The Nature of the Work of Transcribing Slave Names

The title of this post is ironic as I’m not sure there is anything natural about one person “owning” another. However, as I transcribe contraband camp registers, noting next to each freedperson the name of their “former owner,” I am lending regularity to something that would otherwise feel very strange.

Sometimes when I’m typing the names into a spreadsheet, to keep my place in the list, I will talk to myself, calling out the name of the freedperson. I might say, “Okay, Ol’ Scipio! How old are you?” I don’t do this out loud, just to myself. For a few minutes, until I move on to the next person on the list, this makes these ancestors come to life–again.

I recognize that bringing the ancestors, whose names were recorded in camp, to life is a process that results in bringing myself to life too–in the sense that I become conscious of a past that modern living doesn’t necessarily encourage me to remember. For 150 years, few people, family history historians in particular, cared about whether these people’s names were recalled. Even now, there is no one whom I’m aware of, who is doing the work I’m doing (I think I do know of one other person, but she hasn’t broadcast it).

There’s a line from Toni Cade Bambara’s the Lesson, where her character Sugar asks, “What kind of world is this where people spend on a sailboat what” essentially a whole black family living in Harlem would spend on food, clothing, and shelter? Sugar’s follow-up question is–“and how come we ain’t in on it?” Mrs. Moore, another character, a grown woman who has come to the neighborhood to enlighten the kids one summer, glows at Sugar’s observation and inquiry.

I feel like Sugar myself. What kind of world have I been living in, breathing in, that would let me go through fifty years of my life, or forty anyway, before realizing that our ancestors’ names had been recorded during the Civil War and that, because so, I did not–along with my fellows–actually have to live all of those years in ignorance of the names of my ancestors, because that information could in fact have been made available? Yet, it wasn’t made available because it wasn’t yet in the interest of capitalist America or global markets to make it available. Will it be in their interest now that, as Kara Swisher projects, everything will be digitized? Is there a market for this kind of information? How many Djangos will be unchained? How many Twelve Years a Slave? Harriet Tubman movies? Will there be more to come–on Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey? Of course. Data is as good as money now. Better.

The fact that I’m asking these questions may implicate me. Am I complicit in a culture that for years went right along ignoring history until someone would figure out how to make money off of it? Certainly, I have been guilty or was for a really long time, because I too drank the Kool-aid, an American product that said that history is bunk with little to do with daily living or personal success on this earth.

Honestly, I don’t want anymore slavery movies. I don’t even want the Harriet Tubman movie, because it will not be right. It will be, as Melville put it–I may be getting this quote wrong, but I’ve got the gist of it right–a fraction of a fraction. And, in my opinion, even that fraction will be wrong because of being separate from the whole, which we can never recapture, right? Why Harriet Tubman now? What version of Tubman? And how will the film be used? Will it be more torture porn? Will Tubman be lifted up in such a way as to make the four million other enslaved persons invisible and irrelevant? Silent? Will she been seen as a hero and therefore an exception to the rule? Or, will some really meaningful conversation follow, of a quality that might make the possibility of reparations, finally, realistic?

For almost ten years, I blogged about slavery on a different site. Ten years and I think I received ten comments or fewer on my thoughts. Why was that? Perhaps the topic of slavery didn’t fit a site dedicated to education in the digital era except that historical information must certainly be part of real education. And that question again about digitization? What kinds of records will students engage in this era because documents are made more accessible? And yet, not only no comments, but I tried to organize a group on that cutting edge site, which provided space to organize groups. I tried twice to do so and was entirely ignored until I stopped asking. Obviously, they didn’t have the nerve or respect, for an unfettered scholar, to just say, “No room at the inn. Go way, please.” Better to give me the silent treatment until I would get the message. I did not listen and heed, not for a long time. I blogged there for several more years, partly because they had a reputable site that provided links to my posts and partly to remain a thorn in their side. This year, I bid them a fond farewell. I escaped under the cover they provided me.

Was I perturbed by their treatment? Well, of course I was, but that’s a little beside the point. This isn’t just about my feelings though I do think they matter. It’s about timing and value and institutions and choices. Certainly, it’s about treatment. My enslaved ancestors may have wished most of the time that they could be ignored, so perhaps I experience an opposite problem to that faced by them.

Slavery, despite Ta-Nehisi Coates’s place with The Atlantic, was not yet a hot topic ten years ago. Is it a hot topic now, and, if so, for how long? My guess is that its popularity is cyclical. In 2010, universities hadn’t yet agreed to study slavery, and, even now, only a handful of them are doing so or claim to be doing so. And how does that doing fit with their systems? Who will get to write? Who will receive a fellowship or fellowships to create time for study? Surely, those represented among scholars will be disproportionately white. Is this anything but a statement of fact, and, as such, should it not be stated, or should I remain complicit with a silent political superstructure? History has no color, of course. But historical situatedness of course has and does. Simply put, there should be more black scholars of slavery, not a handful who have managed to negotiate space for themselves within European universities.

If the day does come when all of a sudden slavery becomes intellectual capital more than it is at present and I have maybe retired, there will be monographs to be written, most likely by people who do not descend from slaves (or who do not realize that they do) who will be up for tenure. This is a system worth hating or at least resenting. Despite twenty years of working on a project that few others have undertaken, I’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal (well, not the last, but it sometimes feels that way when I put off my students in order to spend time transcribing) to keep going. All of my work has been in the digital realm, and genealogists have found me easily enough but not anyone in the position to provide me a fellow’s office at an institution with a great library. The cost of admission is the monograph, which eludes me because of so many rabbit holes and the appeal of cyberspace.

I have digressed, very far. Mostly this has been stream of consciousness today, which is just as well because that probably means it is painfully honest, and I would have to say, the ancestors deserve no less. That they were “owned” can be processed as nothing other than existential absurdity, and it is just as absurd that the academy continues in its sin of holding digitization of slave-era records to its system of award and recognition that marginalizes, where it even sees, citizen historians.

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