Subject Matter Expertise: Historians and Documentaries

Last month, I was approached by Joseph Hill, documentary filmmaker, about his current project on the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. He was coming to Nashville to film at Fort Negley, and a few other sites related to enslavement and the USCT and asked if I could serve as a subject matter expert. He interviewed me on camera and asked some incredibly complex and insightful questions. The whole experience was thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Filmmaker Joseph Hill and I in Fort Negley’s archive room, 2019.

This was because he knows his audience, and knows that they enjoy grappling with the complexities and intricacies of history that I live for. Mr. Hill didn’t just want to know about the history of USCT, he wanted to explore it in the context of global enslavement, and why his topic mattered so much in this particular moment in time.

As director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, I’ve been able to interview two descendants of the USCT, Mr. Gary Burke and Mr. Bill Radcliff, and have gotten to know them over time through the events at Fort Negley that bring us together multiple times per year. We’ve spoken a lot about history, legacy, enslavement, freedom, and race. I bring to the table the historical source material, and they their lived experience and family histories. They have been generous with their observations, and with me when mine have been off. These conversations have been crucial to my own development as a person who shares the history of a topic that has left its mark on the country today. They have helped me understand how to balance what I know, with my own identity and with how I explain what I know, to whom I explain it, and why.

Continue reading “Subject Matter Expertise: Historians and Documentaries”

The Sweet Solitude of Summer

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The Canal Saint-Martin, to which many Parisians flock on evenings and weekends.

When I was a kid, my mom would walk into my room to find me passed out amidst villages of Weebles, Barbie dolls, and race-car tracks. I often exhausted myself over traveling the endless avenues of invention. I also holed up in my room to sketch my immediate surroundings––my bed, Christmas postcards, the garden. I loved nothing more than the quiet privacy of my own space where I could construct worlds. Unsurprisingly, my favorite school assignments were writing portfolios because they allowed me to delve into memories and to create new, fictional ones that opened up transportation into other realms. Thinking back on this time of my life, my childhood creativity surprises me. Perhaps I was so creative because, within the confines of my room, I had a place of my own where my imagination could unwind, unsupervised (at least for a moment). 

Growing older got the best of me and I sought out this solitude a little less and became (a little too) invested in less-productive activities (and who could blame me with the recent emergence of MTV and AIM, two pastimes that easily consumed the free time of a pubescent girl). In the past half a decade, I’ve realized that I need––and have started to crave––more (productive, creative) alone time. Now that I no longer have a room of my own (I’m married) and am still waiting on that dreamy, closed-off, individual office space, I have to carve out time for seclusion––my preferred writing mode. This is what I was able to do for a short period this summer. And in Paris, nonetheless.

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Parisian rooftops from the Centre Pompidou.

Continue reading “The Sweet Solitude of Summer”

Designing Women (Part 1)

Readers, it’s summer. It’s that glorious time when teachers (like me) can kick back, relax, and just be in the peaceful bliss. (At least in theory. You probably already read a bit of my end-of-school angst and excitement here.)

I wound up spending most of my June in reading mode. It became a really good decision for me, because I had piles of pedagogy books I wanted to read and had no idea where to begin with the course planning that I so desperately want to tackle this season (also, when your kid is at a 3-hour-a-day summer camp for a week, books seem more digestible in those short spurts of time).

In the final full week of June, I began to switch gears, and readers, that’s what I wanted to talk about today: designing an intro to women’s history course for high school students.

On my first day of planning, I decided I’d document my efforts on Twitter, mostly in the hopes of keeping myself on track:

Read through to see the thread of what I worked on that day…

All in all, I felt the day was pretty successful. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted, but I made a good start. Below, I’ll expand on that process, talk about what changed later in the week, and explain where I am now. Hint: if you have ideas/experiences, please @ me!

Continue reading “Designing Women (Part 1)”

37208: How the Rest of America Could Be, If We Wanted

Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.

Not 37208, but the tree looked just like this.

Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.

When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.

I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.

And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley.  They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.

Continue reading “37208: How the Rest of America Could Be, If We Wanted”

The Bookish Flâneuse in Paris

In her recent book, Lauren Elkin displaces the focus from the 19th-century flâneur—dreamed up by Baudelaire as someone who ambles aimlessly, soaking up inspiration from their surroundings—to the contemporary flâneuse, the woman who “gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its facades, penetrating its secret courtyards.” One’s ability to wander and investigate is surely dependent on skin color, nationality, gender, ability, and class, among other things. The role and privilege of the flâneur as a privileged, cosmopolitan, white male has been critiqued by a number of writers (see these pieces by Doreen St. Félix and Aysegül Savas, and this book by Teju Cole). Elkin’s text falls into this line of thinking.

My own exploration of big cities—in the current case, Paris—is facilitated by my skin color and (in most scenarios) my American nationality. I know the city well and feel generally safe, though, as a woman, I avoid wandering alone too much at night. (Which now doesn’t fall until around 10pm. It’s marvelous.) 

I’ve been in Paris for nearly two weeks now, and—I have to admit—most of my promenades have been powered by GPS. I’m a planner. An obsessive one even. Often, I’ll plot out a destination and then stroll around that area as a way to plan for allow some spontaneous exploration. And these Parisian promenades almost always have one of two themes: food and books. In my search for the best bookshops that Paris has to offer, I have found two that top my list. It should be known, of course, that this list is totally biased (but aren’t they all?) as I’m pretty partial to bookstores that overlap with my research and pleasure-reading interests.   

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I have been visiting Violette and Co for years now. I usually stay near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th or 11th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris, which makes this bookstore a 30-minute walk southeast down the Boulevard Voltaire. This boulevard was one of the major routes created by Haussmann who completely renovated Paris under Napoleon III in the 19th century. The boulevard carries the name of a canonical writer and philosopher. But my destination aims to shake up such canons!

I go to Violette and Co to get inspiration, buy feminist paraphernalia, and drift into my happy place. Their funky, hot pink façade decorated with feminist street art would have pulled me in even if I hadn’t discovered it in one of my FOMO-driven google searches. The bookshop was founded around fifteen years ago by two women wanting to fill a gap: Paris needed a bookstore that both addressed LGBTQ+ issues and also emphasized women authors and feminist theory & pop culture. At Violette and Co, I am a kid in a candy store. Their collection is thoughtfully curated and they give helpful, direct advice on your book searches. And not only do they offer a solid variety of textual genres, but the owners also host literary discussions, book clubs, book trades, and artistic exhibitions. On my most recent visit, I spotted that they had just hosted a discussion with author Jo Güstin as part of Le Festival Nio Far (Decolonial Festival of Visual and Performing Arts). Sadly, I missed Güstin’s talk, but snagged the book!

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Given my love for feminist bookstores, it is a surprise then that I just visited Librairie des femmes for the first time during this summer visit to Paris. The walk from the Canal Saint-Martin to the 6th arrondissement where des femmes is located has to be one of my favorites. To get there, I took the long route to walk down rue de Turenne and through the Marais via rue Vieille du Temple. This road winds through the Jewish Quarter (which houses some of the best falafel you’ll ever eat) and the fashionable shops and bustling cafés of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.

On my way to des femmes, I extended my path down the Seine to pass by Notre Dame, which is in a major state of repair and closed off to visitors. The juxtaposition between modern industry and Gothic architecture struck me as both mesmerizing and shocking.

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The last part of this promenade had me gliding through the 5th and 6th arrondissements. This area carries the name of the Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter) where a number of Parisian university campuses are located (the Sorbonne, namely)–thus the name of the area, as Latin was the exclusive language of study in the Middle Ages when many of these universities were founded. The area has become somewhat touristy, but I am able to get over this because I get to majorly geek out here. The Latin Quarter is to bookstores as churches are to the American South.

The Librairie des femmes is a dual bookstore and publishing house that was established in 1974, when it was open from 11am until midnight (sadly, they have since revised their opening hours!). Antoinette Fouque, a major figure of second-wave French feminism and a contemporary psychoanalyst and political commentator, founded the bookstore. Des femmes has since served as a meeting space and major producer and seller of women’s writing from the early 20th-century to today.

The shop has three comfortable chairs and encourages visitors to stay and browse a while. (I spent at least 30 minutes perusing the bookstore’s titles and displays before finally deciding on a couple titles.) They not only carry titles that they publish under the des femmes name, but they also have a wide variety of literary, sociological, psychoanalytic, and historical works correlating with their mission: to highlight and exhibit the creative force of women.

IMG_9575As I was trying to find this bookstore, I first stumbled on the adjoining building: Espace des femmes. This space is connected to the bookstore by an alleyway flanked with greenery. The zen, light-filled room houses exhibitions, debates, and performances. This time, I got to take advantage of a display of Emmelene Landon’s “Pacific portraits.” The artist’s landscapes enlivened the gallery with swaths of turquoise, gold, and navy. And I was more than delighted to find that the exhibit’s expository text was authored by Marie Darrieussecq, one of France’s foremost novelists.

I’m learning more that a good bookshop not only prints and offers thought-provoking literature but also provides a space for engagement, community, and reflection. It also inspires the discovery of Paris for this bookish flâneuse

Next on the docket in Paris? A jump from bookstore promenades to library visits. I’ll soon be spending a week at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to study some manuscripts for a current research project. Ciao for now, and à bientôt !

The School Year Ends

Dar Williams sings,

The summer ends and we wonder where we are 
And there you go, my friends, with your boxes in your car 
And you both look so young 
And last night was hard, you said 
You packed up every room 
And then you cried and went to bed 
But today you closed the door and said 
“We have to get a move on. 
It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, 
We push ourselves ahead.”

“The End of Summer”

Every year when summer really does end, those words float back into my head, and they make sense then – but they also make sense now, because the end of the school year feels much the same.

It’s that sense of wistfulness in the face of impending change, which I also catch glimpses of when TS Eliot reminds me that

Photo by mahmoud on Pexels.com

  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, 

“The Waste Land”

For teachers, summer is mostly a hopeful thing – a time of rest, if we’re smart, or exploration, if we’re lucky. It’s a moment to catch our breaths and step out on hiatus from the school building and the classroom and experience our lives in different ways. We bring our heads up from the papers we’ve spent all year marking and our students say good-bye (if we’re fortunate, not forever, but just for now), and we say hello to the million little things we’ve waited months to do. It’s that time to just be us.

Did I mention that sounds easier than it really is? At least for me, and I’m hoping I’m not alone in that.

Continue reading “The School Year Ends”

News Round-up: Nashville’s Fort Negley Receives UNESCO Slave Route Designation

We are all still shook.

Two years ago, Fort Negley, a Union Civil War fort built by enslaved and free black laborers, and defended by the United States Colored Troops, was on land slated for development. History buffs from all over middle Tennessee rushed in to do what we could to preserve the history and legacy of this place and the amazing community that sprang from it. Despite this, we all knew there was still so much history that could be lost forever.

Giving my speech at the UNESCO Celebration and Press Conference at Fort Negley, 5/21/19.
Photo by Destiny Hanks.

And now? It is a site on the UNESCO Slave Route. It is one of FOUR sites in the United States to have earned this distinguished designation. It means that Nashville is sitting on a historic gold mine that is integral to the world’s understanding of enslavement, resistance, and recovery. I can’t believe our city almost built condos on that land.

This past week has been a blur as all of the people and groups who have been working together to save the fort and its history joined at Fort Negley to celebrate. As writer of the lengthy application, I had the honor of speaking at the press conference. Below is my speech, and beneath that, links to the news outlets that covered this momentous occasion for the US.

It’s such an intense pleasure to be here with you all today. I’m Dr. Angela Sutton, co-director of the Fort Negley Descendant’s Project. That means that I have the great fortune and even greater responsibility of hearing and amplifying the words of the descendants of the Fort Negley community.

They are those who built this fort under unthinkable conditions, those who risked everything to defend it, and our union, and those who stayed in Nashville after the war, creating our black neighborhoods and institutions that have contributed so much to this city with so little recognition.

When Fort Negley Park was under threat of development, the people whose ancestors worked, fought, and died here were concerned that this space and its legacy would be destroyed.

We all were.

I had accepted a position with Vanderbilt’s Digital Humanities Center, and together with a working group, looked for digital solutions to preserve as much of the history of this Fort as possible. We didn’t find the descendants of Fort Negley- they found us. They told us their family histories, and brought to life the legacy of this place. It was through Gary Burke, Eleanor Fleming, Bill Radcliffe, Carmen Regina Johnson, Charles Johnson III, Sabrina Johnson Gresham, and Felix Carlos Harding Johnson that we began to see just what a profound effect Fort Negley has had on the African American community. This Fort’s descendants have gone on to do amazing things with their lives, and they do it with so much purpose, knowing that their enslaved ancestors risked their health and lives on the hope that their descendants would have the freedom and equality that was denied to them.  For the descendant population, Fort Negley is sacred. It speaks to an ancestral strength each of them talk about and draw upon. It’s been an honor to sit here with them and see the site through their eyes.

This is why Fort Negley is so important. There were and still are  many sites here in Nashville, in Tennessee, and in the country, that speak to black history. But few are as dynamic and all-encompassing as Fort Negley. Like many sites here, it is a site of enslavement and all of the degradation and pain that goes with that history. But it is also a site of resistance to slavery, resilience, and recovery from slavery’s legacy. Here where we stand today,  African Americans risked their lives in the US military in hopes of a better life for their descendants. Enslaved people fled here to in order to escape their enslavers and attain freedom after the war. And when the war was done? Many built their homes right on the side of this hill, founding our historically black neighborhoods in this area, then going on to build Nashville’s black legacy. From Fort Negley, descendants went on to TSU, Meharry, and Fisk to become leaders of their communities, and shaped and continue to shape our nation’s civil rights dialogue.

I created the UNESCO nomination for the Friends of Fort Negley and the NAACP because there are so few sites that fulfill such a wide and enduring plethora of criteria for memorialization. Fort Negley is a structure constructed by the enslaved. It is a site of slave resistance. It is a site of social mobility for free blacks. It is a site of brutality. It is a battlefield, in many different senses of the word.  It is a site of cultural expression and a site of commemoration.

The UNESCO Slave Route Designation is about global recognition of the specialness of this jewel in Nashville’s crown. We are sitting on a place that is fundamentally integral to global understanding of slavery and its legacy.

So before I get ahead of myself, allow me to introduce to you Professor Jane Landers, who can speak more to this. Dr. Landers is a mentor of mine, and a friend, to me, and to Fort Negley. She has built her career researching and teaching the histories of Africans and their descendants in the Americas in the Vanderbilt University history department, and has created the Slave Societies Digital Archive, the largest of its kind, to help preserve those vital sources of black history for other scholars and the public to use. Because of this, the UNESCO International Scientific Committee on Slave Routes brought her onboard as the SOLITARY American representative, to help them identify the sites in the US that are most crucial for inclusion on the international historical Slave Route. Unfortunately, she could not be here in person today, as her duties with UNESCO keep her traveling often, but she has created a short video for us to tell us a bit more about this process and to celebrate this momentous day with us.

Thank you.

Fort Negley Receives International Recognition Thanks to the Work of Vanderbilt Scholars – Vanderbilt University News

Fort Negley Added to UNESCO Slave Route Project – Nashville Scene

UNESCO Adds Nashville’s Fort Negley to its Slave Route Project – The Tennessean

Historic Fort Built by African Americans Receives International Recognition – Rolling Out

Then through the Associated Press article, we made news everywhere:

Nashville Civil War Fort Gets ‘Slave Route’ Designation – New York Times

This article appeared in the Washington Post, Yahoo News, San Francisco Chronicle, ABC News, Fox13, MSN, The Telegraph, and in most state and city news outlets!