At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred.  This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.

I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.

 

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