Monday, August 3, 2020

Beverly Hemings, the Balloon Man

Too much has interfered with my musings here. I started chapter 1 in earnest. I had a birthday, which I always believe should be celebrated over a week, at least. Then  there was, for lack of better term, just plain bullshit. If you are alive you know what I'm talking about because you probably have your own brand that interferes with doing anything worth doing, generally kills your joy, and then leaves you with a whole mess of catching up to do.

Chapter One is doing fine, in spite of the bullshit. My birthday brought an interesting present from my husband, the Eminent Historian, in the form of the novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O'Connor, that deserves its own posts. The rest is still in clean-up mode. As that continues, here is a short, sweet image.

In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Annette Gordon-Reed points out a passage about Beverly Hemings in Isaac Granger Jefferson's memoir. Beverly was the oldest child of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson to survive to adulthood. Isaac Jefferson had been an enslaved artisan at Monticello, a tin and blacksmith, and one of the many children of Ursula and Great George Granger, who were one of the other extended and respected families there. His recollections were recorded in at his home in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1842 (right about the time that Frederick Douglass first began speaking as an abolitionist in New England, if we keep All Road Lead to Frederick Douglass going). 

Isaac Jefferson told the interviewer about the Hemingses at the beginning of Chapter 2, and mentioned that "Sally had a son named Madison, who learned to be a great fiddler. He has been in Petersburg twice: was here when the balloon went up -- the balloon that Beverly sent off."  

That is such an interesting detail, and Gordon-Reed investigated it (which is one of the reasons that I love that book so much). She noted that Beverly had departed Monticello in 1821 and, according to Madison, passed over the color line. Madison himself was free by the terms of Jefferson's will in 1826, but his mother died in 1835, so he took his family to Ohio in 1836.  With that window, she went searching for any evidence of a balloon ascension in Petersburg. She found it in the July 1, 1834, issue of the Petersburg Constellation. 

I wanted to see it for myself -- not because I disbelieved, but because I just wanted to see, in the same way nerdy way that you want to see historic sites or the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. None of the databases to which I have access have the Constellation.* One, however, did have a Salem, Massachusetts, that mentioned the notice. For what reason, I have no idea, and that may be a story for someone to investigate, too.  Whatever the reason, here it is:


"The Petersburg Constellation gives notice that a balloon man is about to visit that place, and the editor says he augurs a hearty welcome to him. The editor may put up his instrument, for these itinerant skylarkers are bore enough of themselves."

Well, someone's grouchy pants were on a little tight in the editorial office that day!

Gordon-Reed found that the balloon ascended from Poplar Lawn, a park with a large field bordered by Jefferson Avenue. Is that not poetic? Although this particular notice may not have definitely been the one that Isaac Jefferson mentioned, Isaac Jefferson had connected Beverley Hemings to an interest in balloons, one that Gordon-Reed pointed out paralleled his father's interest in Paris half-a-century earlier. 

Sally Hemings was in Paris, too. Madison's memoirs suggest that she told them of her time there. How could she not?  Well, I'm sure there are reasons, but imagine her putting her children to bed and telling them stories. What better stories than of a city across an ocean? Of a contraption full of air that lifted a man in a basket into the sky? What a feeling of freedom to be lifted about the earth and to see the world from the perspective of a bird.

That puts me in mind of Douglass, who at the moment that Beverly's balloon may have been ascending, stood on the shores of the Chesapeake watching the sails of ships pass by, wondering why he, too, could not sail as free as them. 

Beverly as the oldest, did not have other siblings' experience before him from which he could follow. He had only his mother's trust in his father to reassure him that his freedom would come. I can see an image of flight appealing to someone in that position. 

Then, he just disappeared from the record. What became of him and his ballooning? Maybe someone will fall down that rabbit hole of research and find out.



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*Little known fact: we who toil away as "lesser" schools such as non-elite liberal arts colleges, directional universities, urban universities, two-year colleges, and so forth, work with obstacles that people at major universities do not when we research our books because our libraries are not as flush with funding nor deemed as central to our missions as at flagship state, elite private, and ivy or ivy-adjacent places. When we put out books or articles, we've done so with more teaching and more effort in obtaining the tools we need.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

What To Call "It"? part 1

The popular image of the Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson -- what to call it? -- has come from the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris and from a 1979 novel, Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Aside from the ghastly casting of Nick Nolte as Jefferson, the film has quite a number of problems that deserve another post. The film argues that Hemings and Jefferson bonded over their Virginia origins, fell in love, she got pregnant, and her brother James forced Jefferson's hand in offering freedom to their children (and I can't remember if she was included in the deal) and James. The novel, while more successful and convincing in its depiction by allowing readers to see events through Hemings' eyes and hear her thought, also portrays a relationship based in consent and attraction, something akin to a marriage.

I'm too lazy to look up the source right now, so I'll find it later, but at Monticello they found that many people who knew about Hemings, knew about her from these artistic sources and thus believed that this -- what to call it? -- was a love story. That love story lies at one end of the spectrum of popular takes, and one that some of the descendants choose to believe.

At the other end, which any cruise through the internet will show you, lies a version that posits Jefferson as a rapist in the worst sense of the word. He's predatory, grooming his victim, assaulting her serially over decades, and, of course, keeping she and their children in bondage.

Madison Hemings, the most direct source, has a more subtle take, but we shall return to him. Right now, I want to focus on the overall methodological problem of approaching this issue.

One of the most difficult things to manage in writing about Hemings, and indeed all of the women in her family, concerns the -- well, right there, what word to use? What is neutral? What accurately describes the interaction in the absence of the participant's own descriptions? Jefferson, unlike that walking erection William Byrd III, did not even leave his own accounts from which we could extrapolate his -- again, what to call her? Victim, partner, seed-recipient?

This problem has two parts. The first you see above in the lack of first-person testimony. The second lies in our, present-day perceptions of sexual exploitation and eighteenth-century perceptions, complicated by the differences among legal and popular definitions. By our popular definition, if a woman cannot refuse sex without reprisal then the act is rape. Indeed, we teach our incoming freshman about enthusiastic affirmation of consent. The absence of "no" is not enough. They should also offer and receive an enthusiastic "yes."

What people, especially young people today, forget is that even this is new to popular perceptions. So much so that the same young people who sit in these Relationship 101 sessions who enthusiastically agree that, yes, yes, an enthusiastic yes is necessary and anything else is rape, will also drift into "well, what was she wearing" and "well, you can see she was kinda asking for it" when the discussion turns to particular cases. They have picked this up somewhere. Rape culture roots are wide and deep.

Just as looking toward the past with the rosy lenses of nostalgia comes easily to some people, so too does condemning the past for not being as enlightened as we think our time is. In fact, it is much much easier. That's where the difficult work of history comes in. You have to understand your subjects within the context of their own time, which means moving into a foreign territory, releasing what you think you know about almost everything, and then realizing you still haven't released enough. You then have to piece together their time and translate it to your audience in our time; and often you are trying to modulate the subtleties of historical inquiry, the unsubtle politics of today, and the gaps between academic knowledge and public knowledge -- and within every single one of those categories.

Does that mean becoming an apologist for abominable institutions or actions because "that was just their time"? That's the tricky bit for which the short answer is "no." For some things like, for instance, coming across the term "negro" or "colored" used to describe African Americans in the past, the answer can be "yes," because that was the agreed-upon term by the people that it describe at the time, although that is now no longer the case. More tricky will be terms that are now and always were perjorative. Even then, debates exist as to whether white people especially should ever use such words even when quoting historical documents. (For the record, as a white southern woman, my position is that word has no business coming out of my mouth under any circumstances.)

As a historian, your job is to  understand and explain, not excuse or condemn. One of my friends in graduate school always said, "let them condemn themselves." They usually do. My husband, the eminent historian, says roughly the same thing, "judge them by the standards of their own times." Quite often, if we are talking about our national history, the things we condemn today evolved from  institutions already in place then, and the principles that we use to condemn evolved from principle articulated then. Saying "well, that's just the way things were," should not mean "so that settles it." "That's the way things were," should lead to "and that's a problem because...." or "why were they that way?" The continuation of "that's the way things were" leads you deeper into the time, into the superstructure, the skeleton of the past, of our society -- or whatever society you study.

With Jefferson, letting him condemn himself by the standards of his own time in regard to slavery is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's far too easy. People get caught up in the contradictions of his position on freedom and his ownership on slavery, but I don't think it is a contradiction for him. At least, I think he had the mind to create an argument about race to ensure that it did not become a contradiction in his own head. If you situate him among other writers of his time, he comes out pretty racist, even when the less racist seem pretty racist by our own standards. All to justify his ownership of slaves that support his very expensive tastes and very extensive debts.

There are a lot of different avenues to consider in getting at this question, but one has to do with rape. So, I decided to take the same approach as with race and slavery, and the first thing to find out would be eighteenth-century standards and definitions. Sharon Block wrote an excellent book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, covering 1700 to 1820. Perfect! Indeed, she engages with the problem of 21st century sensibilities trying to understand 18th century crimes without apology or absolution.

But, I've once again taken rather a long time to get to this point. I'll explain what Block says next and how it helps to understand but not excuse Jefferson, and perhaps Wayles and Hemings, toward the Hemings women they -- what to call it?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

History, Art, Nostalgia: A Rambling Post

Good lord! Finally got to Douglass's appearance in Good Lord Bird and it is so over the top that you can't even call it parody. He's just a whole other person. Short, "stout," a bigamist, a drunk, bloviating, and a child-molester. This is the exact opposite of Douglass.

I'm now a bit intrigued about the choice of Daveed Diggs as the actor to play the miniseries vision of Douglass, given that his most famous role to date has been Lafayette/Jefferson in Hamilton, another feat of casting in which the historical person did not really resemble the character on stage. When that happens, both the characterization and the casting, you have to ask about the intent. The message of Lafayette/Jefferson was much clearer than what may be going on in the miniseries -- or yet even book -- of Good Lord Bird. Hamilton's whole spirit reminded the audience of the freshness and energy of these figures during their own time, but the black Jefferson also constantly reminded the audience that people who looked like the actor playing the character Jefferson were in fact owned by the historical person Jefferson.

No one is going to actually think that Jefferson was black (although who knows with Lafayette, his visage being less ubiquitous in U.S. visual culture.) What about Douglass? Douglass's face should be well-known, aside from the drunken Rochester fools who attempted to steal his statue in December 2018. His life, particularly his personal life, less so. Already, if the internet is any indication, a good chunk of the population is ready to believe that he was a womanizer. Now, will they believe that he was married to two women at the same time? Will that somehow become "fact" the way the fake quote about him being "married to an old black log," used as an epitaph to Jewell Parker Rhodes's dreadful novel Douglass's Womenhas? Or will the casting of Diggs suggest to the audience that something is upside down here?

This is the reason that I decided to read the novel, of course. Visual media has power that the written word, especially non-fiction, does not. I'm not at all versed in the reasons, but it has something to do with the combination of narrative and images that impress themselves on the mind and memory in such a way as to override other methods of learning and knowing. Whatever the physiological explanation, the quandary here lies in the artist's responsibility toward representing history and real human lives in the past.

Artists have license for interpretation that allow them to do whatever they would like; but we historians have to deal with the fallout. Take, for instance, criticism leveled at historian Kate Clifford Larson for the black slavecatcher in the film Harriet. Larson wrote a biography of Tubman, which did not include such a figure, and served as a consultant, which is a paid gig and to whom the creative minds have no real accountability. While black slavecatchers existed, they were something like less than 1% of the overall numbers of slavecatchers, so the artistic choice to have this character cast as a black man distorted a historical fact that was not even in either Larson's biography of Tubman or Catherine Clinton's.

But, I realize that I'm picking on black art here, which puts me in sort of a dictatorial position -- the white arbiter of accuracy in African American art and history. That's not my place. My place is as a student-- a white student -- trying to learn and either understand or accept even if I don't understand.

What were the reasons a black author or a black screenplay writer and black director make these choices? I'll have to think on that more with Good Lord Bird as I finish it.

With Tubman, when I heard that the screenplay originated in the 1990s, it made me think of the "Willie Lynch Letter" that was an early version of an internet meme. For those unfamiliar, this document purported to be a speech given by a slaveholder in colonial Virginia offering methods of dividing and conquering their enslaved population. These methods all reflected divisions within the African American community in the 1990s. This was, of course, not an actual historical document, but rather a call to overcome those divisions, grounded in white supremacist institutions, and unite in the present. So, taking this into consideration, this screenplay seemed to be for a black audience with that same message in mind; and, if you look at the characters, William Still, the composite played by the ever wonderful Janelle Monae, Harriet herself, this is a film that tries to be by and for African Americans. The role the slavecatcher plays, then, is the sell-out, the one who betrays his own people for his own gain. In the end, he serves as a lesson that, under white supremacy, those sell-outs are more disposable than Tubman.

But that wasn't conveyed in the visual argument on the screen. So, more harm done than good. I fear that for Douglass in Good Lord Bird. McBride may be arguing that Douglass, for all of his fame, was all noise and bluster, ultimately impotent, when put next to a man of action like John Brown, "nutty as squirrel turd" though Brown may be. (Now that I think about it, the continued mention of 20 kids does suggest "potency" of another kind, too.)

White art in this realm has done more insidious work. Gone With the Wind, for instance, has a strong hold on imaginations about the Old South as something "beautiful and elegant." Even my students who probably couldn't pick any of the actors out of a line up, and who have never even seen a poster for the film, still have a familiarity with some of its imagery through its ubiquity.

One of the problems in white art about history has to do with romanticism and nostalgia -- which is the subject of the book after the Hemings book. Gone With the Wind's power for its white audiences lay in its romanticism and nostalgia for a time and place scrubbed of its reality, as written by a woman who had not lived through it so much as heard her Mee Maw's stories about them, all washed away by that awful "woah." Book and film could end with a hopeful "tomorrow is another day" note because Mitchell wrote from a period in which she could look back and know that it all ended happily ever after for the Scarlett class. For Mammy's class? Not so much; but you don't have to encounter that because Mammy is loyal and happy in this world controlled by Mitchell and then by the filmmakers (although not in Hattie McDaniel's subtle expressions), all in the same dazzling Technicolor that brought audiences Dorothy's ruby shoes.

My particular interest has to do with Little House on the Prairie. I was a huge fan of the t.v. series from its pilot, which aired when I was in first grade, which led to the books, which led to my interest in history and writing, which set me on this road. I'm less interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder herself than in the stories and their life. Her experience factors into my interest, naturally, but the way the stories themselves have their own life from her memoir that was not published until recently, to the children's books, to her daughter's pillaging them for her own novels, to the public history/literary pilgrimage sites, to the t.v. show, to the scholarship, to the fandom.

As surprisingly grim as those stories actually are -- the first chapter of the first book involves slaughtering a pig, and The Long Winter sees an entire town on the verge of freezing to death -- the word constantly used in relation to them is "cosy." The t.v. show, too, embraces melodrama and even horror with plagues and children's deaths and rape and abortion and kidnapping and on and on. Yet, it too has the sense that everything will work out in the end.

The nostalgia for a "simpler" time seems almost a contradiction in the face of this litany of horror from both stories and t.v. shows, and yet the term "simpler" refers to the bonds of family and a clear sense of right and wrong that exist in the Little House universe. In the t.v. universe, Michael Landon's Charles "Pa" Ingalls is always right. He is the moral True North. For most of the series, Harriet Oleson acts as the repository for all vile behavior and ideas. In the book universe, the threats are always external: nature and the distant government (which obscures the role of Big Business).

The books' action is also set in a vacant landscape, stripped of all but its material historical context. Manifest Destiny, now with Manifest Domesticity, appears as a force of good, stripped of its human cost and set at a remove from most humans, but certainly far from most people who look differently from the Ingallses. In the t.v. universe, watched in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, during the racial clashes of bussing and integration, the American Indian Movement, the feminist movement, and long tail of everything we consider to be "the Sixties," controls what of that it allows into that world and what it deems acceptable of those cataclysmic changes.

The control of conflict, really, is where the nostalgia comes in. Viewers and readers can consume these stories of moral certainty and without the disrupting ambiguities that contemporary life brings. By way of another example, think of the t.v. show The Wonder Years, set in the white suburbs experiencing the encroaching anxieties of the 1960s, viewers in the late 1980s and early 1990s could revisit that time safe in the comfort of knowing that everything turned out ok for their demographic, there in the Reagan/Bush Era.

For Little House, the nostalgia has a double layer. The first lies in the stories -- whether t.v. or book -- themselves and the second lies in the memory of uncritical childhood reading and viewing, either as a family, with a beloved family member, or as part of a favorite school lesson, or with a group of friends, or as an escape to a more certain, loving world than the one the reader/viewer lived in.

So, really, with this project I'm trying to get at the problem of nostalgia, which is adjacent to heritage, both of which crop up in artistic expression, and all of their relationships to history. How do they use history? How do they differ from history? How do they impede or aid the study of history? Just as importantly, I'm interested in nostalgia as a feature of white expressions of history. After all, the t.v. show of Little House liked to include aspects of African American and Native American history, but without the full conflict and disruption that came from encountering that history outside of the control of white paternalism.

Well, this was a ramble that I did not intend to wander down when I started simply to mention Douglass's appearance in Good Lord Bird. The subject should have been dealing with sexual coercion and exploitation in the eighteenth century. That has been a difficult subject to read about because it has reminded me of far too many men in the late 20th and 21st century. But, more on that later.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 4: Never Knowing

My hypothesis about Elizabeth's mother is that she died without ever having made a mark on a contemporary record. This is not a provable hypothesis, so it might not even merit the term "hypothesis." Yet, it should still be among the potentialities that outline the space in the past that she occupied. 

Let's start with Elizabeth's birth in 1735. Madison indicates that Elizabeth was born in Virginia, therefore her mother was in Virginia in 1735. Where was she nine month earlier?

If her mother was Parthenia or Sarah, as listed in the 1733 and 1746 Eppes documents, then she was right there in Virginia. If you put that together with Madison's story about bringing her into the house when Hemings planned to kidnap Elizabeth, then she was working in the fields at Bermuda Hundred or one of the other Eppes plantations.

Except none of those pieces fit together very well. (Not that they have to, given that we could use so many more pieces; but still...) When planters bequeathed property to their heirs, the slaves working that property went along in the bargain. The slaves that they bequeathed to their daughters, the ones usually named in wills, tended to be those who labored in the house, those who did the "women's work" to allow the daughters to be "ladies." Named in both the 1733 will and the 1746 marriage settlement, neither Sarah nor Parthenia worked in the fields, whereas Madison's account would have Elizabeth's mother in the fields in 1733. Also, Elizabeth seems to have no siblings associated with her. That doesn't mean she did not have any brothers or sisters, but no one has that clear connection to her.

Let's go about this puzzle another way. Where was Elizabeth's mother nine months before Elizabeth's birth? Wherever the father was, of course. Since Captain Hemings claimed paternity, then where was he? To answer that question, we need to know something about him.

Madison conveyed four relevant pieces of information about Hemings: his name, his occupation, his nationality, and that his ship went back and forth between Virginia and England. In other words, the Hemings family seems to have taken care to preserve a fact that their forefather did not captain a slaving vessel from Africa. If he did not captain a slaving vessel, then he did not impregnate (that's the most neutral language I could settle on) Elizabeth's mother before she arrived if she came directly from Africa.

Of course, that brings us to her manner of arrival. Elizabeth's mother could have come to Virginia in one of three ways, all three of which took her from Africa through the hell of the Middle Passage. The first brought her directly to Virginia, the second to Virginia after ports-of-call and transfers in the Caribbean, and the third as part of a mixed cargo on a vessel not specific to the slave trade. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has two transatlantic voyages for 1734 and two for 1735, and three voyages from the Caribbean in 1734 and two in 1735 as arriving in the Upper James River. Maybe Elizabeth's mother arrived on one of them. None of them, by the way, had a captain named Hemings nor phonetically similar to Hemings. That doesn't rule out the possibility that Hemings was another crew member, misremembered as a captain.

Once she had arrived at, let's say, Bermuda Hundred, then she waited in a sort of quarantine. Philip Morgan did a lot of number crunching -- Cliometrics they called it, back in the day -- for his massive Slave Counterpoint and the little data that he found for Virginia in the 1730s on this showed that the quarantine lasted for 8 to 15 days. This was during the peak of the trade for Virginia, and the peak of the peak occurred right there in Bermuda Hundred as the planters in the Piedmont demanded more and more laboring bodies from Africa, while those in the Chesapeake had an enslaved population that reproduced itself (although not quite to the point where they wanted to offload them in numbers to meet the demand elsewhere, as would begin happening in 50 years time).

So, consider this very contingent scenario: If Elizabeth's mother arrived in Bermuda Hundred on a boat not captained by Hemings, and if she then went to field work, then the only chance that they had for contact and conception (again, the most neutral way to configure what happened between them to create Elizabeth Hemings) would have been there during her quarantine while she was confined in a port city.

Frankly, this scenario gives me a very bad feeling about Elizabeth's conception, not made any better by Madison's account in which Hemings seems to have cast off any concern about Elizabeth's mother thereafter, not offering to purchase her freedom and trying to separate her from her daughter. No, I don't trust him at all. The reality for her situation favors an interpretation of rape, even if it does not exclude a range of other possibilities.

Enter yet another contingency. Here we have Elizabeth's mother having undergone one of the most dehumanizing experiences in human history, her body violated, broken, malnourished, and barely able to hang on to its own life, much less grow another. Although not as grim as a century earlier, the first year for most new arrivals in Virginia remained deadly, more so for Africans. I'm trying to find mortality rates for the area in which she lived to have an accurate picture, but what I have found is that there was a reason that the enslaved population did not replace itself beyond more men arriving than women. Add on top of that the fact that pregnancy tended to inflate the mortality rates of most women and the odds were pretty steep for a young, African woman surviving long past the birth of her first child if that birth took place in the first year after arrival.

This is one possible fate of Elizabeth's mother: A weakened body, pregnant, hard physical labor, all in a seasoning year, death in childbirth. Elizabeth's mother may not have been brought to the Big House. Only Elizabeth the baby may have been carried there to be cared for by one of the enslaved women, such as Parthenia or Sarah, who served as an adopted mother. That may account for how little survived about this "full blooded African" woman in America, including her name. She did not live long enough to tell her child, so the other women told Elizabeth what they knew, and she told her daughter, who told her children, one of whom told a reporter, who  printed it up for us.

But, of course, this is just one possible scenario pieced together from a number of contingencies and contextual information. Shift one piece and, like a kaleidoscope, the whole thing changes. The most painful thing is in that cliche, "we will never know." Yet, I find value and importance in trying because the search for this one woman's experience forces me -- and by extension anyone else who tries, such as the readers of the chapter and their teachers who will lead discussions -- to step into that world and ask questions about it, sometimes very practical questions, and try to understand it.

I won't know exactly what came to pass in Elizabeth's mother's life, how she went from her own mother's arms somewhere in the continent of Africa to some now-lost grave in Virginia, but in considering all of the different contingencies, I think about the lives of women who did experience this one or that one. Those women did not even have the record of being the "full blooded African" in a memoir, but they existed and became part of this -- our, black and white and all -- collective history.

So, the never knowing, it's like the destination that you never reach on a trip where the journey becomes just as important.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 3: Our Knowing So Far

There comes a time in research when writing must commence in order to know what you do and do not know. Otherwise, you -- and by "you" I mean "I" -- will end up lost in the rabbit hole. My rule for knowing that point has arrived follows that of an archeologist with whom I once did a field school: stop digging when you stop finding anything. I've also adapted that to say that you should stop digging when you keep finding the same things and they are all citing one another. Then, when you start writing, you can begin to ask new questions that push you to look elsewhere.

This is what I keep telling my students: research papers are an organic art. I can't give them a step-by-step checklist or flow chart because the process is rather loopy -- literally if you are trying to draw it out -- but you do sometimes have to just start writing and get into that flow in order to move in a generally forward direction. "Yes, it's a lot of work," I warn them. "So pick a topic that you care about -- or at least won't absolutely hate within two minutes." I actually have had one or two students thrilled to realize that this thing they like to read about just for fun could actually be a subject for serious study.

But, I digress...

This blog accomplishes some of that writing to know what I know; but now I'm also realizing that I have to start an actual chapter. Elizabeth's mother will forever remain a mystery, at least for the purposes of my book, which is supposed to be a synthesis anyway.  In the word of Zombieland's Tallahassee, "time to nut up or shut up." Or perhaps to paraphrase Shawshank Redemption's Red, "get busy writin', or get busy dying." Or even Yoda, "do or do not. There is no try."

So, what do we have on Elizabeth's mother?

First, Madison's account and two of the points he establishes with her in his family history. She provides a connection to African and explains the reason that the Hemings family held the positions that they did in the plantation house rather than in the fields. I'm going to also eventually add another post about the third thing that Madison establishes with his great-grandmother, which is the history of racial mixing in his family.

Second, Madison's account is the only known, direct record of a Elizabeth's mother, a women who was "a full-blooded African, possibly a native of that country." Everything else must be surmised.

Third, what can be surmised?  Well, this will be one of the sections of the chapter that deals with context and method rather than narrative.

Already, I have blogged about a couple of possibilities about her life. First, that John Wayles was probably not her master when she gave birth to her daughter in 1735 (a date listed in Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book). I also blogged that Francis Eppes IV owned Elizabeth and, therefore, her mother. Yet -- and here is the example of writing to know what you know -- I'm adding notes into my timeline and realizing that Eppes IV died in 1734. This makes me wonder who oversaw his estate and family and the inheritance of his daughters.

Was Elizabeth's mother a final purchase before Francis IV died? Or did someone else purchase her? Maybe Francis Eppes V who died in 1737? Or perhaps the widow Eppes, Sara? They would be the most likely to be in charge of things. Or perhaps Martha Eppes, who later married Wayles, was responsible, since Elizabeth ended up with her? She was an Eppes twice over because she was first married to Llewlyn Eppes (a cousin?), who might also factor into this.

Could Wayles, in fact, have been her master as Madison said? Probably not. Annette Gordon-Reed describes the earliest record of his arrival in Virginia as possibly being 1738, and while that could be inaccurate, his appearance in other records begins in the 1740s. Either way, Elizabeth already toddled about in the world by then.

Dang it! This is going to require some more digging, and probably in places to which I do not have access because of the pandemic. I'll get back to you on that. Suffice to say, that I now know what I don't know there...

Anyway, back to the original train of thought.

Let's suppose that Elizabeth's mother came into the Eppes's possession rather than Wayles's. Francis Eppes IV had a plantation at Bermuda Hundred, next to the Upper James River port, Bermuda Hundred, which Francis Eppes V inherited and on which widow Sara Eppes lived. Therefore, Elizabeth's mother had just as much or greater chance of arriving in the colony there as at Williamsburg, where Madison had placed the action of her life in Virginia.

Annette Gordon-Reed tried to pinpoint Elizabeth's mother in the records of Eppes IV's enslaved women, with the two pertinent documents being Eppes IV's will, drawn up in 1733, and the settlement of his daughter Martha when she married Wayles in 1746. She noted the names Parthenia and Sarah, two names that also appear either in their full or diminutive form in later Hemings generations. Both names appear in the 1733 and the 1746 documents, with the 1746 document also mentioning by name two new children, Betty and Ben.

Assuming that Betty is our Elizabeth Hemings, daughter of an African woman and Captain Hemings and mother of Sally Hemings, then one of the adult women in the earlier document was likely to be that African mother. The early pages of Jefferson's Farm Book, in which he lists the names of people whom he received through the inheritance of his wife, yet another Martha, no Parthenia or Thenia appears, but Sal does. Sal also receives a notation of having died in 1781.

That scenario, which is quite plausible, has Parthenia or Sarah arriving in or before 1733, then getting pregnant late in 1734 or 1735, and giving birth to a baby girl named Elizabeth in 1735. Elizabeth survives to be named in the 1746 document. Yet, 1733 and 1746 are separated by 13 years. Think of how many things change in that period of time, how much can slip through the cracks between the documents. I have another idea about what happened.

You know, how about if I leave my own added hypothesis about what happened for tomorrow? This post may take you a few minutes to read, but realizing what I don't know, and trying to find it to include -- and not finding much of it -- has taken a few hours that has made me want to dig in more.

On a different subject, I think I see what McBride is doing in Good Lord Bird. Onion just might be a type of trickster in the way Huck Finn was a trickster. He has to be wily just to get through some absurd yet deadly situations on one piece. I'm not sure how to describe his point of view, but it isn't quite marginal because he's near the center of major events. At the same time, "swept up in" those events seems an apt description.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

This Week in Douglassness: 10 July 2020

***Rochester Ladies' Antislavery Society Papers now digitized and searchable from the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. This collection helped me so much! You see Julia Griffiths as an abolitionist, and a bit of a pain in the butt, but still, someone working with a set of women who were just as committed to ending slavery, but not really committed to being under the umbrella of the American Antislavery Society. You see the Douglass family all through their account books, allowing you to surmise their work at the newspaper office and its position as a headquarters for receiving the people headed for Canada. You can read the letters of Julia Wilbur as she roams the freedpeople's camps of Alexandria with Harriet Jacobs at her side. When I researched in them, I'd sit there, completely absorbed, skipping the afternoon tea the library held because I wanted to know what happened next. Now they are available to all researchers with an internet connection.


***Frederick Douglass (and Booker T. Washington) descendant and founder of the Frederick Douglass Initiatives Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., sits for a recreation of his forefather's portrait. Wow! That first shot of him in full make-up is astounding! 


The Morris/Douglass portrait was part of artist Drew Gardiner's project to recreate old photos with the descendants of their subjects. A Hemings-Jefferson descendant, Shannon LaNier sat for a Jefferson portrait, echoing but not precisely recreating his ancestor. The result has a different sort of power.: 


***Because racist is as racist does, someone decided that attacking one of the statues of Frederick Douglass in Rochester was a good way to celebrate the Fourth of July, thus proving Douglass's proposition in his Fifth of July speech and the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last time, the vandals turned out to be a couple of drunk and ignorant college d00dz ("drunk and ignorant" is a bad combination). This time, we await an arrest, but I will not be surprised if a Confederate flag and a MAGA hat are involved somewhere, along with a cry of "there is no racism, it's a liberal media lie." 



***This past Tuesday, readers of USAToday could learn about Anna Douglass as they enjoyed their Continental breakfasts and coffee at hotel and motels across the nation. Good work, N'dea Yancey-Bragg! (Oh, and look who actually answered her e-mail and phone in a timely manner to provide some information for the article.)


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 2: Why the Big House?

The last post focused on the function that Africa served in Madison Hemings's account of his great-grandmother. This is, of course, all in addition to the data that he intends to convey. As mentioned in an earlier post, family stories both offer information as it is remembered, but also remember certain parts in certain ways in order to convey what the tellers have thought important. There is a good book on the subject called Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins that has helped me a lot in the past not only in understanding family stories of my subjects but my own family stories, as well. (After all, in the end, aren't they all of the same big piece of human behavior -- but that's another story for another time and another blog.)

Africa was actually a part of the function that Elizabeth's mother served in the overall story of the Hemings family, given that so little information about her as a person survived since the events Madison described. She connected the family to the continent and to a racial mixing central to American history (also a subject to return to later).  Another function that she serves in Madison's telling explains Elizabeth Hemings's placement in the plantation house rather than in the fields, and by extension the place of her children and grandchildren in the more privileged positions in the plantation hierarchy.

Why would being in the Big House matter? In the Hemings's case, being part of the plantation household rather than in the fields put Elizabeth in the way of John Wayles, her daughter Sally in the way of Thomas Jefferson, their children in skilled positions, and Sally's children on the path to freedom, a good living, and with the option of passing. The shift was no small matter, especially in retrospect.

Still, why would this be a question? After all, some people worked in the house and some in the fields, and women would more likely end up in a kitchen or cleaning to free up the O!-so-delicate white mistress from the kind of labor that field work then housework required. Make no mistake, pre-industrial housework was labor. (Spend a summer doing kitchen demonstrations as a museum interpreter and you will find out soon enough that women who did the cooking and cleaning in the days of cast iron and scrub brushes probably had muscular arms.) This wouldn't be such an oddity of a story by 1873 that it would bear mentioning, would it?

Except perhaps that wasn't the question Madison was asked. Although he seems to start as if he were asked about the Hemings name, he continues as if in a set narrative as "it comes down to me." The parts dealing with Elizabeth and her mother moving into the planation household could be an answer to a question asked much much earlier, maybe posed by a Hemings child, "mama, why are we up here and those people down there?" Or a white one that went something like, "why do you have such a dark face working in your house, Mrs. Eppes?" Or, "Why do you have one of them in you home, Mrs. Eppes? Aren't you afraid? They are practically savage!" Something obnoxious like that. Something that would explain the reasons a woman relatively fresh from the Middle Passage would be working in the plantation household when, although fewer in number, a creole woman might be preferred for her lighter skin, her command of English, her cultural familiarity, and a whole host of other prejudices.

The face of the answer would explain the situation for white people. "Oh, you had to protect your investment from unscrupulous quarters," they might nod. "We understand." For the Hemingses, the explanation told of freedom thwarted. Wayles in Madison's account, but most likely Eppes in fact, moved Elizabeth and her mother into the plantation house because Captain Hemings intended to steal Elizabeth out of slavery.

What a sea captain might have to do with a mixed race child, even his own, is a whole other question. Who was going to take care of her on the voyage over? Who was going to take care of her in England, or wherever it was that he planned to take her? If there was a wife who would be mother, how was she going to feel about an illegitimate brown child of her husband? Or was he going to make up another story? Did he care nothing for Elizabeth's mother's feelings in this? Or did she support the idea of her baby getting out of slavery? Did he promise that the baby would live a better life? In other words, what the hell was he thinking or doing? There's a lot that will never be answered even if his name surfaces in some ship log or bill of lading buried somewhere in Kew.

But I digress....

For the Hemingses, in this story they have a white forefather who not only acknowledged his paternity of a brown daughter, but recognized her humanity enough to want her to be free. The man who claimed her as property, a thing, wanted to keep her as a science experiment. What -- not who -- would she become? His best expectations about her father or his worst expectations about her mother? He brought them both closer, into his residence for surveillance, really. First to keep the captain from spiriting at least one of them to freedom. Then, after the disappearance of the captain, to observe the development of Elizabeth.  Later, he took her as his "concubine."

Here, also, we encounter two ambivalences about white fathers from Madison. Captain Hemings with his disappearance or abandonment; and Wayles, who became Madison's grandfather, but one for whom he expresses little admiration or connection. Wayles would not allow the baby to become free, raised her, then fathered her children whom he held as slaves. Although Wayles, in fact, did not come into possession of Elizabeth until she was eleven, and he did not take her as his concubine until she was in her late twenties, our twenty-first century sensibilities squirm at this early intimacy and sense of grooming. I can almost hear at least one reader thinking "what a freak!" and certainly such a thing would not be outside the perversities of slavery. Madison most likely thought of it all as part of the grand exploitation of his family.

What of Elizabeth in this story? She would have been the one who told her daughter Sally who told her son Madison who told the reporter who published this genealogy for us. Did she grow up learning that she could have been free? What did she think of that? Did she contemplate a different life that could have been? Did she think such wishes or daydreams foolish? Did she decide to put another scheme in place, teaching her children something about race and freedom? Did she play a long game of getting out? Or did she decide to make what she had work the best it could?  We will return to her.

Once again a wish for Hilary Mantel's gifts.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 1: An African Ancestry

Aside:  I started reading The Good Lord Bird the other night. Dang it! I'm enjoying it. Granted, whatever messed-up version of Douglass he has in store has not yet made his entrance; but I have no horse in the John Brown race and I'm loving this off-kilter, supremely over-confident character. Also, the opening that tells you right off that the whole novel comes from not one but two wholly unreliable narrators is stroke of historical narrative genius that may pave the way to forgiveness for and Douglass transgressions.  "May," mind you, not "will." The table of contents promises a late chapter titled "Annie."  Every since I read Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz's Ties that Bound Us, (well worth your time regardless of Stack) about women in the world of John Brown, I thought young Annie Brown might make a great subject for a YA novel. So, that's something to look forward to.

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Now on to our main topic: Elizabeth Hemings's mother was, according to Madison Hemings, "a full-blooded African, and possibly a native of that country." In Madison's telling, she gave birth to her daughter and moved into the plantation household under her master's orders when Captain Hemings planned to kidnap the baby. That's really all Madison relayed about her. No name, no background, no story of what became of her, not even an indication that the Captain planned to purchase or to kidnap her along with her daughter. Indeed, quite the contrary since Madison mentioned "parting mother and child" in describing the proposed sale of Elizabeth and only the kidnapping of "the child," a plan thwarted by the "leaky fellow servants of the mother." Madison keeps mother and daughter separate through this section of his history.

Considering all of this, what function does she serve in his account?  For this post, I will focus on this:

Elizabeth's mother establishes an African ancestry, which appears important to Madison. He was the only one of the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to claim that ancestry and trace the family's arrival from two continents. By the twentieth century, even his brother Eston's descendants conspired to hide its African origins even as they claimed their Jefferson lineage. Here is an interview with one of those descendants, Julia Jefferson Westerinen, explaining how her black ancestry was hidden from her as she was growing up. (Part of the "Getting Word" oral history project at Monticello.):


I also think that remembering Elizabeth's mother as "of that country" Africa* serves another purpose here. "Country" suggests a nationality or nationalism that informed western political movements at the time Madison relayed his family history in 1873. Think of the unification of Germany and Italy, or of the later patriotism of the U.S.'s Spanish-American War, or of the long-term causes of World War I. Whether he was conscious of this or whether this is my latter day historian's interpretation alone, Madison participates in a type of Afrocentric thinking here that emerged from the creation of an African-American consciousness.

Remember that the institution of slavery created race in the United States, sorting people into "white" and "black" and negotiating those who were neither into conditional membership in one or the other. This had little relationship to the history Africa suffered at that particular moment in time, which is a whole other chapter in our Western Civilization textbook, but that part doesn't figure into the Hemings story here. The part that does figure into the story is that Madison sees himself as both a product of that fusion of people from African who did not share a common identity while also projecting it both back into his great-grandmother's origins and across the ocean. His great-grandmother came from a country of dark-skinned people just as his grandfather, "John Wayles, a Welchman,"came from Wales or Captain Hemings came from England, places of light-skinned people.

Given the ambivalences that he expresses throughout his narrative, I wonder about his sense of place, nationalism, or patriotism in the United States. I wonder also what he is saying about race here. Is he saying that it is all the same, that Wales, England, Africa, they are all countries or nations equally? He, the descendant of both, should be equal? He, a descendant of Africa, does not appear to be so? He connects Jefferson to Africa implicitly as he tells this story, and he seems to have mixed feelings about Jefferson (a topic for another time).

Whatever textual reading you make of this, Africa ultimately exists long ago and far away in Madison's story. So much so that, but for his story it could have disappeared from his family altogether.

In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman describes an undershrub favored by slave traders as a drug for their captives:
Manta uwa made you forget your kin, lose sight of your country, and cease to think of freedom. It expunged all memories of a natal land, and it robbed the slave of spiritual protection. Ignorant of her lineage, to whom could the slave appeal? No longer able to recall the shrines or sacred groves or water deities or ancestor spirits or fetishes that could exact revenge on her behalf, she was defenseless. No longer anyone's child, the slave had no choice but to bear the visible marks of servitude and accept a new identity in the household of the owner. (p. 157)
The name of that shrub, manta uwa, "means 'forget mother' in Hausa." Hartman tries to find her mother, or rather, many mothers, in the course of her book, moving backward along a route similar to one that Elizabeth's mother likely took toward Virginia. So little of Elizabeth's mother's story, of her self, survived that journey, down to today. Whatever was shed of her story between the people who remembered the living woman and Madison's knowledge, Madison seems to make sure to retain what remained. She left a trace.

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* No, students in my world civilizations classes, Africa is NOT a country and do not use Madison as an excuse for saying so or I will send you to Prof. Odhiambo and she will set you straight in ways that you will not soon forget. Although, you may learn quite a bit in the process.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Another Douglass Post: Bambarra

I just can't quit you, Douglass!

Alas, one may move on to other projects, but when you spend a considerable amount of time with a person, in their lives and up in their business, they stay with you.  Also, when you roam around the same time periods, wanting to know something about that world, questions about their lives crop up when you ask questions about the lives in the new project.

Seriously, being a historian is all about asking questions that are usually answered with more questions.

One big question has to do with Anna Douglass's parents.

Just an aside, I've noticed a tendency on the internet these days to not only call her Anna Murray Douglass, but to hyphenate her last name to Anna Murray-Douglass. If you do that, realize that she never went by either as far as the documents suggest. She was "Mrs. Douglass." Just like Mary Todd Lincoln never went by that name, as Catherine Clinton pointed out. Hyphenation is a product of the late-twentieth century feminist movement. "Anna Murray Douglass" was Rosetta Douglass Sprague's designation at a time when some women did include their maiden names in their full name, as Rosetta did, to honor their own lineage. Everywhere else, she was "Mrs. Douglass" or "Anna Douglass." There once was a time that wives took that as almost a professional title that they had earned because being "Mrs. Husband's Name" was a job.

One thing that I've noticed in this heritage-history debate and in trying to understand the lives of otherwise silent women in the past, is that the craft of history involves the effort to understand individuals in their time, place, and circumstances while the work of heritage preservation has more to do with the present and the employment of the past to serve a purpose in the present. History turns heroes into humans, heritage turns humans into heroes.

But I digress...

Anna Douglass's father was Bambarra Murray of Caroline County, Maryland, and that was about all that Rosetta Douglass Sprague knew about him. When researching her family back about a decade ago now, his named sounded African and I soon learned that Bambarra was actually a group of people. Of course, given the lack of curiosity of slave traders beyond any information that would help them make a better profit and prevent uprisings, designations of people, including classification of them as "tribes," let to a gigantic mess of assigned ethnicities and affiliations. Perhaps at some point, Bambarra, his father, or his grandfather, had either been called a Bambarra so often as to have that become his name, or maybe in the retelling "he was a Bambarra named Murray" became "he was Bambarra Murray," or maybe he was named Bambarra as a tribute to his or an ancestor's origins. Indeed, now that I'm thinking about it, my assumption was always that this ancestor was a male.


In any case, in investigating him, I confess to rather giving up the ghost early. I had classified him as a contemporary of Harriet Bailey, maybe slightly older, putting his birth in the 1780s or 1790s. The transatlantic slave trade had pretty much ended in Maryland by that time. Not only did Congress suspend it during the War for Independence, but the Chesapeake states actually supported its permanent end because their enslaved population had grown of its own accord. You can see that in the large, extended Bailey family (subject of Ezra Greenspan's current research for what will probably be a brilliant book) at this point in its history. If Bambarra were born in the time I estimated, then he could not possibly have been African unless he came through the Caribbean, and even then the trade was a bit iffy because of the blockades and fighting that resulted from the American war, the French Revolution, the British fighting with the French, the Haitian Revolution and everyone else piling on. Long story short, I came to the conclusion that Bambarra, however far removed from Africa, more likely hailed from right there in Maryland.

I moved on with my research.

Then Elizabeth Hemings's mother and the way her great-grandson told their story began to fascinate me in the sort of way that makes me wish I had Hilary Mantel's skills. In researching her, I once again came across the word Bambarra, and once again thought about Bambarra Murray the person.

The Bambarra people lived on the upper Senegal River, spoke Malinke, and traded with the French, which meant that they were also traded by the French. According to Ira Berlin in Many Thousands Gone, they had a reputation for warring against Muslims and the Mandika. If you remember Roots, Kunta Kinte identified himself as Mandika from the village of Juffure. The miniseries gives the impression of a tiny, isolated town, but Don Wright's work on the Gambia will tell you that it actually was a major trading post on the mainland from the English fort. There they traded in captives who became slaves bound for the Americas.

In other words, whoever the real Kunta Kinte was, his family would have traded in Anna Murray's ancestors, who would just as easily have traded in Kunta Kinte's family. After all, Berlin wrote that the Bambarras' martial prowess had such renown that their name became synonymous with black soldiers on both sides of the trade, both captor and captive. Neither the Kunta Kinte side nor Bambarra Murray side would have considered one another as "African" in the sense of a common, homogenous identity, either. As Saidya Hartman put it in Lose Your Mother, "They sold strangers: those outside the web of kin and clan relationships....In order to betray your race, you had first to imagine yourself as one." That imagining began in the hold of a slave ship.

As I started to retrace Annette Gordon-Reed's steps -- not because I doubt her but because you must in order to see what other historians have seen and to see if you see something yourself -- I looked into the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. (That's when I started putting pieces together on my "Upper James River" and "Bermuda Hundred" puzzle.) Now, I'm sure I played with this in my research before, but obviously didn't really know what to do with it, or tried to do the wrong thing with it. I'm learning that different centuries also require different strategies for research and different ways of thinking in ways that I can't articulate at the moment. In any case, I approach it as if the eighteenth century were the nineteenth century, just earlier, rather than something different entirely. Now, I approached it as the eighteenth century, which made a difference. Again, I don't quite know why. Also, I think they changed some of their interface and search capabilities in the meantime, but I could be wrong.

Anyway.....

Putting in a search that narrowed the landing place to Maryland both for the Transatlantic and the Intracoastal trade, I found voyages that landed at Oxford as late as 1773.


We have a 1773 voyage from Saint-Louis to an unspecified Maryland port, voyages in 1772 and 1771 from Saint-Louis to Oxford, a 1770 voyage from Gambia to an unspecified port in Maryland and another from Saint-Louis to Oxford.

Oxford? That's awfully familiar. As in Talbot County familiar. The red thingy marks Oxford on the map below. St. Michael's, where Douglass lived for a short time as a teenager, lies to the northwest, Easton, where he was held in jail and where there where the slave trader Austin Woolfolk bought and sold people bound for the Mississippi cotton fields lied to the northeast. Tuckahoe Creek where Douglass spent his first four or five years is marked further northwest, and Denton on the other creek further to the east. (Down at the bottom, just above the Google insignia, you'll find Cambridge, Harriet Tubman territory.) Given Oxford's proximity to Denton, the place named by Sprague as her mother's birthplace in her , and the access by water, that seems a more likely entry point for African captives, especially so late in the business, than Annapolis, which lies much further north on the Chesapeake.


Also, these voyages gathered their captives in Saint-Louis and the Gambia. Both places traded in Bambarra people. Saint-Louis is marked with the red thingy on the coast of Senegal on the map below, and the Gambia is further along the coast to the south, a tiny finger of  a country reaching inland. The Bambarra peoples lived kind of in the middle there, on and past the border of Senegal, to the best of my knowledge (which I will admit has significant limits on this topic.)


Then, I thought, "I'm a bonehead!" I had placed Bambarra in Harriet Bailey's generation, her contemporary. Yet, not only was Anna older than Douglass, she was the eighth child of her parents. Bambarra might more likely have been the contemporary of Betsey Bailey, Douglass's grandmother, who was born in 1774 (a year after Sally Hemings, by the way). Men can have children for much longer than women, too. So, he could have arrived as a child, as Denmark Vesey had, on one of these voyages? Or could his father or mother have arrived?

One thing seems sadly certain, what every Bambarra knew of Africa, either directly or through a parent or grandparent, almost none of it seems to have made its way to his most famous son-in-law whose curiosity about Africa, especially later in life, would have made him want to know.

The same thing seems to have happened with Elizabeth Hemings' mother. What she knew of Africa, even her own name and the name given to her in Virginia, disappeared.

I wonder if, for some of the people who survived, the remembering hurt too much. To retell would be to relive, and living the first time was far too much.

This also makes me think of the point of Saidya Hartman's book. We white Americans like to relish in our ancestry in Europe, even if Europeans laugh at us for thinking that Ireland is all shanties and Gaelteach, or Scotland is all kilts and "Skye Boat Song," or Germany is dirndls and Oktoberfest, or Italy is pasta and wine. Even if we find out that the reality isn't the imagined land, we can still rest in the sense of coming back to a place that our ancestors build and we call home. Black people cannot. Hartman contemplates that loss of that imagined land, but also the sense that, although your people built the United States, you are still made unwelcome. Somewhere in there is a reason that Bambarra's, whichever one came from Africa, and Elizabeth Heming's mother's stories slipped away.

This also seems to be part of the equation for Sally Hemings in thinking of her children's future. Home, or homelessness? She had to be mercenary about it, in some sense, don't you think?  For Douglass, the theme song in my head was "Motherless Child."


For Elizabeth's mother and for Bambarra, it is the Ladysmith Black Mambazo parts of "Homeless."




Sunday, July 5, 2020

Fifth of July Douglassness

First up, Dr. Walter O. Evans of Savannah, Georgia, has donated his Frederick Douglass collection to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, for which we can all thank David Blight, who facilitated the gift. This collection has -- jeez, I lost count but -- many scrapbooks that include so many clippings and family information about Douglass for the later years of his life. The charming, insightful, heartrending letters from Lewis Douglass to his fiancée, later wife, Amelia Loguen form part of this collection as well. If you want a sense of its richness, you can take a look at the shockingly reasonably priced, "If I Survive," which reproduces and transcribes the documents, but not the scrapbooks.

 
While research at the Beinecke won't be the same as sitting in the dining room of his beautiful Savannah townhome and talking of your research with him at the end of the day over a glass of wine, all while surrounded by the art of such luminaries as Jacob Lawrence and Edmonia Lewis, it will do. Certainly more people will have access, with less intrusion upon Dr. Evans and his wife. Much gratitude to him, David Blight, and everyone involved in this deal. My condolences to the other repositories that wanted the collection.


(Oh, and when you read the article, click on some of the links. That's the closest that me or my work will ever get to being in the New York Times, and I'll take it! Thank you to Dr. Evans, David, or the reporter, whoever took notice. Score for us Nobodies from Nowhere teaching at Places You Never Heard Of! My gratitude to Evans, Blight, and Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society, who provided the introduction to Dr. Evans and access to the collection ten -- jeez! Has it been ten? -- years ago. All three were important parts of the final project.)
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Second fall more under Six Degrees of Frederick Douglass. Thanks to my husband's daughter's Disney Plus account, we were finally able to see Hamilton. We actually had the opportunity when the tickets were expensive, but not prohibitively so, and before it hit big. (I thought I would just be another Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson -- who knew!) We chose instead to see a play downtown based on Marcus Rediker's Slave Ship. Four tickets for it cost as much as one for Hamilton, at the time. The paly was intense, and we sat practically on the stage in the front row; but good thing we don't invest in the stock market.

Anyway, Hamilton is a brilliant piece of musical theater. It's only flaws have to do with its source material and Lin Manuel Miranda's emphases that downplay the historical Hamilton's considerable warts (owned slaves, anti-immigrant despite his own background, elitism, monarchical tendencies, even the crack of dawn not save around him....). Still, I'd wholly recommend just for the genius of the lyrical and musical motifs alone, and the color blind casting never lets you forget that the men portrayed as fighting for freedom did not really mean freedom for the people who are right now playing them.

The Frederick Douglass part?

Can we all pause for a moment and praise the brilliant talent that is Leslie Odom Jr.? What a Triple Threat! He played Aaron Burr (sir). Where have you also seen him? Playing William Still in the film Harriet. You don't have to go too far to connect Still and Douglass, of course.


Even better: the actor playing the Lafayette/Jefferson role, Daveed Diggs, the one with the fabulous hair who rivets attention in every scene?:


He will play Frederick Douglass in the Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, this September.
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You see him at the one minute mark. How many actors can say that they played both Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass?

The series looks intriguing, but I confess to having passed on the book for a variety of reasons. The long one involves my three stacks method that has developed from having reading as a integral part of my job and as a hobby. Stack One includes all books for research. Actually, Stack One is more like a fort made out of books. Books for class or for prize committees make up Stack Two, which is more like a complex. Some overlap occurs between One and Two, but the majority of classes that I teach are world civilizations and therefore fall very far outside Stack One.

Then, Stack Three, fun books. Fiction, preferably with no relation to work. I won't even pretend to be literary or intellectual here. That's the rest of the day. I love me some historical fiction, but it absolutely CANNOT be about the antebellum U.S. unless aliens or time travelers appear or something occurs that places the story into the realm of magical realism or fantasy or science fiction. I get too picky. So, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, yes. Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, no. Octavia Butler, yes. Jennifer Chiaverini, no. I just know too much about the era and become far too critical.

So, Good Lord Bird by James McBride would not have been on my list for that reason. Then, my husband read it out of curiosity. We have oddly different places where we forgive artistic license. He said, "absolutely not!" to Underground Railroad when he heard that it involved an actual railroad underground. I said, "this could be interesting," and was wholly rewarded. Good Lord Bird sounded interesting to him, but his tales of a fat, drunk, womanizing Douglass, not made any better by interviews with the author? Well, them's fightin' words! Also, life's too short and there are too many other books to waste time on something that will piss me off when I just want to escape.


Still, Daveed Diggs as Douglass, and the clips of him in this trailer. Also, Ethan Hawke not annoying me. Now, they have my interest. Dammit. I'm going to have to read the book. Of course, we don't have Showtime, so it will be next year or the year after before I see the series. Kind of like being the last historian in my field to see Hamilton.

Saving the best for last, young descendants of Frederick Douglass read his "What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July," delivered in Rochester, at the invitation of the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society, on the Fifth of July 1852.


Beautiful!