“A Slave Family in the Old South”: Historical Reconstruction, Revisionism,or Something New?

Bernell Wesley History 3210 July 9, 2012 This is a recent 19th. Century US History “Reader Response Paper” Assignment. History Professors always assign papers that are inline with their particular specialties. It just so happens Tennessee Tea Party is pushing rewriting History. If Republicans win this is likely to happen. Introduction The primary argument, I believe, is that Sally Thomas could buy “freedom” for her three bi-racial sons, yet remain enslaved in pre-civil war Tennessee could not possibly be invented. However, this argument leads to a series of questions whereby such an invention might be contemplated. For example, the editors tell us the authors “have uncovered a remarkable story”. But, later in the book (Franklin, Schweninger, Sources, 262) we are told that John Hope Franklin became curator of the Thomas Documents in 1948. So, we are led to believe that these important documents remained in archives for more than five decades. The obvious question of course is why would such “a remarkable story” remain “uncovered” for 50 years? Another important argument is what might be called evidenced-assertion i.e. that although the Thomas-Rapier family was the “exception” they were not alone, because “Nashville offered good opportunities for a few privileged blacks” (Franklin, Schweninger, 14), and that there are other narratives just as exciting waiting to be written. If there are other similar unwritten slave narratives could exception be the best word to describe the Thomas-Rapier experiences or should rare be a better descriptor? The authors listed several examples such as Robert (Black Bob) Rentfro who owned a food and liquor business, Sophy, a free “mulatto woman and Temperance Crutcher, a born slave who later was able to “petition” and win her freedom in 1837 (Franklin, Schweninger, 14). Assertions maybe appropriate for fiction but employed in Wesley 2 historical narrative they lead to more questions, questions that are more distraction than (signposts) leads to uncovering historical relevance, i.e. – who were Black Bob’s suppliers? Did he make his own liquor or was it made locally by someone else? Who would want to supply a man of color? Again, why introduce In Search of The Promised Land more than fifty years after the documents were remitted to John Hope Franklin especially since the editor James West Davidson had been an advocate of “new narratives” (Barry Mehler, see Conclusion) since the early 80’s? The pervasive theme of In Search of the Promised Land was the introduction of a new technique of retelling slave narratives by reconstructuring primary documents using what I call secondary – primary documents (examples are court records, affidavits and other primary documents not written by the subjects) as narrative fillers, a mixture of biographical sketch written like historical fiction, first person bravado, and “detective work”. For example, embellishments such as telling the reader how a character “thinks “or allowing the character to speak with more believable authority than was common for the time, “During the winter I have spent several weeks in this the city of fires with A young gentleman who has more money than he wants and is anxious for me to help him use it” (Franklin, Schweninger, 166). This type of narrative could be considered Revisionist but in a different way, it allows the subject to re-interpret history instead of the historian; as a technique it shifts the burden of proof from the historian to the subject and allows the subject to redefine him or herself based on their individual experiences. This “new narrative” makes it possible to conceive of different levels of enslavement and freedom. Wesley 3 Sources Many of the primary sources were either missing or lost. Consistency in presentation such as numbering pages was also a problem as was identifying the author of the “partial autobiography” (Franklin, Schweninger, 262). Although it is recorded that the Thomas-Rapier Papers were given to John Hope Franklin in 1948, to be remanded to “a negro University” Howard University Moorland-Spingarn Research Center does not list them as a gift until 1957. Where were the documents for 9 years? Overall, the authors made use of a wide variety of “additional primary sources” in developing “interpretative breath”; probate court petitions, census records, state, local, and federal documents, almost any legal documents of the period, it seems, were rich sources of information. Analysis The most striking comparisons between In Search of the Promised Land and the Online Primary Reader Documents are found in Primary Source Document #3 in Agriculture and Slavery in the South at Midcentury. Virginian, George Fitzhugh, wrote in 1854, that slavery was a “positive good” and a source of Southern pride. James Thomas reflecting on his “travels in the North and West” also extolled the many Southern advantages he enjoyed and the utter “humiliation” he experienced during his travels with Andrew Jackson Polk; not being able to visit museums, theatres or other cultural venues or the fact that he was openly “ridiculed” in public; experiences that were foreign to him as a Southern free slave. James Thomas concluded Wesley 4 that he would rather live as a sort of free man in Tennessee than to escape to New York (Franklin, Schweninger, 78, 79). Conclusion There is too much incongruence within the narrative. Readers are introduced to “virtual freedom” and “quasi” slaves. Readers are given examples of virtual freedom through the lives of Black Bob, the liquor seller and Sophy, a wheeling and dealing “mulatto woman” but virtual slave is never defined. However, quasi slave is defined as a sort of privileged slave “who had not obtained a formal deed” of freedom. Hence, the ambiguity of freedom for enslaved people, with or without documents of freedom. The fact that James Thomas a “respected” free slave could be “summoned” by a white man and not refuse him his service is also strangely inconsistent within the narrative as well as traditional historical slave narratives. The mere fact that Andrew Jackson Polk could buy James Thomas’ property legally by force and “shut it up” is a stark reinforcement of the infamous Dred Scott Decision that Black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect. Can a narrative be invented or reinvented from primary sources? It is certainly possible. In order to better understand how In Search of The Promised Land relates to traditional narrative about slavery and why a “new American History narrative” was necessary I decided to explore the concept of “new narratives in American History” series by examining at least one of the editors of the series and each of the authors of In Search of the Promised Land. I chose two reviews of monographs in order to establish evidence. The first was written by Barry Mehler of Ferris State University Institute For The Wesley 5 Study of Academic Racism on ‘They Say” Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, a 2007 work by James West Davidson, one of the editors of In Search of the Promised Land and the second monograph was the 2000 Lincoln Prize Acceptance Speech by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger. As stated in my introduction Davidson began advocating “narrative history” in the early 80’s. Davidson’s technique in “They Say” was to write about Ida B. Wells without writing a biography. Davidson accomplished this by using an “epigraph” of James Baldwin, which simply states: “If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are”, in order to examine how Blacks redefined themselves after the Civil War and in so doing redefined white people as well. Empowered, Blacks declared that how whites had once defined them was no longer acceptable, therefore who whites said they were was equally unacceptable. Paradoxically, this “crisis” of American identity required a fresh narrative, a fresh collaboration. Franklin and Schweninger was the perfect couple to extend Davidson’s “new narratives”. Franklin and Schweninger had worked closely together since the 60’s. Franklin had even supervised Schweninger’s dissertation James T. Rapier and Reconstruction but neither had ever written a complete “full length historical study”. Concentrating on “runaway slaves” Franklin and Schweninger discovered something very interesting; most slaves escaped to nearby plantations, or remained in the same “area as their owners”. However, although most slaves never really “escaped” their punishment upon recapture was often brutal and “sadistic” (‘They Say’). Viewing some of the gruesome documents made Davidson “uncomfortable”, but instead of confronting his uncomfort, he, like most whites suppressed it. New Narratives in American History has opened the door to the exploration of the “psychology of white Americans (Mehler) especially in dealing with racial issues. Can New Narratives in American History be exploited negatively? Of course, but I believe the positive aspects of this approach just might Wesley 6 be the catalyst for the paradigm shift that can usher in the racial healing America so badly needs. To paraphrase a Biblical aphorism that encapsulates New Narratives in American History: new wine should never be put in old wineskins – Matthew 9:17.

Published in: on July 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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