If there is any concept that has survived the post-structuralism juggernaut within Anthropology it is bipolar opposition. Claude Levi-Strauss, considered by many to be the primary founding figure of American Anthropology, posited that life — particularly cultural life — consists of trying to bridge the gap between dichotomies. Good versus evil, body versus mind (or soul), earth versus heaven . . . the list goes on and on. Similar dichotomies are found within the field itself, frequently reflected in academic jargon: objectivity versus subjectivity, macro versus micro . . . again, the list goes on and on.
Why do I mention dichotomies? Well, for starters, they can help us explore the subtleties in everyday life. At the Royall House, for example. In this way anthropologists can truly become what Peter Segel of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me terms “scholars of the obvious.”
In 2000 a Boston University archeologist named Alexandra Chan began digging up the Royall House grounds. Thanks to the olde tymie practice of pretty much just throwing refuse out the window and letting the earth build up around it Chan and her team found thousands upon thousands of artifacts at the site reflected the day to day life of the Royalls and their slaves. The contrast can be fairly stark.
To begin with, recall the doors. For the Royalls, not one but two grand entryways flanked by Ionic columns and pediments. For the slaves, a tiny functional door that “just happened” to be on the mostly windowless side of the house. One is ceremonial and meant to inspire. The other one is utilitarian and designed to make its users enter and exit mostly unseen like helpful ghosts.
It may also be useful to examine some of the artifacts on display in what are now the slave quarters:
So we have various odds and ends, most of them decorate to some degree. Note the various drinking vessels (goblets, glasses, cups). Note how said drinking vessels are either of cut class or painted. These are also only a handful of what the Royalls owned.
Anyways, it’s likely not exactly an earth-shattering thing to say that Isaac Royall sought to impress his guests with his wealth. As mentioned many a time he was not born into money and was therefore compelled to “perform” success in a self-conscious mode. Having approximately eight million and one fancy shmancy things to show off helps one do that. However, digging a little deeper (pun intended) look again at the ceramic, hand-painted cup. That cup was likely used to drink chocolate, an imported luxury. Some of the fragments in the case were likely sugar cellars of the kind the Royalls and their friends back on Antigua grew on their plantations (and were harvested by slaves). These imports weren’t just tasty dietary supplements the colonials were quickly becoming addicted to (and addicted they were). They were ways of showing that Isaac Royall had “been there.” He had explored and discovered and struck it rich. He had come, seen and conquered. The bounty of the Triangle Trade had been unearthed.
Using aesthetics to convey the “progress” made by colonial powers and slavers was not a new practice. Take a look at this painting, a portrait from the 17th century of the Duchess of Portsmouth:
It’s somewhat difficult to make out but note the bowl of fruit the young slave lifts towards her Mistress. Like her homeland, the slave “offers up” a plate of bounty. It demonstrates that the West, exemplified by the Mistress, has “been there” and reaped the benefits. Along the lines of an earlier discussion of slaves as pets, note the collar around the slave’s neck and lap dog-esque positioning. As in Oroonoko race has become gendered. The slave is an adornment for a person chiefly intended as an adornment. Meta-male gaze!
In the meantime, what are some of the slave artifacts Chan unearthed?
Chan, in her book about the Royall House dig (Slavery in the Age of Reason) claims that artifacts such as these reflected attempts by slaves to ritualistically make sense of their new, horrific condition. The arrowhead at the top of the display case, likely found on the property itself, was repurposed into a charm. Likewise with the pottery shards. Many of these charms, interestingly enough, display Akan (Ghanan) influences. Considering my prior research into the influence the Akan trickster figure Ananse likely had on Br’er Rabbit, the presence of Akan slaves in New England is something I’d be interested in investigating further.
Returning to the subject of traditional uses for foreign materials, perhaps these charms were intended to ward off the myriad unforeseen hazards involved in slavery. Perhaps they were a way to help the newly enslaved Africans endure. According to Chan, whatever their purpose, they marked a period of involuntary geographic recalibration. The slaves were slowly becoming African Americans.
So here we’ve taken a somewhat closer glimpse beneath the veil of the Royall House dichotomy; the ceremonial life-lived-to-impress of the Royalls, and the utilitarian life-lived-in-the-shadows of the slaves. The latter life, in particular, is belied by a struggle to make sense of a new situation. I continue on my quest to bring something new to the debate.