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?
One of the nice things about social media is that you never forget an important date, like the one when you defended your dissertation. In the six years since then, so much has changed, but not everything. For example, I haven’t entirely left grad school behind – or at least, I’m still working on what once was my dissertation project. Only now, I have a little more to show for it.
Before I finished the dissertation, before I took my teaching job, I was part of a panel proposal for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting.I didn’t know in February 2011 – when the proposals were due – whether I would even have a job the following school year. I hoped, at the time, that having this as a forthcoming talk would look good to a prospective employer.
Almost a year later, I flew to Chicago for a quick weekend, making sure I didn’t miss any teaching obligations. I hung out with old friends and enjoyed conference sessions on my terms. I hit up the Art Institute in Chicago (and had an unfortunate run-in with a light pole while walking down the street). That Sunday morning, our panel convened in the final hours of the conference in front of a small audience of people. (The panel focused the military’s experiences of integrating women and minorities as a way to manage the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.) Continue reading “To Chapters, New and Old”→