Monday, September 7, 2009

First Weekend of Nantucket Research

We're on the ferry now heading back from Nantucket to the mainland (or to "America" as some islanders call it) after a wonderful initial weekend of research on the island's African-American oral history. We were warmly welcomed by many of the island's specialists in African-American history, and very well looked after by our hosts Renee and Bill Oliver of the African Meeting House/Museum of African-American History. It had been great getting to know members of the small but deeply committed multicultural network of Nantucketers committed to researching and celebrating the island’s African-American history as well as that of other communities of color on the island. It has also been delightful getting to know my grad students Mengqing, Shasha and Yaxin, who are skilled, energetic and imaginative researchers.

On Saturday we worked primarily in the Oliver's living room, recording key community historians. The interviews were rich and fascinating, but at the same time reminded us how difficult it is to elicit usable footage for an audio walking tour (accessible via cell phone) through unscripted interviews, especially if the recordings aren't being done in situ. The problem is compounded when gathering accounts of historical events that took place well over a century ago; inevitably, interiews qualify their remarks with "I seem to recall, " or "check this, but I think...", all of which is entirely understandable when they are away from their books, but which won't quite work for a cell phone tour. We'll clearly need to work much more carefully with our community partners and historians in scripting specific segments, which can be read aloud by local people.

The richest footage, we found, were unexpected 'experience near' moments. Frank Spriggs described a potent memory from the late 1940s, when he was the only student of color in Nantucket's public school system. He got to play Santa Claus in the Holiday pageant. At the time, he experienced this as a welcoming and inclusive act, but only decades did it occur to him how telling it was that in playing the role he was required to wear long white gloves and white-face makeup. For white folks, after all, Santa Claus was, unquestionably, white. The memory, which he describes beautifully, should make for an evocative segment on the tour. (We're not quite sure where to place it geographically: perhaps near the high school complex as part of a series of memories on race and the school system?)

Frank also shared some fascinating memories of the seasonal community of African-American domestic servants during the 1940s and 1950s; during the summer the island's population of color would swell from under ten to several hundreds. On their 'free days' (Thursday and half Sunday) these men and women (employed by wealthy summering employers as chauffers, maids, cooks and so forth) would congregate on Main Street and on one particular beach. We'd love to collect more of their stories and include them in the audio tour.

Through a lucky break, on our very first moment on the island we met, on the dock, Mr. Michael Miller, a long time member of the island's African-American community. He directs the Nantucket Martial Arts Academy and is a Master teacher of Tae Kwon Do. He invited us to his Dojon (training center) and we did a great interview with him about his work with young people on the island. We are thinking that this might be one of the final segments of the tour, since it exemplifies a long term narrative on the island, of the creative synthesis of cultures, including East/West and trans-Atlantic exchanges.

Sunday was an extraordinary beautiful, windy early fall New England day; we attended worship service with the Olivers at the First Congregational Chuch, which is featured in Moby Dick (although it is not clear that Melville had actually been on Nantucket when we wrote the novel!). At the front door we were greeted by a woman in the congregation wearing colonial garh, as had her mother and grand-mother before her. (She's pictured above with Mengqing, Yaxin and Shasha).

Mengqing, Yaxin and Sharsha continue to be fascinated by the tragic story of Quak Te, a servant from China who was in effect marooned on Nantucket in 1807 and who committed suicide in 1809. He had been left behind by his employer, the merchant from Canton identified as “Punqua Wingchong” (my students tell me this is an improbable name) . We hope to work more on untangling his story and developing an effective way of including the narrative in the audio tour.

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