Monday, September 20, 2010

Margot Minardi's "Making Slavery History"

Margot Minardi is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Making Slavery History reprints the title page of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects. The text below sets up the argument of Chapter 4, which concerns nineteenth-century white authors’ memories of formerly enslaved New Englanders. I argue that these portraits of free black men and women, while often admiring in tone, produced a limiting view of black respectability, one that emphasized humility, deference, and other virtues associated with femininity.

In significant ways this page (and Chapter 4) diverges from the rest of the book. Making Slavery History focuses on how abolitionists used memory—particularly memories of the American Revolution—in their assault on slavery. Most of the memories that matter to my story manifested themselves in public settings and related somehow to war. I examine the Bunker Hill Monument and surrounding festivities; stories in print and oral culture about black Revolutionary veterans; and John Trumbull’s history paintings, which emphasize martial values and gentlemanly honor.

Chapter 4, however, opens with an elegant table said to belong to Wheatley, the celebrated slave girl-turned-poet; it then turns to anecdotes recorded about free people of color, many of which center around tables. Through what I call “the trope of the tea-table,” these stories affirmed a restricted model of black respectability rooted in adherence to a rigid racial etiquette: the stories approvingly commemorate black men or women who declined to share a table with whites but instead (as was remembered of Wheatley) “dined modestly apart from the rest of the company.”

In its focus on private spaces, personal memories, and women’s roles, Chapter 4 differs from much of the book. But I probably never would have started this project had it not been for Wheatley. I was seven or eight when I first encountered her in a children’s book about famous women in history. Years later, when I began researching slavery in New England, hers was the first story I pursued. I was startled to learn that most of what that children’s book—and nearly every other published biography—had to say about Wheatley was rooted in one white woman’s reminiscences from 1834. Why Wheatley was remembered at that moment in time and in that particular way became the starting point for my study of how slavery and memory have shaped the history of Massachusetts and the nation.
Learn more about Making Slavery History at the Oxford University Press website.

Writers Read: Margot Minardi.

--Marshal Zeringue