Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Marshall Center Webinar on Frederick Douglass, Sept. 24-25, 2020


This Thursday and Friday, September 24-25, 2020, the Marshall Center in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond will host a Frederick Douglass Webinar. This was originally scheduled as a conference last spring, but the pandemic caused a change of time and venue. That allows more people to attend.

The webinar begins on Friday night at 7pm with the keynote by the fantastic David Blight, who will speak on his book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Questions from the audience can be submitted in the chat section in writing, as tends to be the case with webinars. 

Thursday morning, at 11 am, begins with the panel "Frederick Douglass's America," followed by a lunch break. Then, at 1 pm, "Statesmanship in Douglass's Life and Thought," and, at 2:30 pm, "The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass." 

After a thirty minute break, Blight returns with Edward Ayers to conclude with closing remarks and dialogue. 

Each panel on Friday has three speakers, and questions can be submitted in the chat section in writing. David Blight and I are the historians amid political scientists, and I really still haven't figured out how to speak to political scientists. I always feel a little silly telling my stories while they are up there making big idea arguments, although I know that my stories are neither silly nor little and actually contain big ideas. So much so that fifteen minutes cannot contain them all and another fifty minutes ends up on the cutting-room floor.

I do know, after working on a bibliography for Oxford University Press, that the political scientists are doing some great work integrating Douglass's early abolition with his later political positions. The usual narrative describes him as having become conservative or falling away from his radicalism during his later decades, but they show a consistency of principles and ideology across his work. The really good political scientists work in that area where philosophy and politics overlap, where we lay people usually find the philosophes of the Enlightenment, which moves into the questions and problems of putting ideology into action. I usually think of it as a spectrum of ideology, activism, and operational politics -- that is, from your ideals on one hand and how to get things done on the other. 

Anyway, the program is here: https://jepson.richmond.edu/conferences/marshall/douglass-schedule.html

The registration form is here: https://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/eventReg?oeidk=a07eh9z9lse8a29f176&oseq=&c=&ch=

More on the Marshall Center Lecture Series here, with links to the registration form and webinar on the page, in case the above links don't work: https://jepson.richmond.edu/conferences/marshall/lecture-series.html

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Park, Teaching, Research, etc.

 This semester started well. The preparation, on the other hand, became an ever-moving nightmare of rearrangement of planning, each part of which required ten steps, each step of which required....well, you get the picture. Rearrangement wasn't just a matter of saying, "ok, we won't do this, we'll do that." Rearrangement was a matter of saying, "ok, we won't do this. We have to tear it all down and rebuild something new that will have to be torn down again when they change the plans yet again." My end result, which differs from other schools, has me in the classroom one out of every four meetings with my students. Each meeting is with only half of the enrolled class at at time, every other week. Since they have 100/200 level classes on one rotation, and 300/400 level classes on another, and I teach two 100 and one 300 level courses, I'm on campus every week.  I can't think about the schedule too hard or I get confused. I just have to roll with it.

This is the current state of educating students.

So, that ate into a lot of Hemings time. Then, the research trips planned with NEH grants kept getting pushed back because of library closures and travel restrictions until, now, maybe, if lucky, might take place over Christmas, Spring Break, and next May. Might. Maybe. If lucky. All of which pushes the deadline for finishing the book back. Fortunately much of the book requires contextual reading or is online. Maybe this pandemic will lead to more funding for digitization projects, if it doesn't lead to the collapse of libraries, archives, and schools entirely.

This is the current state of research. 

Last night, however, I had an interesting insight into one adaptation of theater for the immediate future. The Capitol Historical Society broadcast a reading of Jean Parvin Bordewich's play Now's The Time, about the ratification of the 14th Amendment. She focused on conversations among Thaddeus Stevens, William Fessenden, Lydia Smith, and George T. Downing, the latter being an ingenious inclusion since he joined Frederick Douglass in agitating to Andrew Johnson for black male voting rights and ran the restaurant at the capitol, which made his meetings with Stevens and Fessenden natural within the action of the play. Listening, and to some extent watching, the reading of the play seemed somewhat akin to listening to a radio play. 

Later this month, the Marshall Center at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at University of Richmond in Virginia will be doing roughly the same thing with a Frederick Douglass Conference (or "webinar"). David Blight will speak on the evening of September 24, 2020, and others (including myself) throughout the day on September 25, 2020. The conference was originally scheduled last spring, right as the pandemic hit. So, they postponed their plans them moved them online. Normally, I loathe Zoom, but this will be much different from holding a meeting or a class. It might be more like that play.

Alas, during that spring conference, I had hoped to spend the weekend in Richmond to see an exhibit on Sally Hemings at the African American museum there, then drive up to Charlottesville. That seems like years ago!

Meanwhile, down in Maryland, the governor appears to have taken up the movement for Frederick Douglass Freedom Day (I know I have an old post about that on this blog somewhere) by naming September "International Underground Railroad Month." Massachusetts and New York should get on that, too. Then, on the Eastern Shore, a Frederick Douglass Park has opened on Tuckahoe Creek, with wayside markers telling the story of his and of Anna Murray's youth there. This is quite a far cry from when I first visited there back -- oh, goodness, when was it? -- back in the early 2000s when all that I could find was an odd marker and a pamphlet for a self-guided driving tour, so I used Dickson Preston's Young Frederick Douglass and Douglass's own Narrative of the Life to flesh it all out. 

That, at least, is a better current state of something.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Frederick Douglass Airport Soon

 My goodness, time flies. These days, as the semester approaches, and the college administration sends e-mail that update e-mails to which half of the recipients have hit reply-all to ask the same question asked in half of the previous reply-all (replies-all?), and everything having to go online or hybrid with the reasonable expectation of going online, and -- oh, just thinking it is exhausting. So, with all of that, Sally Hemings has had to fight for attention. 

My last post dealt with Beverly Hemings flying a balloon, an image that continues with me as one of peace and hope for some reason. Indeed, that night, when I returned to finish reading Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, Stephen O'Connor used that very same incident as one of the final scenes. He almost matched my own imagination, possibly because we both constructed it from Annette Gordon-Reed's research in The Hemingses of Monticello.

Because all roads lead to Frederick Douglass here, the news in Douglassness this week reported that the Rochester city airport will soon carry his name. The petition had been going around earlier this summer, and I confess to having added my name. Still, I seldom expect much to happen as a result of anything these days, such is my Gen X fatalism, cynicism, and pessimism. What a joy to be wrong! 

That's the upside of being fatalistic, cynical, and pessimistic. You are seldom disappointed, and occasionally surprised. 

Douglass did not live long enough for air flight, but his curiosity about new inventions like the camera and the phonograph, as well as his poetic sensibilities, makes me think that flight might have attracted him enough to try it at least once. 

Many years ago, I had a pilot friend who would take pretty much anyone willing on flights as he earned hours for his liscence. We flew over to Easton's airfield -- I think it was Easton -- had lunch in the diner at the airport, and flew back. 

The flight plan was hilarious because we had to chart a route that skirted around St. Michaels. You see, different areas, especially around D.C., have cones of airspace restrictions above them for a variety of reasons. St. Michaels had a short cone, but high enough to force Cessnas flying into the nearest airfield to plot a roundabout course in order to avoid it. Why? Because Donald Rumsfeld owned property in the area. Edward Covey's old property, if I remember correctly. Make of that what you will.

That's not the point of the story here. 

On our return journey, I had my face pressed against the window looking down thinking vague thoughts about Douglass having lived down there and wondering who all owns the properties now, and wishing I had thought to bring a map, when the landscape suddenly seemed familiar. I realized that we flew right over Wye House, the plantation where Douglass lived as a little boy and that he described in his autobiographies. 

What would he have thought of that view? What would he have thought of sitting in a machine that allowed him that view? Now he has an airport named for him. 

I'd like to think that would make travel easier for him if he was alive today, but he was a big man and would not fit very comfortably in seats these days. What do you think would be his opinion of  Zoom?

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 above 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.


*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.