The North, Then and Now
With a lively discussion and hundreds of viewers in the virtual audience, the Q and A portion of “The Enduring Legacy of Slavery in the North,” the Radcliffe-hosted webinar that took place on October 8, was bound to leave some questions unanswered.
With a lively discussion and hundreds of viewers in the virtual audience, the Q and A portion of “The Enduring Legacy of Slavery in the North,” the Radcliffe-hosted webinar that took place on October 8, was bound to leave some questions unanswered. The event took the recently published To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes (Peabody Museum Press; Aperture, 2020) as a starting point, and many viewers made clear that they wanted deeper conversation around the contested Louis Agassiz–commissioned images. After reviewing the submitted queries, we identified some recurrent themes and followed up with the panel participants. Here, Kyera Singleton, a PhD candidate in American culture at the University of Michigan and the executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, provide further perspective.
What are students in elementary and secondary schools learning about the history of slavery and racism in the North? What can and should we be doing to better educate these students about this history?
Kyera Singleton: In my experience, students often learn about the history of slavery through triumphant narratives and important historical figures such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. Moreover, a lot of students associate slavery with a 19th-century understanding of enslaved life and labor rooted in the South. Thus, when they get to the Royall House, they are quite shocked to encounter a history that is situated in the North in the 18th century and looks very different from Southern plantations in which the main crops grown were tobacco, rice, and cotton. I think it’s important that we really help students understand that enslaved people experienced slavery differently based on time period, location, crops, labor performed, gender, and many other factors. Different does not make slavery in the North any less devastating, legal, or inhumane.
There are a lot of things that we can do better—but first and foremost, I think we have to provide teachers with more resources so that they have the necessary tools to delve deeply into the history of slavery and racism in the North. We have to teach about the history of slavery and racism in months other than Black History Month. And we have to ask some different questions: What happens when you teach the history of slavery through figures who are lost in the historical record? What happens when an enslaved person’s life doesn’t end in freedom? What happens when we understand resistance from enslaved people through everyday actions? More important, what happens when we teach students about systemic racism through the legacy of slavery right here in their home state [of Massachusetts]? These are all questions I think about on a regular basis as we are reworking our education offerings onsite.
I think people often assume that teaching the “hard history” of slavery is too complicated or alienating for students. Some of the best questions I’ve been asked about slavery come from elementary and secondary students. They make me sharper as a scholar because nothing is more humbling than having to explain what a primary source is or concepts such as resistance or agency. We need to give students more credit and realize that it is our job to make the material accessible.
How can we use objects with such deeply problematic roots in order to do the necessary work of teaching these histories, while respecting those they exploited and without reliving the violence that the objects represent?
John Stauffer: Rigorously analyzing and contextualizing objects offers a way to shed light on the historical moment in which the objects were created, while also connecting past to present. This is, I think, what To Make Their Own Way in the World accomplishes: it contextualizes the Zealy daguerreotypes from multiple perspectives in ways that allow readers and viewers to recognize the essential humanity of the subjects—Jack, Drana, Renty, Delia, Fassena, Alfred, Jem—while also showing how the past shapes the present. These daguerreotypes highlight the enduring legacy and influence of racism, which among other things is an attempt to dehumanize people. To ignore that is to relive and perpetuate the violence of racism.
KS: This is a great question. For Juneteenth of this year, I spoke with students from Medford who asked me why I would want to lead a museum about slavery, especially with Slave Quarters in its title. This question has stayed with me, so I want to answer this question thinking about the actual structure of the Slave Quarters. When I think about the physical building, there is no way to escape the violence of enslavement. Many of the artifacts that are on display, such as milk pans, in the building represent the forced labor Black women, children, and men were compelled to do to enrich the Royall family. The artifacts that allow us to tell a story of resistance, such as game pieces and amulets, are amazing—but I always point out that although these items represent resistance, we cannot forget that enslaved people were resisting the attempts of enslavers to strip them of their autonomy. Thus, I think we have to hold both the violence and the resistance simultaneously in order to not romanticize resistance or to make violence the cornerstone of enslaved people’s lives.
It is important for me, as a Black woman who is the executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, to make sure that people understand that our museum is a site of memory. I am invested in memorializing the lives of those who were enslaved and in working with our board of directors and community partners to tell richer and more complex stories, while never shying away from the history of slavery. We know so little about the lives of enslaved people that it is important that we preserve the Slave Quarters even if it brings up conflicting feelings for people. I don’t intend to shy away from the conflicted feelings that the Slave Quarters evoke. However, through research, educational and public programming, and community partnerships, I am excited to think collectively about historical redress for sites of slavery.
In the context of current discussions about creating new monuments that celebrate overlooked historical figures—particularly women and people of color—how can we portray people about whom there are so few records? With so many gaps, who should fill in the gaps, and what kinds of collaborations can make sure that what we present today is as accurate as possible?
JS: There have been some wonderful recent examples of artists commemorating historical figures—particularly women and people of color—about whom there are few records and/or no contemporaneous portraits. The Prince Hall Monument on Cambridge Common is one example. Erected in 2010, it commemorates the life and leadership of Prince Hall, an 18th-century freed slave who founded the Prince Hall Masonry and devoted his life to civil rights. Since there are no known reliable portraits of Prince Hall, the monument does not attempt to portray him. It consists of five polished black marble stones, arranged in a semicircle, with beautifully carved quotations by Hall and his fellow abolitionists, along with appropriate context. The monument functions as a kind of shrine, not only to Prince Hall and his fellow abolitionists and masons but also to the power of word and image, of protest, of the struggle for civil rights, then and now.
I hope that one day there will be a public monument to Jack, Drana, Renty, Delia, Fassena, Alfred, Jem—perhaps inspired by the act of recovery in To Make Their Own Way in the World. Such a monument, if properly contextualized, would capture the profound dignity and humanity one sees in their faces.
How should knowledge of these enduring legacies, particularly in parts of the country that are not usually thought of in association with slavery, inform discussions around diversity, access, inclusion, and equity?
JS: Understanding the enduring legacies of the Zealy daguerreotypes highlights how racism and slavery marinated every part of the United States, not just the Southern slave states. They were American institutions. As Frederick Douglass told Northerners in 1850, the same year that the Zealy daguerreotypes were commissioned, the “doctrine of human equality is the bitterest yet taught by the abolitionists. It is swallowed with more difficulty than all the other points of the anti-slavery creed put together.” The vast majority of whites, North and South, he emphasized, refused to believe that “a negro [was] equal to a white man.” Then and now, Americans remain divided over issues of diversity, access, inclusion, and equity.
KS: Speaking of equity, I have been dismayed by all of the reports of inadequate healthcare, rising evictions, food banks with dangerously low food supplies, and overcrowded shelters. People do not have the resources they need to survive or lead full and healthy lives. Some of the communities that have been hit the hardest are Black communities that were already struggling before the pandemic. How can we as a society address current injustices if we are still in denial about the past? I think that is where we start. Let’s be honest about our past with slavery so that we can confront its legacies.