Earlier this week, I traveled with a colleague to Paxton House on the border of England. There, I learned more about the family of Alexander Milne, the British Naval Admiral who once permitted Mary Seacole, the famed nurse of mixed race who aided British society during the Crimean War, to board his ship while it was docked in Port Royal, Jamaica. He’d taken, in fact, a private meeting with her during which she requested he enlist a young man.
Milne passed on enlisting the young man, but did take the time to record Seacole’s visit in an 1860 gossipy letter to a colleague. She was on board in “high crinoline.” She was no ordinary woman of color. She had a respectable occupation. She was of mixed race. She almost seemed larger in life and part of it had to do with, perhaps, her own thoughts about her personhood and her ability to at least ask for something from a powerful person.
Even if she did not get what she wanted, she likely moved on not entirely crushed. Her legacy, which includes her ability to move through space during an incredible time in world history, inspires me. In the United State, debate over the expansion of slavery would end in war. This still young country would bounce back, but still hurdle time and time again to a more uncertain future – not unlike other countries.
As I soon return to the States, I will be thinking about my recent travels and the way I teach History. I’ll be thinking about my current research project and the new questions and discoveries before me in light of my own observations about how I judge and am judged (and how women like Seacole were judged). So much is unspoken and yet so much is correctly felt. And like Seacole, I move on, perhaps not unlike the postbellum black women described by historian Tera Hunter, the ones in bright dresses that bothered people who could not believe they were actually no longer enslaved. One postbellum black woman laborer inspired the title of one of my favorite writings by Hunter (also a Miami native). She told a certain onlooker questioning her employment choices she wanted “‘to joy my freedom.”
Historians are concerned with the particularities of a certain period even as we can see connections across time. I plan to delve into such connections as I explore across time racial, gender and spatial politics in and near the Atlantic, the ocean near my beloved hometown.
This continues to be the task before me as much lies ahead including the coming release of The Grant Green Story, a documentary on which I have had amazing feedback most recently from individuals in Edinburgh who feel like friends. They are certainly people I want to meet again when I return. And there are others.