American History · gender · slavery

maddening power and not

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This week, the graduate students enrolled  in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” course turn to Nikki M. Taylor’s Driven Towards Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2014).

I love this book.

It has the analytical rigor required of historians, but also the intimacy of an African American scholar-mother who is committed via this work to using trauma as a category of analysis. Taylor does as much as a means of exploring gendered oppression during the American era of slavery.

As I read this work, I began to write in the margins of my book the names of women who dared to tested the social/economic/psychic parameters of their trials as had Margaret Garner, a Kentucky fugitive who left with her family for Cincinnati on January 27, 1856:  abolitionists Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond as well as poets Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Phillis Wheatley,  and yes, Garner. Shortly after her flight and facing recapture, she slit her near-white two-year-old daughter’s throat. Garner killed this child rather than seeing her subjected to the horrors she faced.

I appreciated how Taylor finds value, as does my colleague Andrew Huebner, in studying emotions, something historians typically sidestep. Concerning Garner’s horrific act, Taylor writes, “The principal question always has been whether Margaret Garner was mad, but perhaps a better question is what (emphasis mine) madness defined her experience as an enslaved African American woman.

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Dr. Nikki M. Taylor

I was flying in turbulent weather as I finished this book. The Delta pilot said he had a wind shear indicator as we approached Birmingham. We eventually landed safely.  Not unlike others, my courage is often tested while flying in bad weather. But learning about Garner via my colleague and mentor Taylor, the first African American historian to write a history of Garner’s life, centered me with each bump. There’s the obvious: the physically and sexually and mentally abused Garner faced something that seemed far more urgent than the bumps and tosses of the plane on which I was riding. I chatted with a UA undergrad to distract myself.

I am still shaken not only by the flight, but by Garner’s assertion that no matter her distress, her daughter’s body was hers and not that of the man who legally owned her and likely subjected her to awful abuse including the sort that produced this child.

I look forward to hearing my graduate students sort through Taylor’s ideas about the power of enslaved women. They have already been introduced to Stephanie M.H. Camp’s important monograph concerning the way in which geography matters to how such women experience triumphs and ongoing trials in the plantation space. They have also read the bestselling Wench, an imagined work by Dolen Perkins-Valdez that is also mostly set in Ohio not unlike Taylor’s monograph (Perkins-Valdez is a guest speaker at the University of Alabama this Tuesday).

Which connections will they make?

April 16 Flier

Next spring, I want to bring Taylor’s monograph, a slim, but important read, together again with Camp  and Perkins-Valdez, but also Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a novel I often assign in my American Civilization to 1865 undergrad class.

I am also thinking the memoirs of freedwoman (and flaneuse) Eliza Potter and white Cincinnati abolitionist Levi Coffin should also be part of the equation. Perhaps we will spend most of the semester exploring race, space and gender in the antebellum period, the period, something I’ve never done in a course that explores change across time.

How deep can we go with space being more urgent than “urban”? It will be interesting to see.

Meanwhile, I visited my family in Miami over the weekend and while there, had a chance to – at last – see my colleague Julio Capo Jr’s “Queer Miami” exhibit, which receives inspiration from his recently published award-winning monograph.

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The memories came. I found new context for my childhood memories of Anita Bryant as well as so many individuals from my childhood who now push my thinking on many overlapping issues concerning HIV, immigration and sexuality. Well done, Capo. I am proud to call you and Taylor both friend.

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