“Enslavement Narratives” vs. “Freedom Narratives” in Antebellum America

Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858

Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858

With the release of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, historians, journalists, and others have begun to offer insights online and in print on slavery and freedom in antebellum America. In particular, significant attention has been paid to “slave narratives” like that of Solomon Northup. Such discussions about slave narratives published in the antebellum North have led me to think about the connections between these stories and tales of voluntary enslavement from the antebellum South (for the sake of clarity, I will use the term “freedom narrative” when discussing stories published by former slaves about their life in and escape from slavery; I will use “enslavement narrative” when discussing stories of voluntary enslavement)[1]. Though these stories have received far less attention from historians, their structure and the timing of their publications seem particularly germane to some of these recent explorations of slavery and freedom.

In an excellent recent post on the Oxford University Press Blog, Mitch Kachun discusses how stories like Northup’s were particularly popular in the years leading up to the Civil War, often selling tens of thousands of copies. He also notes that some contemporaries doubted blacks’ abilities to write these narratives, suspecting they were in fact written by white abolitionists. Though some of this skepticism survived into the twentieth century (as well as a recent New York Times article), Kachun emphasizes that “a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.”

While these freedom narratives have proved to be largely factual, it is nevertheless true (as Kachun notes) that abolitionists played crucial roles in getting these stories published and popularized. In addition, once published, freedom narratives were crucial tools for abolitionists, providing first hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. Supporters of slavery, of course, denied the accuracy of these freedom narratives and defended the institution as benign, civilizing, and of greater service to blacks than the free labor system. I would like to suggest, however, that not only did proslavery advocates deny the accuracy of freedom narratives, they appear to have attempted to provide a contrasting view through the publication of voluntary enslavement stories in southern newspapers. Continue reading

Pedro Romero, Race, and Respectability in Cartagena

For a few blocks near the Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad in the Getsemaní neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia, the legend of Pedro Romero lives. On the streets surrounding the plaza and its church, elaborate works of street art adorn the walls paying tribute to Pedro Romero, the hero of Cartagena’s independence movement for the people of Getsemaní.

Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the "Lanceros de Getsemaní"

Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the “Lanceros de Getsemaní”

Born in Matanzas, Cuba in the 1740s, Pedro Romero was a free man of color, likely of mixed African and European descent. Though little is known of Romero’s early life, he worked as a gunsmith and master blacksmith in Cartagena’s arsenal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and also ran a foundry at the entrance to the barrio of Getsemaní, home to the many of Cartagena’s slaves and free people of color.

In 1810, José Ignacio de Pombo described Romero and his son by stating “We have in the master Pedro Romero, and his son Stephen, two intelligent artists in this profession [Blacksmithing], or better yet, two intelligent men that the force of their genius…has elevated to a degree of perfection and delicacy that is truly admirable.”[1] As an artisan, Romero had significant contact with Cartagena’s white creole and Spanish elite (particularly in the form of military contracts), allowing him to establish a reputation for himself in Cartagena as a respectable pardo. Continue reading

Research Update

Since my last post, I’ve begun my dissertation research in earnest, which is why I’ve been off the grid for a good while in terms of this blog. For those of you who don’t known, my dissertation explores the ways that free people of color in the urban Atlantic World engaged a common discourse on race, freedom, and respectability—and developed what can be viewed as a “pan-American” protest strategy—carving out a place for themselves within their communities and nations against a broadly similar ideology of white supremacy, one that viewed the mobilization and civic participation of people of African descent as a destabilizing influence. To get at such an expansive theme, I am comparing the lives and experiences of free people of color in two port cities of the Greater Caribbean: Charleston, South Carolina, and Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Having already spent a few weeks researching in Charleston, I spent the majority of April and May conducting researching in Columbia, South Carolina, primarily at the SC Department of Archives and History, but also at the South Caroliniana Library on the University of South Carolina campus. I was quite disappointed to discover that the records of the Court of Magistrates and Freeholders for Charleston (where free blacks would have been tried) no longer exist, but I was able to find a great deal in legislative and court petitions, various legal documents, tax records, and other municipal records. In addition, the papers and records of various free black voluntary associations in Charleston have been particularly helpful.

At the end of June, I relocated to Bogotá, Colombia, where I’ll be living for the entire Fall 2013 semester. I’ve begun researching at the Archivo General de la Nación, where most of the documents for the late colonial and early republic period are housed. I’ve been working through early census returns so far, but plan to move on to criminal and civil court records, military and militia records, and a variety of other sources soon. I’ve also enrolled as an external graduate student at the  Universidad de los Andes, which will be my academic “home-base” while living in Colombia.

So that’s kind of what’s going on with me right now. I’ve made a lot of progress researching, but am still in the process (obviously) of really working through it all and putting it together. I hope over the next few months to provide more regular, and more substantive, updates on what I’m finding. One will certainly be coming this week, so stay tuned.

40 Million Dollar Slaves with Bomani Jones

This entry is cross-posted from the official Race Scholars at Rice Blog

Last week, Race Scholars at Rice held our bi-annual “Dialogue Partners” event, where we discussed William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. This session of Dialogue Partners was unique, as we for the first time had an outside expert join in our discussion. Bomani Jones, a writer and media personality who frequently addresses issues of race and culture in the sporting world, was kind enough to video chat with the group as we addressed Rhoden’s argument and discussed the issues raised in the book.

In the book, Rhoden argues that from the time sports were introduced to plantations in the antebellum South through the present, black athletes have been exploited and denied a place within the power structure of American athletics. Whenever black athletes are perceived to have gained too much power or to pose a threat to white cultural values, the rules are changed to detriment of blacks. In essence, the rules of modern athletics are rigged against black athletes to ensure that they are barred from positions of power.

Much of our discussion focused on the collegiate athletics system, and how it functions to the detriment of black athletes. One participant asked Bomani if he could discuss how college athletics reflects the “plantation” model that Rhoden describes. Bomani argued that in addition to not being paid for their efforts, the playing field remains the only aspect of college athletics that have been integrated. Coaches, administrators, the press, and the fans, all remain largely dominated by whites.



One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation for me, was the idea that perhaps Rhoden adhered to strictly to a black-white binary. Major League Baseball, for instance, utilizes a “conveyor belt” system to cheaply cultivate Latin American talent in a manner largely similar to the way the NFL and NBA lure black players from the inner city, with a similar disregard for the well being of athletes (see, for example, <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/baseball-dominican-system-yewri-guillen?page=1"the death of Washington Nationals’ prospect Yewri Guillén)



An aspect of Rhoden’s book that I thought didn’t really get enough attention during our discussion (not that the discussion of athlete exploitation couldn’t have lasted far longer by itself) is the unwillingness of prominent black athletes to speak out about racism and other social issues. While Rhoden may be kinder to historical actors than he is to present-day athletes, I agree with Rhoden that it seems to be a problem that black athletes don’t use their prominent public roles to take stronger stances on issues of social justice.

Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely enlightening for both sports fans and non-sports fans, and was, at least to me, one of the most interesting and successful Dialogue Partners to date. You can find the full video of our discussion on YouTube here:

Digital Humanities Grad Student Roundtable

This week at Rice, as part of our ongoing Digital History Masterclass, we did a Google Hangout with Cameron Blevins, Jeri Wieringa, and Annie Swofford, to discuss some of the limits and possibilities of doing digital humanities work as a graduate student, and where we see digital humanities going in the future. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to class or check in to the hangout because I was attending my grandmother’s surprise 90th birthday party/family reunion (I swear to god that’s a real excuse), but Caleb thankfully has made the video of the hangout available here.

The conversation as a whole was really interesting, and it’s always nice to get perspectives from different people, and especially fellow graduate students. I thought the discussion of the future of publishing was particularly interesting. This has come up in previous classes, but I continue to be intrigued by the idea of a “digital dissertation,” and when/if/how such a project would gain the same type of acceptance (if that’s the right word) as a traditional dissertation. The project also made me think about the ways traditional presses could move into promoting these types of projects. It seems to me that if a project was hosted on the website of a university press, it would have a bit more cred than just hosting a digital project on my personal website.

I have also been thinking about the ways that adding a digital component to a traditional piece of scholarship can broaden the exposure it gets, particularly in the undergraduate classroom. For example, I would say that I would be far more likely to assign Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empire now that the Harvard Digital History Lab has created this fantastic digital project that can accompany it. Finding a way to pare down my dissertation or first book into a relatively accessible web project like this seems like a fantastic idea. Making something like that available for free I think increases the likelihood people will read and become interested in your work.

I also thought it was interesting, and pretty clear, the ways that greater institutional support for digital humanities makes a huge difference. All three of these students have resources available to them that are not available, or at least not in any centralized way, at Rice, and they all seem to have benefitted from them immensely. Outside of this class and twitter, it has been tough for me to remain as engaged with digital methods as I’d like to be, which of course is a problem with self-motivation. One of the great things about digital humanities though is the way it is collaborative in a way that more traditional humanities scholarship rarely is. In disciplines outside the humanities, co-authorship and collaboration is the norm, and hopefully digital humanities is a way of getting scholars to work together more often, both for traditional and non-traditional projects.

Hearing about the exciting projects that people are engaged in and the opportunities it opens for them has once again re-energized me, so hopefully that will bring me back to my blog more often, as I continue thinking about how DH can/will impact my own scholarship. But no promises.

Organizing Research

If you started your dissertation or book project again tomorrow, from the beginning, how would you organize your research?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Time and again, historians and other scholars come in to speak about their research, and offer some type of lament about the way they began organizing their research when they started their project x number of years ago.  Whether their research is in some form that is inefficient to access, or they had to spend hours converting crappyprogram files to lesscrappyprogram files, I have heard from a number of different scholars over the last few years about how they wouldn’t organize their research if they did it again, or mistakes they will avoid for their next project.

No matter how much I think about this problem, though, I still can’t seem to come to a solution that I really like. For about the past year or so, I’ve been using Evernote, and really enjoying it.  Aside from being the perfect program for studying for comps, it seems to work really well for seminar paper-sized research projects, where I can have to notebooks, one for primary and one for secondary sources, within a larger “notebook stack” for that research project.  I’m not sure, however, that this is the best way to organize my research for a project as large as a dissertation.  Since I’m only now beginning my dissertation research, I really want to organize things in a way that I’m not going to hate 2 years from now (or 6 months from now).

In trying to use Evernote for the preliminary dissertation research, I’m creating new notebooks for every archive I visit, and then separating each collection I view into a different note, but the notes have become somewhat unwieldy doing it that way.  I feel like I need stacks of notebook stacks, but that kind of seems like it’s getting ridiculous, and that perhaps there’s a better way. The other major problem with Evernote is the way it organizes photos, which I’ll probably end up having a lot of, due to limited archive time.

So how did you, or how would you, organize your research for a dissertation or book project if you were starting today? Any suggestions, digital tools, other blog posts about this subject, are very much welcome. I realize that to a certain extent, every project is different, and should be organized in a different way, based on the types of sources involved (for what it’s worth, I’ll be accessing a lot of legal records, will have a lot of document photographs, and will also probably have to do a good deal of transcription). But I think to a certain extent, all projects of this size probably across similar problems in terms of research organization.

Paper Machines

Last week, I attended a workshop offered by Jo Guldi on Paper Machines, Paper Machines as part of the Digital History Master Class here at Rice. Caleb McDaniel has a debriefing post on what we covered in the workshop, and some thoughts on how we can use paper machines, but I wanted to offer some longer thoughts here about how I think I can make paper machines useful for me.

First, I think Paper Machines could be really helpful for me in the project I’m working on right now for the American Historical Association annual meeting coming up in January. I’m presenting a paper on the panel Manipulating Freedom: Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands discussing Texas’s voluntary enslavement law of 1858.[1] I will be analyzing how Texas newspapers (and southern newspapers more generally) discussed instances of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves as a way of analyzing Texans’ views of black freedom and the growing sectional crisis of the 1850s. One of my initial observations has been that when these stories are discussed in the newspaper, they are very formulaic, and often feature what seem like stock characters. Using a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, I could download OCR-ed articles discussing voluntary enslavement in Texas newspapers, and assess this general observation more systematically using Paper Machines. I’d be interested to see what kind of word clouds and phrase-nets these articles produced, even if it only functioned as a way to visualize what I thought I was reading in these newspapers.

Secondly, I think Paper Machines would be helpful as well in developing a comparative project like my dissertation. Even if it I used it to analyze secondary sources and journal articles, I think Paper Machines could offer some direction on fruitful avenues of research when going into what seems like a pretty ambitious project. If I downloaded to my Zotero library all the articles I will be using for my dissertation on free people of color in Cartagena, Colombia and in Charleston, South Carolina, I could use Paper Machines to see if my focus is in the right place, or if there are potential areas of research that I hadn’t yet thought of exploring. For instance, I would expect terms like “Haiti” and “respectability” to be featured fairly prominently in any word clouds, but perhaps there are terms I wouldn’t expect as well. Further, since the concept of respectability will play such a central role in my argument, it would be really interesting to see what kind of terms and ideas are connected to respectability (using phrase nets and topic modeling) both when the articles on both regions are analyzed together, as well as when Cartagena and Charleston are analyzed separately. I would likely have to separate out articles in Spanish from the articles in English, although keeping them together could perhaps still work if I was careful about analyzing cognates/false cognates.

Jo Guldi emphasized to us that Paper Machines is in a “pre-Alpha” stage, so I look forward to exploring what Paper Machines can do as she and other programmers begin to cater it more closely to their research needs.


[1]I’ve written previously about my work on this law here (go back)