Trump Plan To Cut NEH And NEA Diminishes Us All

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post on February 2, 2017. View the original post. 

The searing novel by Alice Walker that transformed your sense of the social world, the ancient flint arrowhead that transported your understanding of time, the tempestuous Hudson River School painting that showed you the divine in nature, are all extravagances unworthy of the support we call “public.” Beauty – the ideas that convey it, the objects that carry it, the words that harness it – is out in the era of Donald Trump. Or at least, this is the insinuation of the President’s team when they threaten to place the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts on the chopping block. In this surreal version of America-The-Great, the quest for the truth of us and for the best in us through our national letters and arts is deemed unworthy of recognition. But as the trenchant writer Audre Lorde has professed, “poetry is not a luxury.” Recent psychological studies have borne this revelation out, finding that reading books (and perhaps especially novels) strengthens our most noble qualities, leading us to be kinder, smarter, and even happier.

Reflecting on the nature and valences of our existence – who and why we are — is among the essential elements that not only make us human, but also make us citizens. Poetry, history, criticism, philosophy, novels, dramas, objects thoughtfully exhibited, and edifices tenderly preserved: these are the cultural goods, the collective riches, which reflect a nation’s story, make a country distinctive, and weave together a larger global society of the human. These books, these essays, these artful things are where we meet the illumination of introspection, massage the tense muscles of moral fiber, and see our separate experiences as intermeshed. These cultural goods of the highest order should be fed by the common pot if we seek to nurture a rich, diverse present and future America.

Our literary forebears recognized this fact. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, a whole generation of self-conscious young Americans fretted about the inadequacy of our nation as betrayed by the immaturity of our arts. In the hollows of New England, writers began to address the lack, hurling forth an array of stunning tomes. The Scarlett Letter, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Self-Reliance, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, were all works of the imagination that sought to simultaneously translate local, national, and transcendent meanings.

We still read those texts in the classroom as expressions of our national yearnings. To be sure, Hawthorne, Irving, Emerson, Melville, Twain and their set created classics without support from government agencies. The US was just in its infancy when these men were born. It took generations for our country to recognize the value of democratically funding cultural and intellectual production. The NEA and NEH, bold American inventions, would not emerge until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law ambitious reforms of the Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid were among these, as was civil rights legislation and funding for public broadcasting. But if public support for the arts had existed in 1800, imagine our haul of talent. We might have added such depth, such range, to our shared interpretive heritage. (Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Mary Oliver, and Joyce Carol Oates, and the list goes on, are all recipients of NEA awards.) Will we time-travel back to the days when the white, the male and the moneyed dominated the arts as practitioners and patrons? Or will we embrace the ideal of a democratic beauty that holds mirrors up to multiple worlds of inner light?

Our best moments have been marked by radical ideas, stunning feats of oratory, and great machinations of imagination. When the revolutionaries who made this country a thing of its own gathered to endorse one of the most beautiful humanities texts of an age, they charged the deeply flawed but rhetorically talented Virginia statesman, Thomas Jefferson, with crafting the treatise. But one voice was not enough. This work of art was a national project. The Declaration of Independence had to be a collective endeavor, drafted by committee, underscored by many names, co-signed in spirit by the people. My ancestors were not represented in that Continental Congress. In an irony that we know painfully well with a debt to meticulous works of history, no African American had the freedom or standing to sign that day. But riding in on the coattails of Johnson’s Great Society, any of us can hold the pen that knits our country closer together, and all of us are co-signers on our fellow citizens’ masterpieces.

The quest for beauty, for emotional and intellectual truth, binds us to the category “human.” It chastens and arrests us. It elevates and connects us. It shapes us into a nation. When we support the common good by stirring together the cultural pot, we choose wings over walls.

The Ghosts of Six Acres, an African-American Owned Underground Railroad House

I am often on the prowl for historically interesting houses. This past December, when I returned to my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for the winter break, I got the unexpected chance to tour a special house. Two people from very different parts of my life happened to mention the home to me within the space of 48 hours. They were Chris Momany, Chaplain at Adrian College in Southeastern Michigan, who is dedicated to preserving the history of abolitionism at his institution and in the region, and Anne Steinert, an elementary school friend and historic preservationist who is currently a doctoral student in History at the University of Cincinnati. Chris told me that students from Adrian College had taken a memorable field trip to Cincinnati to stay in a home that operated as part of the Underground Railroad. Anne told me that a woman in the city had purchased and restored a documented UGRR home and turned it into a successful B & B. The site, called Six Acres Bed and Breakfast, is located in the College Hill neighborhood (formerly Pleasant Hill) fifteen minutes outside of downtown Cincinnati. A second old house on the property, Seventh Acre, also has guest rooms. The property includes landscaped lawns, a wooded area that dips into a deep ravine, and broad views.

Two mentions of the same house seemed like a rather forceful prompt, so I set out spontaneously one day to find the place, dragging my husband, a cultural psychologist, along. Chelli Kitchen, the B & B’s only resident employee and sister of the owner, Kristin Kitchen, welcomed us in and offered an informative, story-filled tour. The chronicle of how her sister came to own the house was dramatic. According to Chelli, Kristin first entered the house as a high school student attending a graduation party when the home was in private hands. She returned the next day to recover lost keys, found a moment of peace as she gazed down on a wooded ravine and creek below the yard, and determined that she would own the place one day. Years later, the house declined after a developer bought the land, was refused the right to tear down the structure due to its historical significance, and then left it to rot. Kristin rediscovered the condemned building and snuck inside. A professional by then with degrees in marketing and African American studies, she launched what became a long struggle to purchase the house. Kristin slowly restored the home, replacing and renovating what she could and years later, purchasing a second abode that had formerly been part of the parcel. The sisters now operate the home as a Bed & Breakfast that highlights the site’s history. Six Acres was built between 1850 and 1860 by a Cincinnati Quaker and farmer, Zebulon Strong. Strong, who originally had 50 acres on the hill, used a false bottom wagon to assist people seeking freedom who approached his house via the Mill Creek. The property is located on Hamilton Avenue, also U.S. Route 127, which continues north through Ohio and into Michigan; Michigan abuts Ontario, Canada at the Detroit River.

The main house at Six Acres is cozy and charming, sporting a sunny coatthe front of Six Acres yellow house of buttercup yellow paint that Kristin chose at the time of the renovation. There is a feeling of warmth and welcome in the house created by its host, Chelli, and also by a sense of the activist purposes its capacious rooms were once assigned to. While we were all sitting comfortably in the parlor conversing about the history of the house, Chelli’s eyes focused away from me and my husband, through the wide front hallway, and toward the entry door.

“Do you see that shadow?” she asked. She kept her eyes on the spot, as if trying to piece together a puzzle. “It wasn’t there before. I’m trying to figure out where it’s coming from. It’s moving.”

My husband asked her, then, with a bit of subdued humor in his voice, “Do you have ghosts here?”

Chelli replied that they do have ghosts, whom she called “the ancestors.”

If you know that I recently published a history that analyzes ghost tourism at southern sites of slavery, you can guess that I listened quite closely to what followed. Throughout my research in Savannah, Charleston and Louisiana for the book Tales from the Haunted South, I had not met an African American site owner or manager who foregrounded stories of hauntings. In fact, I argued that black people in those areas famous for being haunted seemed to avoid the business of ghosts and instead to respect the dead through the care and preservation of grave sites.

Chelli told us that there was one ghost whom several visitors have seen. I asked what the ghost looked like. Chelli responded, “Have you seen her?” I had not, so Chelli described the figure as a black woman in Quaker garb who had probably been a servant. She also described a formerly enslaved woman who told one of the guests her name was Grace, a boy who had entered the home via the UGRR and died in the African healing circle carved into the floorboards in an attic room, and a “cantankerous” white man who crashes about making noises but whom Grace keeps in check. Chelli willingly offered these stories in the same engaged and even tone with which she had recounted the documented history of the house.

I will admit that I felt a heightened awareness as Chelli shared these sightings of spirits with us. This is because when she had pointed out the shadow twenty minutes prior, I had followed the direction of her gaze. I saw the shadow too, a faint dark shape against the wall that shifted slightly as if someone were moving in and out of the light just beyond our field of vision. There were no other guests at the B & B that day. The house was empty save for us three. I stared at the shadow, trying to locate the source and never found one. I will not call it a ghost, no matter where my imagination might lead me. But I will say, and this is the most important bit, that the proprietors of this B&B do not offer ghost tours. They do not even allow visitors to enter the upper chamber where they believe people escaping from slavery hid and performed rituals of healing. These are the stories and places about “the ancestors,” as Chelli put it, that the site owners seek to protect rather than commercialize.six acres street sign

Read accounts of the Adrian College students’ experience hiking the ravine on an UGRR route and a post by Chris Momany on the Historians Against Slavery blog.

Watch Kristin Kitchen discuss the history of the site and the house she calls “magic.”

Six Acres has received multiple stars and excellent reviews on travel and food sites. Learn more about Six Acres Bed & Breakfast.

 

What I Have Learned from Readers of The Cherokee Rose (Part 1)

Since the release of my first novel, The Cherokee Rose, just over a year ago, I have had an amazing opportunity that I never expected when I was solely writing academic histories. I have had the chance to hear from nearly a hundred people – as it happens, all women — who read the novel as members of book clubs, as well as many others who emailed me or sent comments via my website, Facebook, or Twitter. I’ve also had the privilege of joining readers while they discussed the book on several occasions, twice in person and at other times via Skype or Apple Facetime. The book groups ranged from graduate students of color studying Psychology at the University of Michigan, to white Christian women’s clubs in two Michigan cities, to black women professionals in Milwaukee, to members of the American Association of University Women that span the country. What I couldn’t have imagined before publishing fiction is the emotional and intellectual energy that talking about my narrative with others could stir up, or the depth of heart-felt feedback I would receive. I got a huge kick out of hearing a black and Latina graduate student ask each other which character they identified with and share their initial dislike of Cheyenne, which evolved as they read the story. I also found that readers are interested in knowing which character I identify with most – a question I had never thought of while writing the book. All of these readers were attentive to the multiple layers of the story and sharp-minded about relations between characters as shaped by race, gender, and sexuality. I have been absolutely enraptured by the feeling of having aspects and implications of my work presented to me that I had never thought of and by the feeling that someone “got” exactly what I had been hoping to convey – and more. There is nothing that comes close to connecting with readers over imagined scenes and characters, not even Graeter’s chocolate chip ice cream, which may just be the best in the world. Connecting with readers through my novel is almost like meeting other people inside my own dream, and no longer being alone there.

While listening to women readers, while responding to and interacting with them, I have learned a lot about how The Cherokee Rose functions as a novel and about how I can strengthen my craft in the next go-around of fiction writing. The realization that stands out most in my mind is that readers fastened first on character. The people who inhabit the story matter fundamentally to the investment that readers will make and the experience they will have. I recall one reader saying that she had trouble keeping up with so many central characters, which is constructive feedback for me about the trade-offs between choosing one or more than one protagonist. I wrote The Cherokee Rose around three protagonists—Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne – in order to offer intimate angles on different perspectives. But some readers wanted to follow only one character closely; and interestingly to me, it is Cheyenne – the third character to arise in my mind while I was conceiving the story – who seems to garner the most attention. As one reader said on Twitter, Martha Jones, a legal historian and my friend, every black woman knows a Cheyenne. I take away from this that I need to hone my ability to shape these constructed personalities into real people and to continue to let them surprise me and my readers.

I also noted the repeated comments that readers made about place – about the Chief Vann House State Historic Site and about Oklahoma. Women told me  they loved the feeling of making connections between places they had been and places in the novel, and even of feeling a sense of déjà vu as they read the novel. A comment that I take as a reassurance and compliment all rolled together made by two readers – one living in Oklahoma now and one who grew up there – is that they saw and knew the Oklahoma I had painted. They felt I had gotten Oklahoma “right.” Such comments were also a challenge, making me cognizant of the need to get all of my places (or environments) “right” – so that readers who have not been there can discover and learn about places telepathically, and readers who have been there will stick with me in the story (rather than chaffing against off-kilter descriptions) and add more threads of connection to the places they know and love (and to the places they know and hate) through the story.

On plot, the women I had the privilege of talking with and hearing from had different views.  I heard from people who described themselves as being utterly taken away by the story presented in The Cherokee Rose. (One woman said she missed her bus because she couldn’t put the book down – wow, did that comment make my week!) I also heard from readers who felt the story got off to a slower start but took on a purposeful shape when the three main characters met at the plantation house. Some readers felt that the ending was emotionally satisfying; others felt that the ending was a little too easy on the characters, who all see their desires met in some form or fashion. Another reader, Ana Rosas, a professor of history and ethnic studies in California, said what struck her as most appealing was the ultimate optimism of the story amidst difficult issues and moments. (Professor Rosas created an insightful, probing document of excerpts from the book and questions for me – which I have attached to the end of this post.) One woman who attended a University of Michigan library event intimated that she wasn’t so sure about the role of the ghost in the novel. Another woman from that same event said she had come to hear me talk a few months later at Blackstone Books in Ypsilanti because she found the various elements fascinating. This range of feedback proves to me an old adage – it is impossible to please everyone. But I can strive to satisfy, push, delight, educate and engage those who grant me the precious gift of their time by picking up my books and trusting me enough to turn the pages. Clearly, a multipronged task before me is to develop my ability to structure plots that work even better in terms of pace and supernatural elements and that can balance a sense of hope and optimism (to which I am wedded in my fiction writing) with a sense of the nitty gritty, dangerous realities of human existence.

One more very important take-away that I gleaned from women readers’ reactions, is that history is critical to them, and that learning more about shrouded and lesser-known histories was a great pleasure for many in reading The Cherokee Rose. This message, which came across in several interactions, was conveyed most clearly via a reading group still going strong after eighteen years that chose the novel at the suggestion of a member who directs public programming at the Teddy Roosevelt Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. Another member of that group sent me a message that shared, in part: “We read only historical fiction and she said this would be a great book for us. It was a fantastic read, learned so much and had a great discussion too. We enjoy more history than story and this book opened our eyes to our past . . . Thank you for a great book.” This comment infused me with new excitement to press on with the kind of fiction I had intuitively adopted – dual time period fiction that presents contemporary people from various racial backgrounds grappling with the past as a way to make personal and political meaning in the present. This comment also gave me the charge (and maybe the kick in the seat) to keep working with history through fiction, and to strive to do so in a way that captures the “truths” of history on a level that reaches beyond documented fact. I can’t wait to move ahead with this vision.

(I am thrilled that The Cherokee Rose will be out in paperback this fall. I do hope that readers will continue to find the novel and to share thoughts with me, so that I can add a Part 2 to this blog post on what I have learned from you! You can see Professor Ana Rosas’s astute questions about The Cherokee Rose here. She asked the first three questions of me at a session of the American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch conference in Hawaii, August 2016.) 

WELCOME TO BEHIND THE HISTORIAN’S STUDIOcover image to presentation

Imagining The Future of the African American Past

I was humbled and honored to participate in the landmark African American history symposium, The Future of the African American Past, sponsored by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the American Historical Association (AHA). The conference was held in Washington, DC in May of 2016, and it energized the mixed academic, museum, and public audience. As the Executive Director of the AHA, Jim Grossman has noted, people stood outside in the rain for forty-five minutes to listen to the presentations and join in the really gripping discussion of the past, present, and future lives of blacks in America.

Graphic art of African-American faces

Photo Credit: The Future for African American Past

I shared a panel on Friday morning with the historians Elsa Barkley Brown,  Dylan Penningroth, and Deborah Gray White. Our panel chair was Ira Berlin, and our subject was: “Who Is Black America.” The discussions on our panel ranged from the issue of silences within black community, generational differences around notions of Civil Rights and police interactions, tension and conflict within community (such as in black churches), and indigeneity in African American experience. I am sharing the paper I gave here. It is also posted, along with the wonderful papers given by other speakers, photos, and videos, on the conference website.

Watch Part 1 of the panel talk

Watch Part 2 of the panel talk

Transcript of Tiya Miles’ Paper

Tracing African American Life in Native American Spaces

There was no such thing as a “New World” when explorer Jean de Léry coined the phrase in reference to the Americas in the 1550s. Rather, the lands that we now know as comprising the territory of the United States were old worlds peopled by hundreds of indigenous societies with populations reaching close to five million. European explorers and colonists – foreigners in what to them were uncharted lands – had to recognize and navigate the indigenous communities with which they came into contact. So too did the peoples of African descent who found themselves tossed about the waves of a terrifying ocean below the decks of slave ships. When African people were dispersed around the world through the vehicle of the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade, they landed not just in the Old World of Europe proper, and not just in Spanish, English, Dutch, and French colonial settlements in present-day U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but also in the ancient cultures and communities of Native North America. The social, spatial, political and cultural formations of already present indigenous American people were complex, long-standing, and like those in all human societies, changeable. People of African descent who found themselves in Native American spaces faced the necessity of interpreting peoples and cultures that were not African and not European, but that in many cases, were drastically changing as a result of the European presence. African American history in the space that is Native America yields new information and deeper understanding about the diversity, dignity, and resilience of black community life on this land.

Across the eastern seaboard, into the Deep South, and even in the West, black and native people met in a series of encounters that became consequential for the story of African American life. In the English colonies of Virginia and South Carolina established in the 1600s, black people were enslaved along with Native Americans on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations and farms. In Puritan New England, enslaved black men were brought onto farms and into households were native women labored as indentured servants; these men and women formed couples that would alter the makeup of indigenous villages of the Pequots, Mashpees, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags. Black and native men worked whaling ships together, further diversifying the native communities back on land. In the aftermath of the catastrophic conflict between British and native people known as King Philip’s (or Metacom’s) War (1675) captive indigenous men were sold into slavery on ships that crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Europe. In French and British colonial Detroit of the 1700s, enslaved people from the Sioux, Pawnee, Ottawa and other nations stood alongside Africans as they worked the ships that plied the dangerous Great Lakes and packed weighty bundles of beaver skins for the lucrative fur trade. As the centuries passed and the concept of racial hierarchy hardened, as systems of American slavery solidified and white settlers pushed ever farther into indigenous land bases, thousands of African-descended people entered the towns of Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles in the Southeast; these southern Indian nations would, to varying degrees, develop plantations of their own cultivated by black men and women held as slaves.

Often we refer in shorthand to a configuration called “the black community,” and black people in the U.S. do indeed share a common narrative with bold outlines that draw individuals together into an unceasing drama of trial and triumph. But when we begin to define the chapters of that narrative and examine the fine print on each page, African America is illuminated as a richly variegated population in ways that scholars and artists are continuing to trace. Gender, class, region, ethnicity, color, sexuality, and religion are the predominant categorical lenses through which we analyze African American diversity. An additional lens should be indigeneity – given that a significant proportion of the black population possesses native “roots,” which I am defining broadly here as: a.) historical patterns of experience within native societies, b.) ancestral and family ties with Indian people, and c.) persistent cultural narratives and mythologies about both of the above (such as the often vocalized belief in – forgive me – the “black community” that long straight hair is a sign of Indian “blood”). Today, those native roots within the black population have grown into far flung, thick-leaved trees in the South, Oklahoma, New England, California, and almost anywhere that a conversation is opened about black families and their oral histories. How many times have you heard an older black family member, or a friend, or students in a classroom ponder the possibility of native ancestry, especially Cherokee or Blackfoot ancestry, especially traced through or to a grandmother?

In order to reach a finer grained understanding of the composition of black America, we must see these historical patterns, contemporary communities, and cultural narratives of black lives in native spaces — and consider the ways in which a black-white binary, and indeed, a red-white binary, has often occluded our interpretive vision. By offering indigeneity as a lens through which to refract black life as part of the project of drawing a picture of black cultural complexity, I do not suggest that this lens ought to be rose-colored. We cannot deny, nor should we, that the largest populations of Native American and African American people were brought together by the forces of colonialism and slavery, nor that the children and families birthed of black and native unions came into being and persisted in the context of injustice and suffering. In the 1600s and 1700s, black people, like their European captors, were newcomers to North America whose livelihood depended on indigenous land takings. Native American southerners owned approximately five thousand African American slaves between the late 1700s and 1865, and narratives of those formerly enslaved people reveal a catalogue of familiar abuses, as well as an indication that native slavery was, in some places and times, more flexible than American slavery. Black students at Hampton Institute under the direction of Booker T. Washington in the late 1800s learned that they stood on a higher level of civilization than their native classmates. Black male soldiers in the U.S. military, known by Indians as “buffalo soldiers,” participated in the policing of native people on western reservations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.

But despite the wrongs perpetrated and harms endured in this tangled web of exploitation and survival, African Americans have recalled experiences in native places in words like those of the Cherokee Freedman quoted by historian Celia Naylor: “born and raised among these People, I don’t want to know any other.” And Native American studies scholars are beginning to think through the ways in which African American relationships to settler colonialism were distinct from those of Euro-Americans. Jodi Byrd, a Chickasaw literary scholar and colonial studies theorist who has acknowledged her own nation’s role in holding blacks as bondspeople, determined that a separate word, “arrivants,” is needed to capture the difference between black dwellers and white “settlers” on native lands. Today, descendants of these “arrivants” carry knowledge of past and present existences within indigenous spaces. We can trace those lives, however faintly at times, in documented histories as well as in cultural memories.

The field of African American history has long been conscious of the import of indigenous space in African American lives.  In his 1920 article titled “The Relations of Negroes and Indians in Massachusetts,” Carter G. Woodson wrote: “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians.”  In perhaps the earliest detailed historical investigation of this topic, Woodson set out in this work to remedy that erasure. Publications on this subject by Carter G. Woodson and his peers, James Hugo Johnston and Kenneth Porter, appeared mainly in the Journal of Negro History from the 1920s through the 1930s. But after a wave of scholarship in that journal, this line of questioning fell into the footnotes with the exceptions of colonial historians like Gary Nash and Peter H. Wood, who examined black and native intersections, and William Loren Katz, who penned the popular history, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, originally aimed at a young adult readership. While African American history turned to important studies of black slave culture, the black family, and black politics in the 1950s through the 1980s, documenting African American life in Native American spaces mostly became the purview of ethnohistorians. These scholars, working on Native American history and cultures in a field that had developed out of the research needs of the federal Indian Claims Commission, noted the existence of slavery among southern Indian tribes in the 1970s and 1980s. While valuable to African American history, these ethnohistorical studies focused on Native American historical actors and the structuring relationship between Indian tribes and colonial and federal powers. With a few outliers, such as anthropologist Jack Forbes’s book Africans and Native Americans that pointed to an “American diaspora” in the context of the slave trade, such studies shined a light on the fact of black presence in native spaces, but with little description or interpretation of black experience, subjectivity, and action. The turn of the twenty-first century ushered in a plethora of full-length, scholarly studies of the places were blackness and Indianness meet. Books by historians with one or two feet firmly planted in African American history, like Celia Naylor, Barbara Krauthamer, Fay Yarbrough, Malinda Maynor Lowery, and Arica Coleman have investigated African American lives and identities in various slaveholding tribes and in states like Virginia where contact was greatest. These scholars’ questions and examinations have been invigorated and animated by  new directions in slavery and critical race studies, related to gender and sexuality, “rival geographies,”  informal economic networks, the textured fabric of kinship and community, scientific racism, migration, and citizenship. Native American history scholars, too, find their way more clearly now to seeing black lives in indigenous places, such as Andrew Lipman who ends his new book, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, with the words of an Afro-Native poet.

In the early twentieth century, in the throes of the early years of African American historical scholarship, black studies scholars argued that investigating indigeneity was integral to an understanding of black life in America. It has taken us, the inheritors of this intellectual tradition, a bit of time to fully realize that vision. One future direction of the black past, then, is to continue drafting Carter Woodson’s “unwritten chapter” on the “relations of the Negroes and the Indians,” by exploring causes and consequences that will unveil the multiple meanings of “America” in the term “Black American.”

Download Tiya Miles’ presentation (PDF)

Exorcising the Slave Mistress Ghost

The rise of dark tourism at historic sites is a concern for some historians who worry that by replacing historical tours with ghost tours, we are losing opportunities for public dialogue about serious social issues of the past and the present. I share this nagging feeling that haunted experiences are crowding out critical engagement with the most difficult happenings of our collective past. Slavery is a primary example, and the one most salient to me as a Black and Indigenous studies scholar of the 19th century U.S. During ghost touring field trips to historic sites in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina between 2012 and 2014, I heard and read several stories about enslaved black women ghosts. These phantoms seemed to engage in behaviors that reinforced the hierarchical racial and gender status quo of their antebellum times, such as turning down the sheets for guests at a haunted bed and breakfast. Most alarming were the black women ghosts who, during their lifetimes, had willingly engaged in sexual relations with their masters or were the victims of sensationalized, gruesome violence.

At the Sorrel-Weed House in historic Savannah, a site that arrested my attention, these elements dramatically overlapped. There, the “slave girl” Molly is said to have been the “mistress” of her master, Francis Sorrel, a wealthy cotton merchant of the mid-1800s. The use of the benign term “mistress” to describe a very young woman who was physically involved with the man who owned her implies desire and consent in a broader historical context of sexual coercion. After Molly’s mistress, Matilda, discovered the affair, Molly is said to have been hanged to death from the rafters of the courtyard slave quarters. The chamber where Molly supposedly died is open to tourists and has been referred to as a “money shot” by a local Midnight Zombie Tour guide.

Molly-the-ghost’s screams of pain during an attack in the slave quarters on the Sorrel grounds have been recorded by The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) on the TV show “Ghost Hunters” and posted on YouTube. But those mechanical echoes of a violent past are, like the phantom Molly herself, mere figments and fabrications. They do not capture – nor do they pretend to seek – the complexity and emotion of an enslaved woman’s life. Instead, they foster distance from a recognized common humanity — a distance created by digital cameras, voice recorders and electromagnetic gadgetry, and indeed by the gaiety of thrill-seeking ghost hunters hoping for a rush. Although these tourists are surely not intending to reproduce the troubling assumptions and power dynamics of a previous era, they are participating in a for-profit enterprise that caricatures a slave girl’s trauma.

Molly is now a star character on the Savannah dark tourism scene, but for all the wrong reasons. It is a mark of national dishonor that black women were held in chattel bondage and forced to perform uncompensated domestic, agricultural, and sexual work in conditions that historians Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist have described as literal labor camps. Stories about brutalized black women who are said to have been complicit in their abuse dishonor us all when they are used as fodder for fun. By exorcising the “slave mistress” ghost of the southern haunted house tour and attending to the complex, documented histories of real enslaved women, site owners, staff members and tourists alike could elevate public engagement with historic sites of slavery.

 

Tales of the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era
Published by The University of North Carolina Press. Learn more at http://uncpress.unc.edu/.
Published: October 2015

Reflections on the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference

(And a Note on the Name of Mary Ann Battis)

In late May of 2015, I was an invited speaker at the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference held at Langston University’s Oklahoma City campus. The conference was planned by Rhonda Grayson and her colleagues, a group of descendants of blacks enslaved by Creeks and of Afro-Creek people that has been meeting for years. Their aim has been to build community ties among themselves and to achieve recognition as citizens by the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

My presentation, “Complex Identities in Afro-Native History,” focused on Mary Ann Battis, an Afro-Creek adolescent girl who was a star student at a Methodist boarding school in the Creek Nation of Alabama in the early 1800s and who became a fictionalized character in my novel, The Cherokee Rose. The other presentations ranged widely, reminding me of what I enjoy most about freedpeople descendants’ conferences in Oklahoma. In my experience, these gatherings include a vibrant mix of academic history, local and grassroots history, genealogy, and creative expression. (In the past, at the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association conferences have featured readings from the WPA slave narratives.) This event was no exception. There were leading historians in the field of Creek history, speakers from the National Park Service, panels on topics like the Underground Railroad as well as Federal Recognition, a Civil Rights themed dance performance, family genealogy posters and slideshows, and a showing of the new documentary film Bloodlines.

This was the first time I had viewed Bloodlines, a moving, grassroots film produced and written by Camera Rose and Chantel Rose and directed by Camera Rose. It chronicled the ongoing campaign of freedpeople descendants to be recognized as citizens of the Creek Nation. A strength of the film was the series of first person interviews with people whose names or stories will be familiar to readers of Creek history because many of their ancestors were prominent Black Creeks (such as Cow Tom). The interviewees’ ancestors had been enrolled in the Creek Nation since the Civil War era but had their enrollment revoked in modern times (1979) through the election of a new Constitution by the Muscogee Creek Nation. The children and grandchildren of these dis-enrolled individuals took up the cause of re-enrollment and formed the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band organization (formerly the African Creek Indian Freedmen). One interviewee and his cousin said they had presented their cases (including written documentation of Creek ancestry) in the Creek enrollment office and in the tribal courts, with negative results in the enrollment office, a positive outcome in a Creek lower court, and an ultimate defeat in the Creek Supreme Court where the justices refused to give a reason for their decision. In her interview, Rhonda Grayson set aside the lightning rod issue of blood quantum, which is often used to define who is or is not native. Grayson said: “We have blood, but it’s not about blood. It’s about the 1866 Treaty.” (She is referring here to the post-Civil War treaty between the US and Creek Nation that guaranteed the inclusion of former slaves.) One of the most poignant moments in the film was when a woman seemed compelled to offer an answer to the unspoken question of why she would want to be part of a community that doesn’t accept her. Her response was: “I have a right to be acknowledged and define who I am.” Interviewees expressed their desire for recognition as being about culture, heritage, and the respectful recognition by others of their identities, rather than being about access to benefits as some critics of their movement charge. After failing in their attempts to be recognized by the Creek Nation, descendants featured in the film revealed their latest strategy: seeking separate federal recognition as an Afro-Creek tribe. This film would have been stronger if it had included representations of the Creek government’s position (even in the form of recorded public comments). Nevertheless, it was a riveting production and revealing chronicle of the plight of descendants of Afro-Creek people and blacks enslaved by Creeks.

My vote for best title of the conference goes to Mowa Choctaw writer Cedric Sunray for his paper, “Jim Crowfeather in Indian Country,” “Jim Crowfeather” being Sunray’s term for prejudice against native groups with significant or visible black ancestry. His focus was on the federal recognition process, which he sharply argued is biased and subtly race-based. (For more on the morass of federal recognition for southern tribes, I highly recommend my friend Brian Klopotek’s book, Recognition Odysseys.) I was warmed by the opportunity to see Melinda Micco again, a Creek-Seminole historian and ethnic studies scholar whom I first met as a graduate student, and I was pleased to be reacquainted with historian Gary Zellar, author of African Creeks.

I learned two intriguing and important tidbits for my own mental file cabinet at the conference. The first was a new piece of information about Sugar George, a black-Creek interpreter of the 19th century. President of the Creek Indian Freedmen Band, Ron Graham, a descendant of Sugar George, explained that the name was bestowed upon his ancestor because of a sweet tooth! The conference also included an indigenous language session with “Maskoke” speaker Marcus Briggs-Cloud, who tried imparting some Creek words and phrases on members of the audience. Briggs-Cloud had heard my presentation on Mary Ann Battis (which I was pronouncing like “Bat-hiss”) and suggested that her name may have had more of a French pronunciation like “Bat-teez.” Since Mary Ann was from the Alabama area and her African American father had traveled there from parts unknown, I think Briggs-Cloud might just be right!

I look forward to learning more at a future conference.

Jinx and Ruth: What’s Up With That?

SPOILER ALERT: This blog post contains numerous plot details from my novel, The Cherokee Rose! If you don’t want to know yet, stop reading now!

During the Q & A after a recent reading from The Cherokee Rose at the Georgia Center for the Book, an audience member said to me: “I understand the tension between Cheyenne and Ruth, but I don’t understand the instant attraction between Jinx and Ruth. Can you explain that?” The questioner happened to be someone I knew casually but was utterly surprised to see in the greater Atlanta area. She was Veta Tucker, a literary scholar and historical writer from Michigan who I knew to be working on an edited collection about the Underground Railroad in Detroit. (I am eagerly awaiting that collection due out next year from Wayne University Press, by the way.) Veta had recently moved to Atlanta to be closer to her family and had kindly taken the time to come hear my talk. Veta had clearly read the novel with interest and attention, but the development of a relationship between two of the characters puzzled her. Since this was the third time I had been asked a similar question (the first time the questioner was my mother; the third time the questioner was a staff member at the Chief Vann House State Historic Site), I realized the third time was an opening for me to try to construct a thorough answer for readers.

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Reflections on a Black Feminist Think Tank

I have always wanted to participate in a think tank, a gathering of people with shared purpose and focused minds. But think tanks, it seemed, were only for political strategists and well-funded centers outside of the academy. I have a sharp memory, in fact, of a faculty meeting years ago that brought this point home. A woman colleague who studies black gay writers shared her concern that university work was becoming more and more about management, committee meetings, and office tasks and less about research and writing. The sober response she received from someone in authority at that meeting: “This is no think tank.” He might as well have said “This no country club,” given the way his response shut down the dialogic possibilities opened by her comment. Some people reading this blog might wish to argue right about now that working at a university is indeed like working at a country club, but I won’t wade into those weeds here or try to sketch out the many kinds of extensive and indeed intensive labor that professors engage in. Maybe some other time. Suffice it to say: yes, there are many wonderful privileges endemic to an academic life for the lucky few who can find secure employment as universities move toward cost-saving, part-time labor schemes. But having the space and time to reflect deeply, to think creatively, to produce truly new knowledge – this is a privilege on the wane, even in the academy. Continue reading

Writing The Cherokee Rose

The Cherokee Rose began with a history that began with the voice of a slave. In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student researching my dissertation on the subject of slavery in the Cherokee Nation of the nineteenth century. Some of the richest first-hand accounts on this topic were the letters and diaries penned by Christian missionaries from the Moravian Church who had traveled to Cherokee country in what is now Georgia to start a church school and mission on the land of a wealthy Cherokee slaveholder named James Vann. Continue reading

Gardens of Memory

black-eyed-susansPhoto credit: Black-eyed Susans in field, photo by Martin van der Grintin@USDA-NRCS PLANTS database.


The first image that flooded my mind for the novel that would eventually become The Cherokee Rose appeared unbidden. Several years ago when I was still in graduate school, I saw a young woman in my mind’s eye. She was walking through a field of flowers toward a large plantation house, missing the pageantry around her because of an unseen weight on her shoulders. That was all: a snapshot of a woman alone, slowly moving uphill through a field of beauty, but meeting resistance – an inner resistance – all along the way.

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