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).
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.