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.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Facebook Memorials Revisited

In a brilliant essay in this week's The New York Review of Books, "In the World of Facebook,"

Charles Peterson considers the class dimension of Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. He charts the increasing "suburbanization" of Facebook, which began as an on line micro gated community in a Harvard dorm room and which has retained qualities akin to a standardized, highly regulated middle class suburban housing development, characterized by regularized layout, predictable presentations of self, a repressed sense of alienation from one's interlocutors, and multiple forms of soft surveillance. This he contrasts to MySpace's "more permissive atmosphere and working class aesthetic." Peterson characterizes Facebook's founder, Zuckerberg, as "the Robert Moses of the Internet, bring severe order to a chaotic millieu."

Although Petersen doesn't discuss memorial sites on Facebook, or Foucault for that matter, his insights could presumably be extended to the subtle disciplining of mourning and memorialization on line. My graduate student Alicia Watkins has written insightfully on how Facebook manages memorial pages for its dead members. They tend to be strictly regulated, limited to those who were already "friends" at the time of the person's death. Building on Petersen's landscape analogy, one might view these sites as akin to well manicured suburban cemetery plots, in which all signs of irregular memorial action (overly large bouquets or handmade signs) are quickly removed.

A puzzling exception (that might "prove the rule) would seem to be the Facebook profile page on ten year old Holocaust victim Henio Zytomirski, (born 1933l died in Majdanek) in which the dead child had been "friended" by thousands of well wishers. Since my January 23 post about this page, the AP ran an excellent news story (by MONIKA SCISLOWSKA and VANESSA GERA) on the site, in which several scholars, including me, are quoted:

The story seem to been picked up by scores of news sites around the world. Within hours of the story's posting on February 4, however, the Henio Facebook site disappeared. One presumes it was taken down by Facebook, since, strictly speaking the policy holds that dead persons cannot have active profiles. (They can however have "fan" pages or memorialized pages). Yet by February 6 Henio's Facebook page was once again active. As of this morning Henio has 4,985 "friends". The postings on the wall once again mix the kitschy, the banal, and the moving, many of them in accordance with Facebook's pre-selected options: He has been "hit with delicious chocolate pudding" and invited to throw the food back, and sent Valentine's Gifts. (Another "friend" cautions those who would sent Valentine's gifts to first read the wikipedia account of the Strasbourg pogrom on Feb 14, 1349, in which hundreds of Jews were killed.) [I should note the insightful point by anthropologist Joy Sather-Wagstaff, quoted in the AP story, that these gifts are comparable to offerings left by the bereaved at gravesites or memorials.] Another friend posts, "Little Henio, I hope there is an afterlife where you get to enjoy all the things the rest of us take for granted."

The earlier history of Henio's wall, prior to the February 6 reappearance, appears to have been deleted.

I am unsure of the 'back story' behind the temporary disappearance and reinstitution of the Henio profile page. Was there a popular groundswell by Henio's supporters, pressuring Facebook to restore the site? Or did the page's organizers themselves temporarily remove it following the AP story's publicity, and then restore it?

Such are the mysteries of memorialization on line. I'm not sure if this recent history is entirely consistent with Petersen's model of Facebook as consistent with top-down disciplinary urban/suburban planning. It would seem that memorial on line spaces to some extent open up breaches in the conventional order of things, perhaps allowing for a healthy re-invigoration of chaos, imagination, and cultural creativity.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Phillis Wheatley and Augmented Reality

In the course I'm teaching this term at Harvard, my students and I are still trying to conceptualize how we might organize various materials on slavery associated with history of the university in a visually stimulating way, in an exhibition in Pusey library cases as well as, perhaps, through some sort of Augmented Reality (AR) smart phone interface (along the lines discussed in my previous post). The students are especially eager to explore the experiences of enslaved women associated with the early years of the history of Harvard College.

We've been puzzling over ways in which to include literary materials. The other day as gathered in the Archives, we pondered Phillis Wheatly's famous poem, "To the University of Cambridge in New-England" (1773), reproduced at:

A scanned version of the first edition is at:

We couldn't help but notice that the poem was published in the same year, 1773, that Harvard students debated the ethics of African Slavery at Commencement. (The frontespiece of the book in which the poem appers, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is reproduced above)

It is a complex poem, in which the poet simultaneously engages in self-abnegation while presuming to preach to the privileged Harvard students about the dangers of sin and the necessity of living up to the privilege they have been given to "scan the heights/Above, to traverse the ethereal space.'" The poem nicely encapsulates a problem that seems to run through the foundations of the early modern university, that it on the one hand is a tangible manifestation of the Celestial Kingdom (a point made manifest in the soaring spires of the campus) yet rests upon all to human foundations of exploited labor. By "sin, that baneful evil to the soul" Wheatley may not specifically have meant the slave trade and slavery, but a retrospective reading might be developed along those lines. She seems to constitute the unseen body of fellow enslaved Africans as moral witnesses to the hypocrisy of White Christendom; the enslaved simultaneously gaze through the gates of the university at those who gaze upon the mysteries of the universe, yet the enslaved themselves sternly look upon those who sit in privilege.

How might one capture these ambiguities and ironies in a mobile AR multimedia installation? Walking across the Harvard Yale might one, upon gazing at Massachusetts Hall or another early College building through the viewfinder of an iphone, see a floating icon of Wheatley, and then click on it to read and hear her poem, read by a student? Might there then be ways to access student critical commentaries on the poem, or perhaps for the visitor to contribute her or his own readings?

Update: Plans are coming together for the conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" (Feb. 3-6, 2011) to be hosted by Emory University. We had a very productive planning meeting at Emory a couple of weeks ago, and the Call for Papers should be out soon. We had many exciting discussions during the day about ambiguous university responses to the problem of slavery in their past. I was fascinated to learn of the controversial portrait of Yale's initial donor, Elihu Yale, which depicts him being served by an enslaved youth. The University has removed the portrait from the room in which the Trustees meet:

Yet it doesn't appear that there has been a full public discussion of the meaning and power of the image. [By the way, I am struck by the constant insistence by those involved in the case that Elihu Yale was neither a slave owner nor directly involved in the slave trade; the matter is presumably worth investigating carefully.]

Augmented Reality and Cultural Heritage

I've just downloaded the Augumented Reality (AR) iphone app, "Wikitude" and am pondering the implications of this technology for the interpretation of cultural heritage. The app allows the user to view, either in Google Map form or through the camera viewfinder, icons linking to wikipedia entries for all points of interest in a specified radius of where the user is located. So from our place in West Concord, I can look towards the village center through the viewfinder and seeing a floating icon that I may click on, to access the wikipedia page about West Concord, listing its population and so forth. One may choose from a menu which 'worlds' one wants to see icons of (for instance, all Starbucks or Walmarts in the area, or all YouTube videos or Flikr photostreams associated with a given locale.) A comparable AR iphone app, "Nearest New York Subway" lets a person walking in NYC hold up their iphone and through the camera viewfinder see floating icons guiding them towards various subway stations. (so you would not need to consult a map, simply follow the icons to the station, assuming you didn't get run over crossing a street!) Other AR apps let one walk through a city street and through the camera viewfinder see icons leading you to restaurants, bars, night clubs, etc.

Note that this technology requires a smartphone etc that has an internal compass and GPS. This form of GPS only seems accurate within about twenty or thirty feet, so wouldn't be useful for navigation within a museum to specific exhibition cases, say, unless each case had embedded within it an identifying chip.

In any event, in Concord, one could imagine an Augmented Reality tour of particular historical points of interest. Approaching the Old North Bridge, one could look through the viewfinder to see floating icons linking to various websites of interest, giving historical information on the battle of April 19, 1775; images of historical engravings; the text of Emerson's "Concord Hymn"; the text (or a recorded audio version) of the relevant passage of Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere "
It was two by the village clock/When he came to the bridge in Concord town" (with perhaps another icon providing the footnote that Revere never made it quite that far!) ; photographs or videos of costumed reenactors; audio of the kind of fife and drums that might have been played at the battle, and so forth.

This would seem to solve one of the problems with outdoor cell phone based walking tour, that require the placement of signage listing the phone number to call, as well as listing which prompt to press ("Press 45# to hear Emerson's Concord Hymn"). Signs can disappear, and every time a new segment or prompt is recorded one would need to put up a new sign. Even if one has a printed brochure with a map and the telephone number and point of interest prompt numbers, that requires more concentration and initiative than many visitors are willing to invest. And a new pamphlet has to be produced each time a new segment is recorded for the tour.

But using AR all the user has to do is stand by the Old North Bridge, looking through the iphone or Android viewfinder and click on an icon to access the poem in written or aural form. The cell phone tour option could still exist, of course: I suppose that for smart phones one could simply have a floating icon of the cell tour telephone number to click on, and the phone would dial the number for you.

One problem would be filtering out all the internet noise, so that only historically credible assets would pop up on the screen. How would the user not be bombarded by all the misinformation on wikipedia, Flikr, YouTube, etc? Would this work by some sort of dedicated subscription service? There would need to be some way to geo-tag data bundles - so that when one looked west from the bridge towards the ride, one coud see a floating icon linking to information/images on where the Minuteman were advancing from.

Depending on how good the Image Search Function is, perhaps one could aim the viewfinder at the Obelisk (pictured above) and the system would identify it, and let one access historical information about it. This might include a selection, say, from Edward Linenthal's "Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields" on how the 1825 obelisk was later criticized for being on the wrong side (ie the British side) of the river, and that later on, in 1875, the Daniel Chester French statue of the Minuteman was therefore installed on the correct (ie. American) side of the river.

As always with mobile technologies, the challenge would be limiting the amount of text one needs to scroll through,and giving options for aural or video streaming that wasn't too long.

In any event, the possibilities do seem exciting for developing stimulating and informative outdoor historical and cultural tours through AR.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Slavery and Universities:Update

I'm delighted that plans are moving forward for holding a conference on "Slavery and Universities", most likely in early 2011 at Emory University in Atlanta. We keep on learning of scholars and students working on various aspects of this fascinating topic, and it will be exciting to bring so many of us together. To help with this process, I've created a wiki at:

As I start teaching a course this semester as a visiting faculty member at Harvard, I've been learning more about the complex historical status of slavery in Harvard's early history. I've been fascinated by the work historian Sven Beckert and his sudents have done over the past several years in a research seminar on the topic, including the enslaved persons owned by College President Wadsworth; the founding of the first chair of law at Harvard, endowed out of the slave-based fortune of Isaac Royall; a debate between over African slavery at Harvard's 1773 Commencement; enslaved persons brough north as servants by antebellum Harvard, and the story of the Soledad sugar plan plantation in southern Cuba, in which Harvard was seriously involved until the Cuban Revolution. I'm equally intrigued by the ideological implications (pro-slavery and anti-slavery) of scientific work by Harvard antebelluem faculty, including the well known daguereotypes of enslaved persons in Columbia, South Carolina, commissioned by naturalist Louis Agassiz, now held at the Peabody Museum. ( I share some sources on these topics at:

I would love to know if there are any traces of interaction between enslaved servants on the antebellum Harvard campus and the College's free African-American employees during this period.

More broadly. I'm curious if there are substantial literary references, in fiction or poetry, to the presence or legacies of enslavement on college campuses. A colleague has mentioned an intriguing passage in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; the president of the historically black college, Dr. Bledsoe. keeps a leg shackle from slavery times, as a "symbol of our progress", which he produces during his confrontation with the Narrator. Are there other such literary moment, in which memories or traces of slavery times unexpectedly erupt into a narrative set in the groves of academe? I suspect, however, that the more common trope may be radical opposition between slavery times and the world of higher education; for example, late in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Denver announces to Paul D. her intention to attend Oberlin College, which seems to signal her ultimate detachment from the slavery-haunted world of her mother and house #124.

Facebook Holocaust Memorials

At the recent 'unconference' at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum some of us had a fascinating conversation on the phenomenon of a Facebook site erected as a virtual memorial to the child Henio ┼╗ytomirski, born 1933, who died in the Majdanek death camp:

The case has been widely discussed on line, including this blog entry

The site emerged out of a series of commemorative projects in Poland, including initiatives in which schoolchildren and passersby were encouraged to write letters to the long dead child. (For background see:

Those posting on the site (especially on its "Wall" ) at times speak in the voice of the dead person, in the first person, recounting the victim's hopes and dreams, and sometimes the circumstances of his or her death. The issue of web based memorials has been of particular concern to the museum staff given that at times photographs of the dead (gleaned from the Museum's own website or on line database) have been appropriated for use on line without permission or proper attribution. There are also frequent concerns voiced that such sites trivialize the Holocaust, disrespect those whose lives were taken from them, or, because they blur the conventional lines between historical fact and creative fiction, unintentionally undercut the larger project of Holocaust historical documentation.

The postings on the Wall of the "Henio" site engage in some striking shifts in voice, as in this simultaneous implication of first person plural and first person singular positioning in a January 10, 2010 posting:

Henio was an eyewitness and a victim to the Nazis' actions. Because he was murdered, he could never provide his testimony. We try to reconstruct his life in the ghetto from survivors' testimonies, from documents, from knowing the history of Lublin during the Nazi occupation...

(The longer version of this posting, in English and Hebrew, is signed by "Neta Zytomirski Avidar," thus adding another authorial voice into the mix.)

In other cases, purported quotes by Henio are presented, describing events he would have witnesssed.

As of today (January 23, 2010, "Henio" has 2,888 Facebook friends. Some of the postings on the wall are the kind of saccharine kitsch generally facilitated by Facebook ("I just sent you a smile...send me one back," accompanied by a photo of a puppy), some flagrantly commerical ("Free Neiman Marcus cookie recipe"), some are oddly disturbing (a photograph of a child with arms outstretched on a cliff edge with the caption, "no other way now-Just Fly"). So far as I can tell no postings have been made by Holocaust deniers (or at least none of currently evident on the Wall.) A visitor submitting a request to become Henio's Facebook "friend" views the somewhat odd statement on his or her Facebook interface (seen in the screen shot above): "Henio Zytomirski. Awaiting Friend Confirmation."

The ethics and implications of this kind of site are complex, and well worth contemplating. For the moment, though, I'd like to note that many of the debated features of the site are not especially novel in memorialization. Indeed, for countless generations, human memorial practices have engaged in constant shifting between multiple discursive frames and points of view, speaking simultaneously for the living and for the dead, and oscilalating among multiple temporal positions. Consider the Massachusetts headstone pictured at,
which bears the inscription:

Rachel Cotton
d. 1808
Plymouth, MA

am erected
Josiah Cotton Esqr
in remembrance
of Rachel
his pious and Virtuous
who died Januy 17th 1808
aged 50 years.

In belief of Christianity I lived,
In hope of a glorious Resurrection I died.

Note that the stone first itself takes on the first person position, then the principal referent, in third person, is that of the bereaved husband (whose authorship of the entire text is thus inferred), and then in the final couplet the primary first person voice is attributed to the deceased. As Roland Barthes notes in Camera Lucida, such paradoxical forays into time-bending are especially associated with photography of the dead. Barthes presents a photograph of a condemned criminal on the eve of his execution with the caption, "He is dead and he is going to die." (Many of the postings on Henio's Wall specifically comment on his face in a photograph: that he looks like the writer's son, or seems beautiful, or sad; as in Barthes' example, the tense of these postings moves between past, present and future, anticipating his approaching demise.)

The labor of memorializing the dead, paradoxically, often requires that the bereaved ventriloquizes them or embody them, while also, subtly, gradually distancing oneself from them. In many African socities, the honored ancestral dead are held to be immanent in carved wooden masks which most be worn by living dancers--who during the performance embody the dead in the most intimate way possible yet who must come of this state if normal life is to continue. In a famous ethnographic example, analyzed by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, during Fox Indian funeral games, the dead were embodied by a "team" played by living persons, who were allowed to triumph over the team played by the living-- precisely in order to convince or trick the dead of the manifest fiction that it is better to be dead than alive. In some diverse instances, human mourners struggle to create ritual spaces and times in which the frontiers between the domains of the living and the dead are porous, precisely so that equilibrium between these states may be restored, in the interest of the ultimate regeneration of life. In his magesterial study, "Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition" (Stanford University Press, 1998): Armando Petrucci documents how classical inscriptions on monuments and tombs were widely understood as messages conveyed to the gods or the Divine, across the fragile borderlands of life and death.

It would seem that something comparable is going on in the case of Henio's Facebook Wall. Thousands of people log on in order to enter in to some sort of symbolic exchange with the Dead, to engage in an act of nurturing directed towards the other world. In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Jean Baudrillard famously argues that modernity is characterized by a progressive loss of capcity to engage in symbolic exchange with the dead, that conventional death has been gradually disenchanted and neutralized in sterile and secular biomedical settins. Only in the case of horrific mass violence, Baudrillard maintains, do modern persons as it were recover a sense of the energies once believed to circulate between the living and the no-longer-alive. The Henio Facebook site would seem to be consistent with Baudrillard's characterization: a victim of unspeakable mass, systematic violence Henio invites complex acts of symbolic reciprocity and voicing, as the ethereal medium of cyberspace is popularly appropriated to serve as a tangible arena for the intangible frontier between the worlds of Life and Death.