On Asking For Help

My job with the Slave Societies Digital Archive is probably one of the coolest I’ve ever had, and just to give you context, I’ve worked in a Scottish maritime museum on a real ship from the Age of Sail, so the competition is stiff.

Our archive sends out project teams to Africa and areas in Latin America with high percentages of African-descended populations. These teams go to churches and other places that typically hold on to old records and search for undiscovered primary source historic documents from the time of slavery. Most of the enslaved people in our records have never made it into any history books, because the creators of documents never found them important enough to write about or preserve. History tended to be written by the victors, after all, and those are the same people who decided what is worthy of being preserved in an archive, and what is not.

What our teams have found, is that if you know where to look, the stories of the enslaved, even those from the seventeenth century, can still be found on dusty shelves in church basements or people’s attics, crumbling and slowly eaten by insects, but otherwise intact. Our teams train local students to photograph every page and then the Slave Societies Digital Archive uploads these documents for researchers to use for the very first time. We currently have around 500,000 images, concerning the lives of 6-8 million Africans and their descendants. That is a LOT of stories, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-integrated into bigger histories.

1922 Florida Marriage Cert
A Florida marriage certificate from 1922, found in the Cuban collections of the Slave Societies Digital Archive- an indicator of the ways in which formerly enslaved populations moved back and forth between the two places long after Florida became part of the US.

Through working extensively with our project teams and the archive, I know roughly what’s in those documents, but no one can read 500,000 pages of handwritten work, especially when the majority are written staggering array of 17th-20th century Spanish and Portuguese scripts. I do speak with the team leaders on a regular basis, though, and I am floored by what they have found in their collections- stories of slave rebellions, runaway slaves, maroons, and enslaved people who made use of the colonial Spanish & Portuguese legal systems to argue for their rights and the rights of their children and other kin. There are people who obtained freedom through a wide variety of tactics, and who later went on to either hold slaves themselves, or fight against the institution of slavery, or sometimes both! These stories are everywhere in the Americas where there was slavery. These stories of resistance define slave societies. No work on US or Latin America is complete without these voices.

So when the Afro-Hispanic Reviews call came out for articles about slave resistance and maroons, I couldn’t allow an opportunity to share this pass by, just because I couldn’t sift through the documents myself. The only way an article like this would work is if I agreed to do the bulk of the gruntwork myself, and asked for help. Lots of help.

It took me months to approach all of our project leaders and ask for help, but everyone who had time to give gave of themselves so generously.  These scholars wanted people to know what they found in the documents, and they were all willing to explain where the resistance in their set of records could be found. They even provided citations to the documents and to their own publications to save other scholars’ valuable time! I collected story after story, and only stopped because the Afro-Hispanic Review has word count limits for their articles, and I was in big danger of exceeding.

In the end, it was a lot more work to collect, edit, reframe, and weave the ideas of other scholars together with current scholarship and my own thoughts than it would have been to write an article about my specific areas of research. But now there is a peer-reviewed article (forthcoming next year) about all the places in the Slave Societies Digital Archive, where resistance is to be found. Putting it all together in one place for the first time allowed me to see patterns of resistance, and how resistance strategies and success rates were related to populations, location, time period and other factors. Comparing the resistance of 17th century runaway slaves from Spanish Florida with tactics utilized by 19th century Brazilian and Cuban enslaved populations tells us so much about the evolution of slave societies and the ways in which the enslaved responded to and shaped this evolution.  There is so much research that needs to be done with these documents! Our project leaders have barely scratched the surface.

This kind of collaborative work is so important for helping us to understand the bigger picture and enriching our fields of research. This makes the sum of the whole greater than all of its parts. And on a personal level, juggling the very different thinking styles and approaches of multiple international scholars was a useful exercise for me in broadening my own training and increasing my brain’s elasticity. It might have been more difficult and time consuming to write an article this way, but I also learned more from writing this one than I have from any other article I’ve written. The only way it worked was through my asking for, and other scholars generously providing help.

I think beyond being a sound academic strategy, it’s a sound life strategy to know when to ask for help. All the biggest and best things require it. The very acts of helping and being helped tend to let you think bigger and bolder for next time. All writers know that having written something all on your own has a magic to it, but fewer know the magic of having collaborated on something.

Invite both into your life.

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