Jamelle Bouie Has Asked the Right Questions

I really enjoyed reading Jamelle Bouie’s New York Times Op-Ed last week–“We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was”. For the piece, Bouie interviewed some of the leading scholars of slavery and emancipation including ones who are involved in recovering documents related to the slave trade, ones who offer new and critical perspectives on both historical and present purposes for collecting data on millions of once-enslaved persons.

Bouie himself was involved in the creation of “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes,” an infographic published with Andrew Kahn by Slate a few years ago. After publication of the tool, Bouie became aware that while it may be easy to digitize data and make it accessible to the public when one is connected to an organization that has the infrastructure to do so, that same public expects answers to questions that arise from planting such sensitive information before its eyes.

As Bouie has continued to study the topic of the slave trade, remaining in conversation with researchers, he has become aware that today’s slavery data, created from recovered historical documents, no more exists in a vacuum than did the original documents. Slave ship captains and slave traders had reason to keep detailed logs of their human cargo or inventory including given names of their enterprise’s victims. What reasons can today’s researchers, handling such documents, have for abstracting the names today?

Bouie’s answer, like those of the researchers interviewed, is that scholars must think about the relationship between the enslaved and their descendants. Bouie is suggesting I think a place for the irrational next to the rational. Going forward, historical work calls for much sensitivity, as well as honesty about the relationship between digital work and digital economy, as much as it calls for objectivity. Transcribed and digitized names represent real humans. What happens in the realm of memory–individual, family, etc.–once names are resurrected? Who will be able to lay claim to these people? Who will be equipped to tell their stories with sensitivity? Historians alone, or laypersons? And who will benefit, how, and by what proportions?

Although Bouie points to digital humanists because they are the “new” field handling such information at present, he also indicates that this field is concerned with statistics, math, and quantification. Likewise, traditional humanities, including traditional historiography, will not I think find the right chords that might come from the tedious work of interpreting and narrating the lives of individual enslaved persons, families, and plantation communities without also studying slavery from large bodies of data.

I feel kindred with Bouie and others who point to the very real problems of digital work. As a rhetorician and compositionist, I view all scholarship to varying degrees as abstraction just as I believe that all scholarship is to a degree fictional. However, I do my best, as do others, despite the limitations of rhetoric and of language to allow composition of narratives that get at something akin to truth. I’m even more hyperconscious of relationships between sensitive data and economy. The subject of slavery is in the present moment almost in vogue. I do not trust Hollywood to offer narratives inspired by more than box office projections and bottom lines. And it bothers me more than a little that African Americans so easily accept Hollywood’s offerings in the absence of depth and complexity.

Putting these skepticisms aside for a minute, I agreed recently to talk about my work transcribing and digitizing contraband (migrating blacks) camp records, work which I started thirteen years ago and which has been published to this site from then to now. I have been involved in two funded projects to scale the work, the latest being “Practices of Emancipation,” a collaboration with sociologist John Clegg, who has his own African American Civil War Soldiers project. Most of this work has been privately funded (on a tiny budget) and/or crowdsourced.

The Lastroadtofreedom website is now in its twelfth year, my having launched it in 2010 after completing the first transcription of the Register of Freedmen (MROF). The MROF contains more than 2,300 registered African Americans living at Memphis’s Camp Shiloh. Today, LastRoad includes five camp registers though we have transcribed sixty-nine. By the standards of other projects including Slave Voyages it is a small dataset to be sure but significant in the quality of information included in the registers, in many cases, more detailed than other document types.

In my recent talk, I ended by claiming my own ancestors in the MROF, their having lived at Shiloh, and by narrating in the time I had available that day their outcome during and following Reconstruction. As a scholar, I felt funny being this personal as if my having a personal connection to the document somehow makes me less than objective. I’ve worried that listeners may think I have a vested interest in lifting up my own family’s story when in fact the opposite is the case. I pledged to transcribe thousands of names after the experience of resurrecting those from whom I descend. But more than anything, I fit my family’s story in to a talk that wasn’t really supposed to be personal, because I knew that the story of these ancestors, one evidenced by a long bureaucratic paper trail, defies the idea that African American lives are undocumented. Their story and so many other ones shed prove the availability of records hidden in plain sight and, once viewed also become cause for revision of extant histories.

For many reasons, I have been dubious about dropping the names of thousand of enslaved persons, with living and breathing descendants, into a not-yet-sensitive-enough public space. An ongoing question is whose responsibility it is to make sure that the ancestors denied descendants are acts of recovery treated very sensitively and not something else?

Over the course of a decade, I have blogged about the camps, tweeted the names of registrants, researched families by cross-referencing the register with related records. This is the work that John and I are in the process of doing now. And all of this is good work that has put us in touch with well-known genealogists as well as lay family history researchers.

Recently, I wrote an email to one of the site’s most interesting visitors, a woman whose white ancestor was a camp superintendent. She had written me a few years ago to ask my opinion about where her family might most appropriately place the ancestor’s letters, which narrate extensively his experience working with blacks during the war. I have encouraged her to make the letters accessible to the public, and so far she has hesitated to do so. I can understand, and if I were her, if my ancestor were on a questionable side of the war’s history or had written in not always glowing terms about blacks, I too might choose to keep the letters private. America has done a poor job developing discourse around slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, as well as Reconstruction. I would be hesitant to throw my ancestor under the bus.

This woman’s reticence, however, to share information so germane to telling stories of emancipation from local and personal perspectives–to add as a yet unheard voice to a still-developing discourse–is maybe due to the fact that there has been no deliberate, sustained, and sincere attention given to the history of U.S. slavery, at the federal level. I think the discourse has to begin there even while state and local entities also develop projects that keep this past at the fore of public memory. Needless to say, federal dollars should fund, not a temporary commission of leading black intellectuals whose voices eventually blow away in the wind, but permanent public policy that funds long term slavery-related research and government, rather than individual, publication.

As hard as it may be to imagine, and as much as outlying initiatives like the 1619 Project function as a temporary stimulus to get Americans talking or arguing about slavery’s relationship to nation-building, I think the country’s many difficult histories can and should become saturated into the perception of who we have been as a nation and who we are today. Saturation of discourses around our difficult histories would be an end of presumed innocence and the beginning of something more honest. Until that time, every effort to treat these histories feels suspect in its relationship to economy–consumer, creative, and information. In some ways, I have been as hesitant as has been the family withholding its ancestor’s letters, hesitant to utter a word that leads the public to think that what I offer and what others offer as narratives of African American and American history are anywhere close to being a whole truth.

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