Four years ago, a vision came to Baltimore painter Stephen Towns for a brand new piece. He saw a black woman, a slave, feeding a white baby, against the backdrop of an American flag.
Using collected memorabilia, newspapers, census data and some 21st-century mapping software, a Hopkins English and history professor and his small team of grad students have traced the first 20 years of Frederick Douglass’ life in Maryland.
One-hundred and sixty years ago, infamous Marylander and then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney issued a ruling that Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who escaped his owners, was not a citizen. The decision furthered the detestable tradition of slavery for several more years before Abraham Lincoln abolished it. Yesterday, Scott’s and Taney’s descendants stood together in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis to make amends.
Our new secretary of housing and urban development had a rough first day on the job, earning ridicule from the black community, civil rights advocates and everyday people with a reasonable grasp of U.S. history for comparing modern African-Americans’ ancestors to “immigrants.”
The remains of a possible former slave were discovered during a development project on a former tobacco plantation in Prince George’s County were laid to rest on Saturday. The unknown person was eulogized by Rev. Cynthia Snavely, and the ceremony was attended by “several dozen onlookers.”
Although there was very little information for Snavely to build a eulogy from — according to the Washington Post‘s coverage, the address consisted largely of unanswerable questions about the man’s identity — it’s surprising how much an examination by the Smithsonian Institution revealed. We know that the man was African American, that he had a back injury, that he ate a high-protein diet, and that he smoked a clay pipe. Factoids at best, but still.
Um. Okay. We know that local historical sites try to put on events that are both fun and educational during the summer months — you know, that sort of churn-your-own-butter activity that’s supposed to help kids connect with the past. But this one seems a little… misguided: On July 8 at Towson’s Hampton Farm you can be a “Slave for a Day.” In an announcement event with an awkwardly jaunty tone, Hampton promises to let kids “[e]xperience what it may have been like being enslaved. Work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes. Carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!”
It’s that last exclamation point that really pushes it over the edge for me. Clearly Hampton is approaching this from an education-is-good! perspective. Their hearts are in the right place. They’ve enlisted the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute to perform a ceremony to commemorate those who were enslaved at Hampton. An altar in the farm’s slave quarters will “pay homage to those who were in bondage,” and visitors are encouraged to bring names of their ancestors to place on the altar. And better to explore and interrogate the history of slavery than to ignore it, as so many of these graceful old mansion museums tend to do. (Take a tour of Oak Alley outside New Orleans to see what I mean.)
Still, the inescapable and brutal fact of slavery was that it wasn’t for a day. No, “carry[ing] buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!” will be nothing like “what it may have been like to be enslaved.” Some things are too profound to playact, it seems to me.
Documentary film “Slavery By Another Name” brings to light a period of history when many negative stereotypes about blacks—some that are still with us—were born. Next Tuesday, May 22, the film will have a screening MICA’s Brown Center at 7 p.m.
Pulitzer Prize-winner and Wall Street Journal senior writer Douglas Blackmon produced the film based on his research. He will join the screening for a discussion, along with Sharon Malone and Susan Burnore, two descendants who are featured in the film. Actor Laurence Fishburne narrates the movie.
The film explores how, after slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African-Americans were pulled back into forced labor. The movie spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled “neoslavery” to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and re-enactments in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators and includes interviews with their descendants living today. The program also features interviews with Blackmon and with leading scholars.
They’re everywhere these days, it seems — the undead, we mean. Shambling through AMC’s gory drama The Walking Dead; drooling all over poor Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But, um, why?
If you asked my little brother, he’d probably roll his eyes and say “because they’re cool.” But English professor Jared Hickman of Johns Hopkins has an answer that’s a bit more academic than that: “I do think that, historically speaking, the zombie narrative can perform a sort of critique in an especially hard-hitting way. It represents this loss of autonomy that we as human beings understandably fear.”
Bishop’s main area of zombie interest predates the current craze by a couple of centuries. He studies the cultures of Atlantic slavery and slave rebellions in the 18th and 19th centuries; turns out that the word “zombie” comes from West Africa, translated through various Caribbean Creoles. But Hickman has a take on today’s zombies, too:
“I think it is interesting in the post-Romero zombie invasion narrative that the threat is not so pressing that certain conditions of social life can’t be re-created. There’s the possibility of boarding up the house and, at least for a while, holding it off. You don’t need special knowledge or silver bullets. You just need to be able to whack them on the head. So particular to the genre is this possibility that human beings may return to social life after the attack—and all the fascinating questions that go with that. Can we go back to what we had before? Should we go back to what we had before?”
Hickman taught his first undergraduate seminar on zombies this fall. We’d love to read some of those term papers.