Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).
But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child? Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?
That’s the magic, right there.
Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).
Despite being immensely inspired by Raquelle’s awesome post on “overcoming writing stalls”, I’ve had a difficult time being productive this week. Current events have left me angry, distracted, and anxious. I feel lucky, because many others have had it much worse: anguish, suffering, trauma. Due to my professional training, I am quick to analyze what I see and, even after listening to hours of testimony, it was the images that lingered: the setting, the people, the facial expressions.
My writing has long centered on women’s involvement in revolutionary political movements and their subsequent punishment, in visual form, for entering into the public sphere. Honestly, it’s been almost too easy to find topics because history is filled with demonized depictions of women who dared to defy societal norms and demand equal rights and an equal voice. For so long, I had naively regarded my analyses as study of a distance past. As an art historian, it’s a strange feeling when your research becomes terribly relevant and attempting to return agency and voice after centuries of vilification and erasure feels like a particularly pressing endeavor.
My attention had remained on France and their age of revolutions because, again, there was so much to study. Negative depictions of women revolutionaries abounded. However, I’ve since turned my attention to how other political imagery, ones that we often consider to be positive or laudatory, might be creating a negative impact. And I’ve turned my sights to my own country, which is how I found myself picking a fight with the Statue of Liberty.
Well, to be clear, not with the statue itself, but with the way that personification was changed by those who gave, and those who received, her body. The statue of liberty became a logical image for me given its origins. Although the most recognizable symbol of America, and the liberty and freedom (arguably) found in its republic, Bartholdi’s statue was conceived of by conservative French scholars and politicians who saw the new county as a stabilizing influence against the dangers of monarchy, as well as anarchy. Unlike what comes to mind today, Liberty (since 1792) had worn the Phrygian bonnet (an ancient symbol of the freed slave), wielded a weapon, and had functioned as the powerful, often angry, leader of popular uprising. Joan Landes’ states, in her book on women’s removal from the public sphere during the years before and after the Revolution of 1789, that “Liberty did not simply appear on the seal of the Republic, nor did she remain fixed on canvas or carved in stone. She went into the public forum…” She could be evoked by real women when they asked to be treated as equals.
I thought about this more and more as I saw photographs directly comparing the calm stoicism of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford with the overt anger and frustration of Brett Kavanaugh.
Liberty is someone/something we desire to evoke now, when the status of so many, even as humans, is being tested. (I was going to include a hyperlink, but there were just too many news stories that support this. You know what I’m talking about. Just open a newspaper and throw a dart.) However, the idealized depiction of Liberty found in New York’s harbor is a stern goddess with a rational respect for law and order. Her vagueness denies any relationship with the people who might call upon her protection. Although Linda Grasso’s book The Artistry of Anger focuses on black and white women’s literature, one can apply her theories to the visual. What emotional freedom would have been available to women and people of color when the Statue of Liberty was designed and erected? To be allowed anger is to allow a sense of self, true autonomy. “Two unstated assumptions underlie these premises: one, that the rational, righteously angry person is entitled to desire self-satisfaction, pleasure, and just treatment; and two, that the rational, righteously angry person possesses the power to make judgments about one’s own and others’ behavior. Both of these assumptions have, historically, not applied to women.” Thus, whose liberty is implied in the title of this statue? When the torch was lit rights for women, the working poor, and people of color were being squelched. The Phrygian cap’s replacement with a crown, the removal of her armament, and her composed demeanor seems poignant, to me, in this light, and much less majestic.
My research and writing has been cathartic this year, but it has also reminded me what we are up against: even the strongest visual symbol of this country and its founding ideologies has been constrained. Once celebrated for her righteous anger and willingness to cut down oppressors, she was sanitized for political reasons. While our bodies are used as symbols of enlightened and universal political ideologies, like Liberty and Justice, our voices, our emotions, and our experiences have also been suppressed.
I don’t know if I can say that I’m glad this is a writing project I’ll be working on more and more (to examine and include depictions of America, Freedom, and Lady Columbia), but it feels necessary to fully research and consider. I’ve been seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s depictions of Judith and Holofernes making the rounds on social media. Perhaps it’s time to design a new colossal national monument…
Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.
You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.
The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.
Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes. And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification. When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.
This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.
It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.
The bus bumped slowly through the sprawling shopping complex, squeezing past rows of cars and pausing as shoppers sped in front of its path to get on with their shopping. We kept going, past the Trader Joe’s and World Market, even beyond Total Wine and More. We reached the back of the parking lot, just before an intersection with a small industrial road. We were looking for a plaque, our guide told us, but all we could see was the trash dumpster.
It took a moment, but we finally saw it: there, away from the bustling shops, right next to the dumpster, in a place no one ever goes. “Commemorating Evans Howard Place, 1907 to 1997, By the City of Brentwood”.
If it hadn’t been for this trip, the first of several mini tours of St. Louis I’m taking this year through the Cultural Competency program at my workplace this year, I would have never noticed this. I don’t shop at the Brentwood Promenade often, but it’s a well-known spot for St. Louisans. I didn’t know, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it stands on what was once an African-American community of more than 800.
Drinking from the rooftops of certain honky tonks in downtown Nashville, you can spot one of the nation’s most important, yet underappreciated sites for African American history: Fort Negley, the Union Civil War fortification on St. Cloud Hill. Many tourists have no idea what it is they are looking at.
The fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union. Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.
Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments.
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. Continue reading “On Asking For Help”→
I learned this during a world history graduate seminar years ago. I hadn’t thought about the challenges of teaching world history until then, but there it was, staring us all down: what do you teach when you can’t teach everything? How do you decide what stays and what goes?