There are a few longstanding issues I find myself running headlong into again and again as I do this topic, and I am sure that they are not at all unique to my field or myself as a scholar. Some of them pertain to the topic itself. Some of them pertain to me as a researcher in relation to that topic. All of them occasionally make me want to throw my laptop out the window.
In the world of academia these “challenges” mostly go without saying, and it’s pretty commonly understood which ones don’t. If one intends to write something approachable by the layperson, in particular, it’s a good idea to answer the hell out of some them. Such as this one:
1) I am not (consciously) taking up the White Man’s Burden. As a white, openly gay Euro-mutt from a middle class background in the northeastern United States living in the 21st century I have . . . oh, let’s say nothing in common with African-American slaves. Therefore any “voice” I might give these people is interpretation at best and (potentially offensive) conjecture at worst. By the same token, however, I have little in common with 18th century slaveowners like the Royalls. I can understand their perspective as Westerners who embraced the concept of individualism (particularly a “self-made” man like Isaac Royall), but there the similarity pretty much ends.
The real trouble begins with available materials. We know where Isaac Royall was born, what is father did for a living, and when he decided to retire from tropical Antigua to a sylvan farm on the aptly named Mystic River in Massachusetts. We don’t even know the last names of the majority of the people who actually made his household run like the well-oiled machine it was. An example: one individual I am struggling to pursue is an elderly free woman named Belinda. A slave in the Royall household for most of her life, virtually everything I know about her is culled from a single document. In 1783, the year Massachusetts finally outlawed slavery, Belinda submitted a petition for a pension for her years of servitude. The petition reveals her first name, that she never learned to read or write English (she used a transcriber), that she was likely originally from Ghana, and that she was seized by white men on the banks of the Volta. It also reveals that she was mad as hell. A second petition tells us that her suit was successful but required subsequent action in order for her to get paid.
In short, against the backdrop of scores upon scores of information about her masters, the information we have on Belinda is just enough to be tantalizing. If the narratives I construct for the Royalls are wanting, I’m sure Belinda would be rolling in her grave if she had any idea of the picture I’ve formed of her in my mind’s eye. I can only dream of doing her experience justice.
2) Northern slaves were not happy slaves. You may have noticed that this is a theme I’ve returned to time and time again. I hope that this would go without saying but, which a nation with as long and sordid a racist history as the states, I find myself amidst landmines aplenty. The fact of the matter is that there were substantial structural differences between Northern and Southern slavery. As mentioned earlier the North never had anything remotely resembling the large-scale plantation economies of the South. Anyone who has ever tried to plant a garden in Massachusetts can vouch for the fact that soil up here is more rock than . . . well . . . soil. Slaves therefore tended to work closer to their masters in more specialized roles. Before they turned to abolition New England Quakers tended to advocate for as gentle treatment as possible. Moreover, the fact that New England remained 95% white throughout the colonial era meant that Northern blacks were more quickly assimilated into European cultural forms.
This does not come even close to exculpating Northern masters. If anything, it adds a particularly troubling insidiousness to the institution, not to mention an all-too-easy whitewashing (pun intended). Indeed, the major point of this project is to get past Isaac Royall’s persona as a “benevolent patriarch, family man and master” to what he may have actually been like. Besides, the simple fact is that owning a human being is . . . well, owning a human being. It’s vicious, dehumanizing, and completely independent of geography.
3) There is nothing new under the sun. I hope that sentence is false, by the way.
I could regurgitate information about names, dates, birthdays and artifacts. I could squalk about how slavery existed “up here in the north,” even in liberal “why the hell did we elect Scott Brown” Massachusetts. So what? We know all that. If I’m going to make a serious and concerted research effort I need to say something new.
It should be, ideally, anthropology-ey (hence my tracking down of Chan’s book). Or, at the very least, social science-ey. I welcome any and all recommendations from the three of you who may be reading this blog.