books · slavery

difficult conversations continue this week at state archives

I’m still reeling from seeing the ties between Chance the Rapper’s Best New Artist acceptance speech at last night’s Grammys. His mention of God several times and indeed, his performance beside a choir, pose tensions with today’s lecture in my “American Civilization to 1865” class.

I addressed the Enlightenment and Great Awakening, two movements that occurred simultaneously in the colonies during the eighteenth century. That conversation created a window to address how emotive ways of worship can be historicized and has connections to how we develop as American people with independent approaches to thinking and worship. All this as the separation between church and state become social facts during the colonial and early national periods.

I am also reeling from even knowing who Chance the Rapper is. I learned a lot about who is hot and not on the hip hop scene owing to my time with students enrolled in my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” course last semester.

The learning continues. Over the weekend students enrolled in my Am Civ to 1865 class turned in their playlist essays in which they were required to make ties to various concepts introduced in the course – freedom among them – and music we hear everyday. As I scanned the Blackboard uploads I smiled with recognition. Some of the students chose obscure artists from various genres and one even chose a song from the Eagles to peel apart some of the hurdles Europeans faced.

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Photo courtesy of San Francisco State University School of Cinema’s Professor of Cinema Celine Parrenas Shimizu.

As I write this entry I am listening to “C.R.E.A.M,” (short for “cash rules everything around me”) an old cut by Wu Tang Clan. It has me in the mind of Thursday’s talk at the Alabama Department of History and Archives. It is always interesting to discuss our complex past in the rising and lucrative Cotton Kingdom with layman audiences and/or others who have not held the old letters written by people long dead. I expect to have some people question the crumbs of evidence that add up to a huge pile that makes us feel uncomfortable. Among those letters are ones from Avenia White, a woman whose five letters to her former master sit in a library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Possibly delusional, she, among other things, sends him her “love.”

I addressed the difficulties in telling such a story in passing during a Skype talk this past Friday with a class taught by San Francisco State University Professor of Cinema and Filmmaker Celine Parrenas Shimizu. It is difficult because I was once one of the people who felt like historical actors needed “saving.”

The horrors of the slavery era can leave us some of us speechless. Historical actors like Ms. White part the curtain via letters that survive in archives. They show us how much they truly endured. As I learn, I make certain guesses about what might have happened over years of research, but above all, take it all in stride. And if I want to blame someone, as I tell my Am Civ class, I “blame Bacon” (i.e. Nathaniel Bacon, the rich white Virginian who showed blacks and whites were not necessarily opposed to one another during the colonial period. Indeed, he got indentured servants and people African descent to attack indigenous people. As time went on, laws were erected to help the poorest whites see that they actually had currency in the color of their skin. In the classroom, we call this racial formation).

Fast forward to the antebellum period when powerful white planters are saying one thing publicly and doing something else privately as I write in Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015). The horrors are still on display, but something else, too. What do we do with that something else especially when it manifests as $5.1 million in today’s currency gift to ten children from five enslaved women? What do we do when the archive speaks back to everything we’ve been taught? It is a lot through which to sort.

I often wonder how some of the people I write about might greet me if I met them in an alley (after all, most letters are intended for certain audiences, usually one person, and were never intended to be shared publicly. Also, letters are performances. How much of what anyone writes in them is true?). My best guess is they would not be happy about their stories being shared, even if shared cautiously because I wasn’t there, shared cautiously because we are all especially hot under the collar for any number of reasons especially when it comes to race.

Interracial Intimacy in Antebellum America Talk from Sharony Green on Vimeo.

As I have said before, I wonder about the possibilities for conversation if we are able to step back and reconvene after thoroughly reading, among other things, footnotes. I am certain the tenor of the conversation may not change. That’s how much pain so many of us are feeling, the kind that is reflected in the music of young men like Chance – yes, I was planning on circling back to him – a young African American man who pressed pause on the usual route of getting an album released (even though there is some debate about whether he’s as independent as he thinks he is) and is honored for it with an award. He still provides a way for me to see that the difficult is worth it. Some may hear. Some may actually believe. Some may walk with you as far as the bridge.

After last week’s Skyped conversation, a student in Professor Shimizu’s class sent a note to me via his instructor to say just that. He believed me. He believed the evidence. And he appreciated not only what I had to share about our complex past, but how it figures into my long-time friendship with Magda Bader, my elementary school art teacher. She’s a Holocaust survivor. The first time she saw African Americans were African American soldiers she saw after she and her sisters escaped a camp. It was the first time they ate meat out of a tin can. Those soldiers gave it to her. These were soldiers who were oppressed at home. In this instance, they were saving another oppressed group. I could go on, but I will leave it here. And while I do, I’ll be thinking of the evenness of last year’s conversation here in Tuscaloosa and hoping for the same in the days ahead. I sat with a group of incredible scholars, all women of color, as we took on interracial “intimacies,” a topic to which two of us will return at a conference here at UA in April. Stay tuned.

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