Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.
It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.
Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.
Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.
To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.
Nothing more, and nothing less.
How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?
The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.
Ah, February. The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start. It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me. It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.
A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.
For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included. However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial. This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.
I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”
In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium. Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence. Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident. I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education. This is because I immediately saw its worth. This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.
Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking. We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have. I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom. We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation. We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing. How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see? Hopefully by taking my class.
This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking. Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.
I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person! Really! I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.
I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years. While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.
Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.) They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?
Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment. In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation. What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done. Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.
I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years. With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.
After my defense—at 11:30AM on the day of the solar eclipse in 2017—, I felt a change in the cosmos. Not just because we were actually going to experience total blackout that day in Nashville, TN, but because I was liberated from this document that had been dictating my life. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. The topic I had once been in love with had started to feel less exhilarating and more like a weight. Post-defense, I needed time to reassess, to pursue other projects, and most of all, to go have fun.
Now I realize that it is typical for such a huge project to lose steam. Especially when the author has difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship to writing and letting the project breathe. Dissertators are not great at establishing either.
Given the arduous writing process, some people walk away indefinitely from the dissertation. Others go on to publish a series of articles based on the research. And then others find a gem of an argument in those hundreds of pages and completely restructure their diss to craft it into a publishable book.
So, the question is, how in the world do you begin to approach this process?
Like other forms of academic writing, the process of flipping the diss into a book seems to be shrouded in mystery. After some searching, I stumbled upon a longer-form piece, From Dissertation to Book by William Germano (once high in the ranks at Columbia UP and then Routledge and is currently a Professor of English at Cooper Union). Germano covers everything from re-reading the dissertation and deciding whether to move forward with articles or a book project to specific suggestions for chapter style and length.
It is invaluable to hear an editor’s point of view. But I also value hearing from scholars’ personal experiences—especially from those who are in my field. So, I reached out to two scholars who do research in contemporary French and Francophone Studies and feminist theory: Régine Michelle Jean-Charles and Annabel L. Kim. Continue reading “From Dissertation to Book”→
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:
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…
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”→
Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:
I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.
I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.
Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.
So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present. Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.
The other day, I did something terrifying. I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.
My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury. I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.
The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.
At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?
Think back: when did you learn how to do research?
You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.
I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.
Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)
I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?