Saturday, September 17, 2011

New blog: Cultural Environments

Friends--With my move away from Brandeis University and the end of the Cultural Production graduate program, I've started a new blog, that will serve as a successor to "Cultural Productions." The new blog, called "Cultural Environments" is at:  is associated with Central Washington University's Museum of Culture and Environment, where I serve as director.  Please subscribe to the new blog; I'd love to continue our conversations on all manner of art and cultural phenomena!   I'll also continue to do some blogging on my book website,
on matters related to the book and issues of slavery and remembrance.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Supporting Lynn Linnemeier's Art

I’d like to urge the readers of this blog to consider a pledge of financial support, however modest or generous, to enable a really exciting public art project by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier. Called "Unravelling Miss Kitty's Cloak: Quilting Community Memory", the project honors the memory of the enslaved woman known as Miss Kitty or Catherine Boyd (c. 1822-1851), the principal subject of my forthcoming book "The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of the American South" (University of Georgia Press).

Lynn’s project also commemorates broader stories of slavery and liberation in the Oxford/Covington, Georgia and Emory University communities.

Her striking fabric-based sculpture builds on the symbolism of Yoruba Egungun masquerades, incorporating photographs, documents and testimonies from Newton County community partners. I’m really impressed by the work Lynn has been doing with diverse folks in the County, including the Grace United Methodist congregation in Covington, which is hosting a special worship service on Sunday, Feb. 6 to welcome Miss Kitty’s descendants back to the county.

Lynn's project is sponsored by the Kickstarter Foundation, which means funding is contingent on reaching a pledge level of at least $2,000 by February 1, 2011.

You can make a pledge to the project and see a video by Lynn about her art work, at:

(Kickstarter will accept pledges from $1.00 on up.)

If sufficient funding is raised, Lynn's art installation will be unveiled on the final day of the conference, “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies”, at the talking circle at Old Church in Oxford, Georgia, at 2:30 pm on Sunday, February 6.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Buffering the Dead

Last night, Ellen and I attended a fascinating lecture by the always marvelous Ed Linenthal on War and Remembrance, taking place on the 69th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Ed discussed, among many things, the transformations that the hexagonal Hall of Remembrance structure at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. underwent, from its original design by James Ingo Fried. The original design had envisioned a larger structure, encased in red brick, consistent with evocations of the Ghetto and with the red brick of the death camp evocations of the main building of the museum. This design was critiqued by the National Capital Planning Commission as too grim for a space fronting onto the National Mall; one commissioner even expressed a desire for a degree of "hope" emerging out of the Holocaust story. Thus, the Hall of Remembrance is smaller and in a lighter stone, more consistent with the alabaster tones of the nearby Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

As Ed spoke, an alternate reading of this design shift occurred to me. In addition to the avowed aim of integrating the museum into the larger American democratic narrative of redemption, progress and hope, might there have been a less conscious impulse at play? Might there have been a desire, in a sense, to protect the symbolic core of the nation from the profoundly disturbing and uncanny presence of the Dead, especially the millions of Holocaust Dead? I am reminded of the analysis of Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine by Klaus Antoni, who argues that the shrine does not simply honor or venerate the military war dead, but rather, in a profound if unarticulated sense, seeks to protect the nation of the living from the potentially wrathful influence of the unquiet, unsettled dead. Might something comparable be happening in and around the USHMM--are the Dead of the Shoah being honored, yet also be held at a safe distance, in a symbolic sense, from America's shores? Does the light-colored exterior of the Hall of Remembrance serve, in effect, as a protective buffer zone, guarding the shining City on the Hill from the darkening clouds of mass death and the Old World?

Ed also touched on the multiple iterations of the photographic image of Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields holding in his arms the dead or dying baby Baylee Almon, a young victim of the terrorist bombing of the Federal Building. In the weeks and months after the bombing many persons proposed memorial designs that incorporated in one way or another aspects of this endlessly reproduced image. The most intriguing and uncanny of these images Ed showed us was a sketch showing a skeleton kneeling before the fireman, arms raised as if taking the baby. In the image, if I saw it correctly, Fields is shown pushing back against the skeleton with one hand.

During the Q & A, we had a fascinating discussion of the image, which continued into the reception. My initial reading had been that drawing was a kind of raw and wounded expression of the terrifying presence of death, which was (as in the USHMM Hall of Remembrance) being buffered against-- but artist Steven Anstey thoughtfully noted that there was a quiet peacefulness to the image, that unlike the standard image of the Grim Reaper this was not an ominous rendition of death. Ellen suggested that the image paradoxically signals the ambiguous status of the baby, suspended somewhere between life and death, in a way that is reminiscent of Roland Barthes' mediation of a photograph of a condemned prisoner on the eve of his execution: "He is dead and he is going to die." Historian Roberta Wollons suggested that the image might show a sequence, first of Fields' tireless sruggling to save the baby and resist Death (pushing him away), and then the peaceful relinquishing of the baby into the domain of the Dead.

The image is rendered still more puzzling by the reported fact that the artist was filled with guilt and shame that his home state of Michigan had been a staging base for the attack. So perhaps his making of the drawing and sending it to Oklahoma City was meant as an act of expiation; this could be consistent with the readings of the image as a kind of ritual process of transformation, that the picture is a kind of sacred offering meant to ease the passage of the martyred baby from this world to the other world. I remain uncertain how to read the fact that the skeleton is shown kneeling in front of the standing fireman: is Death paying honor to the dead or dying infant and to the heroism of the Living?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Slavery and Academic Reparations

In recent correspondence, Simon Lewis (until recently, the director of the program on the Carolina Lowcounty and the Atlantic World at the College of Charleston) made the fascinating suggestion that as a form of academic reparations "Historically White Colleges and Universities" (HWCUs) should participate in a massive initiative of genealogical research, helping constitute an enormous database that would aid African Americans seeking to trace their lineages back to sites of involuntary importation, and perhaps to Caribbean and African sites of origin. I suppose this could be linked to David Eltis' Trans Atlantic Slave Voyages Database, at and the emerging names listings in the database at:

It occurs to me that this could be integrated with an idea that China Galland, author of "Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (HarperCollins, 2008) has been proposing: a national initiative to document and safeguard historic African American cemeteries. China has devoted years in partnership with community activists in East Texas to helping descendants secure access to one specific African American cemetery on private land; she is in the process of making a riveting film about this struggle, previewed at:

During a recent research visit to Augusta, Georgia, I was inspired by the activist research being done by Joyce Law, Travis Halloway and their colleagues in documenting and conserving the extraordinary cultural heritage site of Cedar Grove cemetery, an historic African American cemetery next to the better known Magnolia Cemetery (previously, the Augusta City Cemetery). The photograph above is of three United States Colored Troops graves at Cedar Grove, being documented by Joyce. A decade ago, my students and I at Emory's Oxford College did comparable work in the historic African American cemetery in Oxford, Georgia, described on our old website at:
Similar work is being done by scholars and community advocates around the nation, although often in ways that are rarely linked to one another.

My recently completed book manuscript (The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of the American South) attempts to integrate restorative cemetery work and genealogical research--in a way that is linked to a single institution of higher learning, Emory University. One of the "charter myths" of Emory is the story of its first president of the Board of Trustees, Bishop James Osgood Andrew, whose ownership of slaves led to the national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. For his white defenders, Bishop Andrew was a victim of northern intolerance and fanaticism; a great deal of sentimental white writing over the past 160 years has been devoting to his ostensibly benevolent care of one of his slaves, a woman known as Miss Kitty, who in 1841 is said to have refused manumission and colonization to Liberia out of loyalty to her white master and mistress. A memorial tablet erected to her in 1938, in the Oxford, Georgia cemetery, by a white segregationist remains an important site of local white sentimental memory. Local African Americans, not surprisingly, tell very different versions of her story and her relationship with the Bishop. [I explore some of this history and memory work in my on line essay

"The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University's Utopian Landscapes" Southern Spaces (May 2010)

In the course of all this mythological narration, the actual names and historical experiences of all other enslaved persons owned by Bishop Andrew have been nearly forgotten. So in the book I felt it was ethically important to identify as many of these enslaved persons as possible and genealogically trace their descendants. I was able to identify about thirty five people held as slaves by Bishop Andrew during the course of his life, and was able to sketch out in most instances at least some of their descendants. Among other lines, I was able to locate and meet the descendants of Miss Kitty, who reside in the U.S. northeast; members of this family will be traveling to Emory University and Oxford, Georgia at some point next year, perhaps to the upcoming conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" (Feb. 3-6, 2011) and our planned day of reflection and commemoration on Feb. 6. described at

I wonder if other colleges and universities historically linked to slavery and the slave trade might want to partner together with one another ( and perhaps with Historically Black Colleges and Universities & with the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society ) to develop some sort of systematic initiative around African American genealogy and African American cemeteries. Each school could start with research, perhaps in the context of academic classes, identifying enslaved persons associated with the school’s history in one way or another, and then work on tracing their ancestors and descendants. At the same time, these institutions of higher learning could partner with local congregations and other organizations to help document and preserve relevant cemeteries and burial grounds.

A good deal of such research is already being pursued by some institutions of higher learning, including the College of William & Mary through its Lemon Project (led by Robert Engs); and extensive research materials have been shared on line through Brown University's Commission on Slavery and Justice. I'm wondering what a national or international network of such research projects might look like, with an emphasis on making research materials easily available to the public.

Such an initiative would not ‘solve’ the larger conundrums over reparations by universities or by American society at large, but it might be an interesting place to start--engaging students, staff, faculty and community members in productive and thought provoking partnerships.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Slavery, Memory and Native American Histories

My essay, "The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University's Utopian Landscapes" was published yesterday in the journal Southern Spaces:

I'm really delighted by the job the journal's staff has done, integrating the essay and the images. Southern Spaces is one of my favorite journals and I'm thrilled to have a piece published in it.

By coincidence, I was spending the day in Oxford, Georgia, the principal locale discussed in the paper. In the morning, I gave a talk on slavery and memory for the Emory University Transforming Community Project's annual seminar, and led the group on a tour of three sites mentioned in the piece, Old Church, Kitty's Cottage and the Oxford City Cemetery.

That afternoon I participated in a meeting with the Oxford Historical Shrine Society, doing some advance planning for what we hope will be the final day of the "Slavery and the University" conference (Sunday, February 6, 2011). Our hope for that day is to hold several events in Oxford/Covington, promoting dialogue among scholars and community members, including descendants of persons who were enslaved in Newton Family and descendants of those who were slaveholders. (In many cases, of course, living persons in Newton County can trace descent to both slaveowners and the enslaved.) The challenge is to develop a respectful and thought-provoking framework for difficult dialogues about accountability and memory work in the local community and in the extended Emory University community.

Over the course of the day I had the opportunity to chat a little with Professor Craig Womack, an Oklahoma Creek-Cherokee Native American literary scholar who is now on the Emory faculty. He noted that the year of Emory College's founding 1836, was also the year of the removal of the Creek nation from this land. He has a fascinating lecture (also on Southern Spaces) on the historical relationship between African Americans and the Creek Confederacy:

Over the course of the day, I found myself wondering more and more how we might best to honor and explore the Native American dimensions of the slavery-at-Emory story. To date, I've certainly given insufficient attention to these dynamics and legacies. We do know that some of the persons enslaved by Emory College faculty in antebellum Oxford were Native Americans: one of these was Cornelius Robinson (himself born around 1836) married to the African-American woman Ellen; both Cornelius and Ellen were owned by Alexander Means, who was for a time the College President. Cornelius is recalled as "full blooded Indian" by some of his descendants, though identified in the 1870 census (Oxford) as "black" and in the 1880 census (Covington) as "mulatto". Cornelius and Ellen were the maternal grand-parents of the College's chief janitor, Henry "Billy" Mitchell. In a more complex sense, how are to think about the fact that the land on which Emory College and the town of Oxford were laid out in the late 1830s had so recently been inhabited by Native Americans, by members of the Creek and Cherokee nations, who histories and presences were largely effaced from local landscapes? The Native American presence, in a rather macabre fashion, is most prominently marked in standard local memory through the name of the stream that meanders through Oxford and Covington, "Dried Indian Creek," said to refer to a local Creek or Cherokee leader who refused to be removed, who was lynched by white settlers, and whose body was tied to a tree to dry in the sun. His story (which I am eager to learn more about) and the process taking hold of the land by white settlers that the story exemplifies, would seem to be intimately related to the symbolic and practical processes through which chattel slavery was imposed on Newton County.

I'm also eager to learn more about the relations (including marriage) between the long-surviving Native American settlements along the Alcovy River area, east of Emory College, and African-Americans in Oxford/Covington, in slavery times and afterwards.

I do not know if any of the Creek or Cherokee removed from the area that is now Oxford, Georgia were themselves owners of African-American slaves; that history may not in fact be recoverable. But the complex inter-meshing of Native American and African American histories, of the stories of enslaved persons and of the recently disenfranchised freedpeople within the Creek confederacy, surely intersects with the histories of slavery at Emory College and in Oxford, in ways that deserve careful thought and investigation.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Altars to Women of Color in Harvard’s History?

In a Skype conversation yesterday, artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeir had a fascinating proposal for students in my “Power and Aesthetics in Africa and the Diaspora" (AAAS 156) class at Harvard. The students have been trying to conceptualize an exhibition, performance piece and symposium honoring women of color associated with Harvard over the past three centuries, in slavery and freedom. Lynn suggested we center the project around three “personal altars” for the three 18th century women whom we are witnessing; all three women were, so far as we can tell, born in Africa, brought on slave ships to the Boston area, where they spent at least part of their lives in slavery. The six other women whom we are celebrating in the project (activists, artists, scholars) would be represented in some sort of dynamic relationship to these altars, situated in ‘conversation’ with their foremothers as it were. Our plan would be erect these altar like spaces at a performance/symposium event on Monday, April 19, described at:

We would read the words of these women and perhaps perform evocative music, oriented towards the altar-like spaces. We might include them in the exhibition we are planning at Pusey library, next to cases showcasing relevant documents from the Harvard University Archives.

Lynn’s exciting idea has gotten me thinking about what goes into an altar, at the intersection of art and exhibition. Historian Stephen Bann reminds us that in the early modern period, cabinets of curiosity, the forerunners of modern museum displays, emerged in a curious fashion out of altars; they were, he convincingly demonstrates, developed in the context of nostalgic longing by early Protestant intellectuals for the reliquaries destroyed by Protestant reformers. It is fascinating to think that at the heart of the modern exhibitionary complex, usually thought of as such as secular undertaking, the numinous “aura” of altar spaces might still endure, in complex and subtle ways.

We are trying to think through the politics and ethics of any evocation of altar spaces; we are of course wary of anything that seem kitschy or disrespectful of Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions. Yet it does seem right and proper, as Lynn has emphasized, to foreground spiritual dimensions to the project along with an emphasis on educational achievement.

What precisely might such altars or altar like spaces look like? There is a vast proliferation of altar and shrine aesthetics in West/Central Africa and in the African Diaspora that might be drawn upon for inspiration. One of the woman, Belinda Royall, was captured by slave raiders from her home region, in what appears to have been an Ewe or Akan-speaking community in present day Eastern Ghana, along the River Volta. That might suggest an altar space incorporating rocks, branches, pans, ceramic bowls, white chalk, and cloth. Belinda in her 1782 petition makes a rather puzzling reference to the “Great Orisa who made all things”: was she in fact conversant with Yoruba religious elements or was her childhood faith more oriented towards Vodun we wonder?

We are still puzzled on the question of Phillis Wheatley’s origins. Most sources state she was born in the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) or the Senegambia, but the slave schooner on which she was transported in 1761 to Boston, The Phillis (for which she was named) according to embarked from the “Windward Coast” (present day Liberia, Sierra Leone and part of Guinea.) In his book on Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. states that the vessel gathered “slaves in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Isles de Los, off the coast of Guinea,” and infers she was most likely a Wolof speaker. Whatever the spiritual traditions of her West African childhood, should the altar or sacred space also evoke the Christianity that she soon embraced in Boston?

The third enslaved woman, referred to only as a “Negro Wench” in Harvard President Benjamin Wadsworth’s 1726 diary. We know that she was purchased from Adino Bulfinch in Boston, and that Bulfinch was part owner of a vessel that brought slaves through Barbados, but we do not where in Africa she might have come from.

I am thinking perhaps that the most appropriate altar spaces might be centered on upright tree branches, with various offerings hanging from them. The tree has Christological as well as diverse African and Afro-Atlantic resonances, so might be an appropriately inclusive form. On Belinda's altar we would certainly include a copy of her famous 1782 petition, requesting financial support for the estate of her former owners, the Royall family of Medford. Phillis Wheatley's altar would certainly include her poem addressed to Harvard students, "The the University of Cambridge in New England." The altar for the unknown "negro wench" would include President Wadsworth's diary entry about purchasing her.

We’ll continue to talk this over in class, with Africanist scholars and community partners.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Art, Music and Remembering Slavery in Universities

I'm delighted that we have now circulated the Call for Papers/Proposals for the conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies", to be held at Emory University, Feb. 3-5, 2011. The CFP is posted on our slavery & universities wiki at

One conceptual challenge were are mulling over in planning the conference is the place of the visual arts and the performing arts in these observances. This is the kind of challenge many of us I think face in our teaching. For instance, the class I'm teaching at Harvard this semester has been fascinated by Wadsworth House (seen above), where President Benjamin Wadsworth resided from 1726 with his wife and at least two enslaved persons, the "mulatto Titus" and a woman identified in his diary only as a "Negro Wench." We have been assuming that the enslaved woman labored, among other places, in the kitchen, but had been unsure where precisely the kitchen was located. On Monday we were shown a closet in structure where the old bric kwall of the hearth appears to be visible; we will be looking at the excavation records for the house later this week and may get a better sense of the 18th century layout of the house.

In any event, this led us into wondering what kinds of digital projections might work on the outside of Wadsworth, or perhaps a more centrally located structure on the Harvard Yard, such as Massachusetts Hall. What kinds of images, incorporated 18th century engravings, passages from relevant diaries, or Phyllis Wheatley's poem to the Harvard students, could be developed as a projection works, to play on the walls of these structures at night? In turn, what might an appropriate soundscape consist of for such an installation? Is there evidence of, say, Senegambian drumming in 18th century Cambridge? Were sorrow songs or spirituals performed here during the period of New England slavery?

For the conference at Emory in February 2011 we are expecting that we will solicit a wide array of artistic work, in multiple genres. I would be most interested in seeing some sort of artistic work directly set up in the conference space, so that presenters would be encouraged to engage with it directly. We did this some years ago at a conference on the Mysteries, in which the artist Kevin Sipp created a latter day bottle tree incorporated elements drawn from the ancient mysteries and African-American bottle trees; that made for fascinating dialogue between scholars and artists. It would be exciting to do something comparable at the slavery and universities conference.