Another wonderful episode of WGN’s Underground last night. Stine is on the run. Rosalee and Noah, too. Earlier in the day, I shared Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom, an amazing monograph on how black women negotiate freedom on plantations, with a grad student. I told her how historians can intuit a lot with even the smallest pieces of evidence. Camp introduces us to an enslaved woman named California who was getting on the last nerve of a plantation manager. Why? She would not remove amalgamation prints from her cabin walls. She’d likely received them from her husband who was able to travel off the plantation as he worked on a dock. He likely brought them to her. Although she could not read, she could study these photos and knew that they were promoting something that made the plantation manager angry. He wrote not one, but two letters to her master, who lived away from the plantation. He wanted to share how California was belligerent. She was determined to have things her way – even in the small confines of her cabin. Not unlike Stine who is now on the run. And Rosalee, carrying a baby, also on the run and with her man beside her. I look forward to the next two and final episodes. This is just good stuff.
And I was reminded of so many similarly strong women who actually lived although their lives are accessed via letters and in one case a memoir, among them Avenia White, Susan Johnson and Louisa Picquet, whose masters freed them and their children; Eliza Potter, a freedwoman who heard all and told a lot (although never everything); the Townsend women and girls (whose lives will appear in a chapter I contributed to an edited collection to be published by the University of Georgia Press this June), and so many others including Miss Lucile Tucker, the enslaved woman who offered the words “Remember Me to Miss Louisa” in a letter in which she asked her master to free her. She said it was something she deserved and that he ought to arrange while sparing her the expense of a trip to New Orleans. Yes, the horrors exist and existed. They lurk in popular memory. But these other incidents (harping on Harriet Jacobs’ life now) happened, too, inviting us to revisit the era of slavery in all of its complexities.
What do we make of it all now? Or what do we make of any need to make people of the past, enslaved people among them, victims and only victims when they were often so much more? What do we restore in acknowledging this? What do we withhold in refusing to? So much to sort through.