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.

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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.

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”

Charleston’s International African American Museum Launches Website

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

I am excited to report that the future International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston has finally launched their museum website! IAAM is a developing museum project that is expected to open its building doors in 2017. As they describe on their homepage, the goal of the museum is to communicate the largely overlooked history and culture of African Americans in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina. IAAM particularly aims to re-center Charleston’s place in Atlantic World history, illuminating the pivotal role of this city as the dominant point of disembarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America, and as the location of the first conflict of the U.S. Civil War that ultimately ended in Emancipation for all enslaved people in the United States. The museum will demonstrate how during and after slavery, Africans and their African American descendants in the Lowcountry shaped economic, political, and cultural development in South Carolina, the nation, and beyond.

In 2012, major fundraising efforts still loom ahead for IAAM, particularly after the economic downturn triggered significant budget limitations for the project’s start-up funding in 2010. Currently, the IAAM board is committed to a more cost-effective development plan that envisions the museum not only as a building that houses physical exhibitions, but also as a “trailhead” to the numerous historic landscapes and structures in the Lowcountry region relevant to African American history and culture. Innovative digital interpretation strategies will particularly serve to generate a virtual presence for this “trailhead” museum structure in the Lowcountry’s highly trafficked public history landscape. In this context, we are currently exploring an exciting institutional partnership between LDHI and IAAM.

As described in the previous post, LDHI is an innovative digital public history project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) at the College of Charleston. Through a major grant award from the Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelley Foundation in 2012, LCDL is currently launching LDHI as an online platform for translating multi-institutional archival resources into digital public history projects such as online exhibitions, geo-located digital tours, and interactive maps and timelines built through open source software and permanently stored online through College of Charleston resources. Though the research, staff, and archival materials for producing these digital projects and exhibitions may reside in various institutional contexts, one of the great benefits of online interpretation is that multiple institutions can link to projects that they collaboratively produce. Rather than competing, all participants benefit from the virtual traffic these interconnected, multi-institutional digital projects receive.

In partnering with LDHI, we hope that IAAM will provide an organizing vehicle, or “brand,” for collaboratively developing and promoting digital projects and exhibitions that offer inclusive history interpretation relevant to African American history and culture. In this way, even if the costs of developing a major collections-based museum are unattainable for IAAM, its staff can still collaboratively implement digital interpretation strategies that engage the Lowcountry’s existing historic landscapes and structures. In addition, mobile device applications and online exhibitions can help articulate the diverse social histories hidden within Lowcountry landscapes and structures for user audiences with minimal costs and impacts on the physical environments or present-day communities living within these spaces. These digital projects can be made available to the public through the museum’s current website, LDHI’s future website, and potentially even public kiosks in the future.

Just to clarify, all of these digital interpretation ideas are still very much in the early brainstorming phases, but staff at LDHI are looking forward to exploring the possibilities of a partnership with IAAM. In the meantime, please donate to IAAM’s fundraising efforts! This museum will play a tremendous role in encouraging inclusive public history interpretation and education throughout the Lowcountry region.

Southern Foodways as International Cultural Exchange

Southern veggie plate , image from Southern Living Magazine, 2012

With Thanksgiving around the corner, food is on the brain. If you’re like me, while turkey and gravy are plenty exciting (particularly when the turkey is deep fried), I’m really a sides person. Along those same lines, I am always drawn to the veggie plate when I eat at southern diners or “country cookin'” restaurants. The more sides the better.

Various scholars have argued that many of the standard dishes and cooking styles of traditionally southern foods reflect West African influences — from vegetables such as okra and black eyed peas, to batter frying poultry, seafood, and vegetables, to using hot spices for seasoning. In southern contexts like the Carolina Lowcountry, these West and Central African ingredients and cooking styles then mixed with American Indian and European foodways. For example, ingredients such as squash, tomatoes, and corn, as well as the practice of deep pit barbecuing, were inherited from American Indian tribes such as the Caddo, Choctaw, and Seminole. Foods associated with sugar, flour, milk, and eggs, such as baked goods and cheeses, are more associated with Europe.

In the context of colonial and antebellum slavery, these foodways continuations and exchanges would have occurred in a hierarchical social context. For example, culinary scholar Michael Twitty argues that the eating habits of white elite southerners in the colonial and antebellum periods still mimicked elite European cuisines, and often did not consist of the foods we now consider “southern.” But their cooks would have most likely been enslaved people of African descent, who would have still adapted these European dishes to some extent through African cooking styles as well as local Lowcountry ingredients. Over time, elite white southerners may have found their palates drawn more and more to these diverse foodways. In the context of the cabins and fields, enslaved people in the Lowcountry could often supplement their rations with vegetables and herbs they grew in subsistence gardens, as well as with meat they acquired through hunting and fishing. In this context, African and African American enslaved people could particularly continue traditional African cooking practices. But particularly in the colonial period, enslaved American Indians and European indentured servants would have also worked and lived in close proximity to enslaved African Americans. In this context international foodways exchange could abound, inside and outside of the main plantation house kitchen.

Cultural continuations and exchanges are not mutually exclusive, particularly when it comes to food. Tastes can both adapt to and enjoy new flavors, while still seeking comfort and sustenance from the familiar foods and cooking styles of home. Today we can experience the delicious results of this historic, multicultural, and distinctly American foodways exchange in a variety of southern dishes, including the classic veggie plate. And at my family Thanksgiving at least, many of these southern sides happily show up alongside the Thanksgiving standards.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

More on Physical Sites and Digital Interpretation: A Tour of McLeod Plantation

Touring McLeod Plantation with County Parks and Smithsonian staff, James Island, South Carolina, October 2012, image by Mary Battle.

In October 2012, I had the honor of touring McLeod Plantation on James Island with staff from Charleston County Parks and Recreation (CCPRC), and staff from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). CCPRC just purchased McLeod in 2011 from the Historic Charleston Foundation, and the site is not yet open to the public, so it was a privilege to experience such an extensive tour of the site as a representative from the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston.

The Smithsonian staff on the tour included curators and museum professionals I read about in my public history research, such as Rex Ellis and Deborah Mack, so I was particularly excited to tag along and listen to their discussions and observations. They were there as part of a research investigation to assess African American history and culture resources throughout the United States. At McLeod, they were particularly interested in the site’s buildings and collections, not only for interpreting the site as a former plantation worked through enslaved African American skill and labor, but also as the location of Union troop occupation during the Civil War, and as the site of the local Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction. In addition, as CCPRC stewardship manager Mark Madden noted, many black and white individuals in the Charleston area have family connections to this site, so it is a prime focal point for diverse oral history research.

In an earlier blog post, “Starting from Scratch” (June 26, 2012), I touched on some of the advantages of interpreting a plantation landscape in the twenty-first century that has not been influenced by twentieth century tourism representation strategies. While many plantation tourist sites in Charleston today are seeking to implement more effective interpretations of African American history during and after slavery, they often struggle with unraveling the influence of white elite nostalgia on the site, particularly romantic marketing strategies designed to appeal to twentieth century visitors who came “looking for Tara” or “moonlight and magnolias.” Like the College of Charleston’s Dixie Plantation, McLeod Plantation has not previously been open to the public, so site interpreters can begin with raw materials, rather than extracting history from a problematic nostalgic tourism framework. This is particularly exciting for McLeod, which contains extensive historic materials and physical structures, as well as landscape features, that could be invaluable for constructing a more inclusive understanding of the Lowcountry’s plantation history.

The team assembled for the October tour suggest some of the various types of collaborative institutional resources that could lead to this plantation becoming an insightful, inclusive, and innovative public history site. Though interpretation of McLeod is very much in the early planning stages, and Madden was careful to inform me that nothing is set in stone, based on my own observations that day I see great potential for locally-based physical site interpretation, national preservation resources and promotion, and digital interpretation developed in partnership with the Lowcountry Digital Library and projects like APLA. Will keep you posted on what happens, but it was definitely a powerful look into the potential future of Charleston’s public history landscape!

More on Time Travel: Charter Generation

   Arrival of Englishmen in North Carolina, 1585.  From Richard Hakluyt, The Discourse Concerning Westerne Planting (1585), reprinted in Old South Leaflets (Boston: The Directors of the Old South Work, 1906).

Last night my friend Shelia and I discussed Carolina colonial history over dinner in an Italian restaurant in North Charleston. Shelia is earning her master’s degree in history at the College of Charleston, and studies the experiences of enslaved women during the colonial era in Carolina. She noted that sometimes people ask her why, as an African American woman, she would want to study antebellum and colonial history, as she quoted a friend pointing out to her — “Nothing good happened for us then!”

First, we laughed over how studying history can sometimes seem to translate to wanting to go back there. My brother also once asked me what historic period I would want to go to if I could time travel, assuming as a history nerd that I would see it as fun adventure. I quickly responded, “Are you kidding? None! The future!” My experience with studying history is that it gives me a healthy, often awestruck respect for the struggles of the past, and appreciation for moving forward. Though in an earlier post I noted that “time travel” can be an effective historic interpretation strategy, actually going back does not sound fun to me at all.

But saying this, Shelia and I both noted that we found colonial history in Carolina to be fascinating. New World encounters between European settlers, American Indians, and enslaved as well as free Africans were full of conflict, exploitation, and suffering, but also unexpected alliances, personal relationships, and cultural exchanges. Laws surrounding race and enslavement were forming, but still murky, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As historian Ira Berlin explains, for early generations of enslaved Africans in the United States, the “Charter Generation,” this meant that racial boundaries were less rigid than they would become for future generations of enslaved African Americans in North America. This early generation often came from coastal trading areas of Africa and were already familiar with European social structures, so that even under bondage in the Americas, they were able to begin the work of “incorporating themselves into those societies . . . establishing families, accumulating property, and employing their knowledge of the law to advance themselves and secure their freedom in remarkably high numbers” (Coming to Terms with Slavery,” Berlin, 2006). Unfortunately in colonies like Carolina, the growth of plantation-style agriculture and cash crop production in the eighteenth century soon meant that planters required more labor, more rigid laws to control enslaved people and enforce coerced labor, and more limited access to individual freedom, which they increasingly defined as a racial barrier between blacks and whites.

What is fascinating about this time period is that it reveals how slavery formed and changed, and would continue to change over time, for the enslavers and the enslaved. Nothing was ever really set in stone or would be– instead people kept struggling and fighting. As Berlin noted about the history of slavery, “race’s ever-changing character suggests its malleability. That it could be made in the past argues that it can be re-made in the future — a prospect that provides all the more reason to come to terms with slavery ” (Berlin, 17). This ongoing change (sometimes from bad to worse, but then sometimes the other way around) is what makes this early history fascinating for history nerds like Shelia and myself, and worth discussing over an Italian dinner in 2012. But the promise of change, and the unexpected forms that change took in the past and could take in the future, is also what makes public history about even painful historic subjects such as racial inequalities and slavery so crucial, and why I look forward to making information about this history accessible through APLA.