie goers and critics everywhere seem to be debating the pros and cons of these films. Even while waving at floats passing by in the Emancipation Day Parade today, a professor friend standing next to me told me he was a big fan of “Django Unchained” (I haven’t seen it yet), and declared that historic sites in Charleston should have a screening. I sense a major public conversation brewing.

From an inclusive public history standpoint, this buzz is great news. As Fath Davis Ruffins explains in her 2006 article, “Revisiting the Old Plantation” in Museum Frictions, popular films and media can play a major role in increasing public awareness and access to underrepresented histories. The release of the Roots television miniseries in 1977, for example, proved to be a watershed moment for generating widespread interest and even scholarship in African American history during and after slavery. As she explains, the popularity of Roots revealed that critically addressing slavery was not an “insurmountable problem” for American audiences, and this popular interest encouraged museums to begin developing exhibitions on slavery and African American history, and academic departments began to feature more African American history and culture courses (Ruffins, 394-398). But she also notes that these popular media trends can come and go, and by 2013, particularly with numerous Civil War Sesquicentennial events underway, the American public seems ready for a renewed discussion of the significance and complexities of slavery and Emancipation in U.S. history.

But in the midst of these critical or affirming discussions and debates, the Emancipation Day Parade today also reminded me of something that really should be obvious. Emancipation was a tremendous, miraculous time in history, worthy of great celebration. Racial injustices and inequalities did continue after January 1, 1863, but Emancipation still marked one of the few moments in history when an ethical movement changed the way an entire regional and national economy operated. Individual freedom for all Americans, particularly the right to own your own body and labor, finally began to legally expand beyond whites in the United States. Even as a scholar who studies slavery, I still cannot fully grasp what not having access to these rights would be like. Public debates will, and should, continue about popular representations and historic meanings of slavery, Emancipation, and its race and class legacies in the present. But today, I was also happy to celebrate a wonderful event in U.S. history.

Suggested links:

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle’s post in the New York Times “Disunion” blog on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South Carolina Sea Islands, “The Grove of Gladness”

Reverend Joseph A. Darby’s article in Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper, “Emancipation Proclamation is still worthy of major celebration”

The Jubilee Project: Commemorating 150 Years of Emancipation and Educational Access in South Carolina 

Blog post from Lowcountry Africana entitled “The Day We Celebrate: Emancipation Day in Charleston, Then and Now”