There’s a type of generosity that exists, that causes me to
tear up when I see it. It’s the type of generosity of spirit that is so magnanimous
that it doesn’t require recognition because it simply is pure generosity for
its own sake, and there is no other way it could be described.
To understand what this means, consider Franklin, TN for a moment. It is in Williamson County, the third-largest slaveholding county in the state. Residents of Williamson County enslaved more people than that of Davidson County, home to the state’s capitol, Nashville. It still is the wealthiest county in the state, and was in the top 10 richest counties in America. Most of that money is old money. Much of it is slave money.
The Masonic Hall itself, alongside most of Franklin’s
downtown, was built by the enslaved. You can still see their fingerprints that
are impressed in the bricks and mortar if you look closely. For hundreds of
years, white masons gathered there to network and increase their wealth. Now,
it has become a site of learning about history, dedicated to the stories of
black Franklin, which have been kept from the public for so long.
Part of this mission, is reconciliation.
In our current political climate, this is a purposeful and
Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood. Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town. Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones. This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August. While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home. The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior. On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books. While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.
I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful. I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible. In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading. The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc. They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal. In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls. The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.
The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way. Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700. The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age. However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.
This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories. Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.
I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research. However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing. Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar! Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences! My own updates to come…
History is a relatively solitary field. The vast number of articles and books written have just one author, and many historians go their whole careers publishing alone. I don’t mind doing that, but have found the Atlantic World projects I’m most interested in generally require more than one person’s worth of expertise to do well. No one person can cover the scope of the Atlantic World: 4 continents over 4 centuries with primary sources in dozens of languages. So when I find opportunities to collaborate, I jump on them.
I’m pleased to announce that The Historical Journal is going to publish the results of one of these collaborations. It’s a co-authored article entitled “Projections of Desire and Design in Early Modern Caribbean Maps.” This article came out of a collaborative map analysis project funded by the John Carter Brown library’s relatively new Collaborative Cluster fellowship that allowed my partner and I to meet up for two weeks in Providence to analyze maps and plot out an article. After the two weeks, he and I finished the writing together electronically, and we learned a lot about workflow when it comes to collaborative writing and co-authoring in the humanities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.
My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”
It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:
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).