Denise Miller

Denise Miller
2016 Hearst Fellow
Creative writer
Texas Township, MI

Research at AAS

Travelogos: African Americans and the Struggle for Safe Passage

My residency at the American Antiquarian Society as the William Randolph Hearst Fellow in October and November of 2016 was an invaluable, inspiring and career shifting experience. There are a number of things, people and experiences that coalesced to make the time I spent at the AAS and on its campus that made the experience as remarkable as it was.

From the moment I exited the airport shuttle and entered the doors of the Society, I felt welcome. In fact, that was my experience every day as the staff at the front desk, regardless of who they were, made every attempt to not inquire about my project and its unfolding as well as help me with navigating the Society and the city of Worcester. They connected me with staff, fellows and sources that helped me to deeply engage my project. They also helped to shift the “fish out of water” feeling I had as the new researcher in a group of fellows who already seemed to have a rapport and a way of navigating the reading room. They also seemed to care about my well-being as they encouraged me to settle in and get some rest after the flight and before I dove headfirst into the research schedule that would consume my days and most of my nights for the duration of my fellowship.

The staff in the reading room, specifically Elizabeth Pope, Kim Toney, Molly Hardy and Ashley Cataldo were instrumental in finding resources to help me in my ever-evolving research. They connected me with pivotal primary and secondary sources such as New York burning : liberty, slavery, and conspiracy in eighteenth-century Manhattan, The Stranger’s Guides and the Business records,; [ca. 1723-1880] of William Blair Townsend as well as county histories that got me a bit closer to my final focus.

Another of the wonderful aspects of the AAS Hearst Fellowship that supported my research and my well-being was having the opportunity to stay at the Fellows House. It is here that I made deep friendships, pivotal advances in my project and found comfort in the wonderful and thoughtful accommodations. Additionally, it was at the house that my fellow fellows urged me to consider a myriad of approaches to both my research and the final products that could result. In fact, their support and the talks around morning coffee, dinner plates and late night workshops at the house were so motivating that I during the fellowship, I continued to hone in on Freeman’s story and loosen my grip on my original plan.


Original Plan

Travelogos: African Americans and the Struggle for Safe Passage
In Victor H. Green’s introduction to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, he posits that "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.” While Green and others have long since stopped publishing their much needed guides for black travelers, black people like Shaneen Allen and Sandra Bland still do not have safe passage on the highways of this country. It is clear then, that we are not in the “near future” of which Green speaks and it is also clear that the travelogues that the news and social media writes of these travelers is anything but the traditional travelogue.

The traditional travelogue consists of a voluntary traveler or explorer’s (often white) voluntary movement through terrains of their choosing, at times of their choosing, and toward places and experiences where the traveler feels that anything can and is possible. The particulars are reordered throughout by that individual and are often based on interactions with land, animals and the people encountered. In contrast to the many early travelers such as Columbus, Lewis and Clark and Emerson that have written canonized travelogues, African Americans have historically been forced into mobility. From Africa to the Americas, from boat to auction block, from plantation to plantation— the slave trade and chattel slavery made up the fixed points from which we were situated on a map made by the cartography of conquest. The travelogues that document this early forced movement are the ships manifests of early slavers and recounting of travels by people in AAS’s collection such as George Pinckard and Robert Bisset, the narratives of enslaved people such as Douglass’s autobiographies, Thomas Smallwood’s narrative. It is clear in these and the account books, period newspapers, broadsides and business directories that we see the forced movement of the trade and with people like Phillis’ recounting of Dreadful riot on Negro Hill and in Douglass the forced movement of escape. In all of these instances it is clear that the logos or reason for travel is at the heart of whether or not the starting point, the journey and the destination are desirable or even safe.

Throughout this early movement, an in clear contrast, there have been numerous travelogues to document the so called “cartographers” journeys. The AAS has numerous examples of some of these earliest logs in its collection of New England diaries of white children and adults, clergy and house wives, political figures and teachers, and husbands and wives that help fill out the landscape of what it means to travel, settle and live any place as long as you are able to tame the land. Additionally, correspondence such as the letters between Daniel Grant and Caroline Burr in the Grant-Burr Family Papers, highlights the relative fearlessness that affluent whites were able to have as they moved from one home and place of safety through an unknown landscape to create a new and safe home in a place they had never been. The AAS’s numerous family genealogies also document the mobility and success of many white Americans from the Revolution through the Civil War. These, juxtaposed with the travelogues of those African Americans, both free and enslaved, draws a clear distinction between the kinds of journeys available to African Americans versus their white counterparts. It is in these early days that we see clearly the beginning of the struggle for safe passage of African Americans.

Through a study of the AAS’s collection of African American newspapers such as Freedom's Journal and the North Star as well as white newspapers of the period, one can get a picture of the social and political landscape that surrounded African Americans. This orienting was meant to cast us (first generation Africans in America to present African Americans), cruelly and strategically, across a landscape on which we were never meant to prosper. Even as we were moved from plantation slavery to the perceived freedom of sharecropping on those same plantations during and long after Reconstruction, people such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois debated if and how enabled African Americans to truly move, both literally, socially and psychically, in a society that saw us as nothing more or less than “the White Man’s Burden”. This effects of this are apparent in DuBois and Washington’s writings in the AAS collection. This perceived burden led to Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, segregation and redlining which necessitated protests, freedom rides and invaluable travel journals such as The Negro Motorist Green Book, Graysons Travel and Business Guide and Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers.

It is my goal then, to study the myriad of primary and secondary sources in the AAS collection, some of which are mentioned above, in order to fill out the historical black travelogos (reasons for traveling) in order to create persona poems from both white and African Americans from the earliest days of New England to the present. The goal of this manuscript is to make illuminate the historical intricacies and illusions of mobility, safety and community that has been a cornerstone of the American identity and also make clear the impact that the “cartography of conquest” has had and is still having on African American communities and on African American’s bodies and minds. This manuscript will take the form of travelogue and will contain the poems as well as my own visual logs in the form of traditional broadsides and other print media.


Evolution of the Project:

The resources at the AAS are unparalled and as an avid researcher, I had assembled a list of primary and secondary sources that I believed would fill out my research focus. As I began to explore the vast list of documents that were waiting for me on my first day at the Society, I sought out stories of African American mobility. The sources I consulted as I always remind my students when they begin a research project, led me on an unexpected journey that would not only occupy my mind and spirit for the remainder of the fellowship, but has also grown into my focus for an Interdisciplinary PhD I plan to pursue at Western Michigan University.

The original plan, Travelogos, and To Reclaim Humanness, the one that has my current focus springs from the same source, The colored patriots of the American revolution : With sketches of several distinguished colored persons : To which is added a brief survey of the condition and prospects of colored Americans. It is in this source that I first read of the court case of Brom and Bett v Ashley, a 1781 court case wherein an enslaved woman called Bett sought out a lawyer and sued for her freedom. She won the case and she, and enslaved man named Brom and two other men enslaved in the same household were freed. The family that enslaved them asked to stay in service to the family with pay. Bett, who took the name Elizabeth Freeman after she won her suit, refused to stay and went instead to work for the family of Theodore Sedgwick, the lawyer who helped her win her suit. Two of the other men left immediately and one left later, but all three men ultimately had to return to work for the family who enslaved them. There were many aspects of the case that excited me. First, the academic in me was utterly excited and equally relieved to find an early case of a Black woman who sued for her freedom and won. I realized that this was also a clear case of the limited, prescribed and tenuous mobility of Black people so near the forming of this country, happening simultaneously with the fluid and government enforced and encouraged mobility of newly American and newly white people. The fact that the men were presumably unable to find sustainable work outside of the household that had formerly enslaved them and that let them go only because the courts decreed it, was a clear indication that their mobility was constrained. Conversely, the fact that Elizabeth Freeman was able to refuse the Ashley’s offer, have some measure of choice in her employer and ultimately save enough money over the twenty or so years she worked for them was only possible, I believe, because as a midwife and healer, her skills were useful to the entire community.

Second, as a poet and visual artist, the creative in me found the fodder for so many creative translations of Freeman’s life story that I began writing poetry and sketching out a biography in either verse or prose. I am still exploring the products and projects that are possible based on Freeman’s story.

Then there was the Black girl in me who had grown up not hearing that 18th century Black people lived in the northern colonies, enslaved or free. Clearly then, I had not learned that one of them, Black and woman, sued for their freedom and won. Moreover, I did not know that an enslaved woman had sued for that freedom, not by claiming abuse, although she had been, but by instead asserting her humanness. In that moment, sitting at a research table in a predominately white institution where the founding documents were written by predominately white hands in a predominately white Worcester, I was reminded of my own humanness and I was also reminded that Black people had always been present and have always claimed space because we belonged. This journey led me to my current project, which has just been approved as my focus for a fall 2017 sabbatical as well as the working idea for my PhD project, To Reclaim Humanness. The explanation of this project follows.


To Reclaim Humanness
In the current discourse about African Americans considering police brutality, many of us find ourselves using the words “black bodies” to describe black people. Although this language clearly reflects the physicality of the overwhelming numbers of black people we see felled by police bullets yearly, monthly, weekly and even daily in this country, this seemingly benign act of separating body from breath or body from spirit is a revelatory reminder of the mind/body problem African Americans have been historically forced to reckon with since the first enslaved “negroes” were brought to Massachusetts in 1624. From these beginnings, a white power structure has always sought to make bodies out of black people and because of a racially rooted power structure set up to create and perpetuate racism, we black people have much too often had to reclaim these bodies that have been systematically stripped of breath. Our current striving in this country to convince that same power structure that black lives matter, will not keep black bodies from falling until we convince this same white power structure that we are black people and that the same animating principles that make them human are the same animating principles that make us human.

Historically, African Americans have made countless discoursive attempts to place ourselves in a family of humans as evidenced by Sojourner Truth’s asking the rhetorical question “Ain’t I a woman” in her speech posthumously titled the same and given at the Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio, 28-29 May 1851 or Frederick Douglass’ “To My Old Master, Thomas Auld” in 1855 where he states to his former master “I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons… You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bond to you, or you to me… I am your fellow-man, but not your slave”. However, the audience for these assertions so often attempted at the same time to erase black people’s humanness.

At times that erasure has been deliberate, clearly meant to establish black people as something other than human in order to codify a system that would never seek to positively place black people in it. This intention is clear in the case of Thomas Jefferson who posits in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785-1787):

The first difference [between blacks and whites] which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarfskin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. (Query 14)

At other times that erasure has been that erasure has come as a direct result of white people seeking to pedastool or make heroes of black people. This benevolent but misguided attempt is apparent in the descriptions of such pedastooled black enslaved women as Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bet) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Sarah Crosswhite in Marshall, Michigan. The description of Freeman by the great 18th century novelist Catharine Sedgwick in 1855 serves both to heroize and animalize Freeman as Sedgwick writes that “She had a sister in servitude with her -- a sickly timid creature over whom she watched as the Lioness does over her cub”. This statement serves to reify the images of other and animal that Jefferson outlines in Notes just 70 years earlier. This pushes these black people into the place of hero when in fact they are only attempting to survive in a system that as James Baldwin tells his nephew in his 1963 book Fire Next Time that “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto which, in fact, it intended that you should perish”. It is this pushing toward hero that pushes black people further out of humanness and further into animal and ultimately into other as evidenced in Lucy Stone’s description of enslaved Margaret Garner who was caught in the attempt to free herself and her family in 1856. Stone’s description of Garner was printed in the Cincinnati Gazette on February 14, 1856:

When I came here and saw that poor fugitive, took her toil hardened hand and read in her face deep suffering and an ardent longing for freedom, I could not help but bid her be of good cheer. I told her that a thousand hearts were aching for her, and they were glad one child of hers was safe with the angels. Her only reply was a look of deep despair—of anguish such as no words can speak.

Black people’s tenure in this country has certainly been a mythic one. The few blacks hand-picked by white people as heroes have suffered for their fame. This is because when black people are made heroes it has been and is on the heels of or due to some unspeakable tragedy of one or two or three or more black people stolen or sold or stopped of breath. To be black and hero in this country is to be black and mourning the loss of some family member or other person with the same black skin. In this country, black people can most often only be viewed as hero or villain or hero and villain. They rarely have the luxury of being seen as what is in between— human. It is this recovery of humanity at the point of the division started by the language we see in such foundational documents as Notes on the State of Virginia that will help me and my students to separate the mythology of human or animal, hero or villain, and get at the conclusion that Frederick Douglass did in his letter: “What you are, I am” and that is human.

I am forever grateful for the opportunity that the William Randolph Hearst Fellowship, the American Antiquarian Society and the encouragement and guidance of Jim Moran to not be afraid to let the project evolve and change, Greg Nobles assistance in the reading room and his check ins and conversation, and the wonderful staff of the AAS for this opportunity.

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