Black Women’s Voices and the Archive

Belle Meade Plantation in Belle Meade, Davidson County, Tennessee, United States. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1886, Charles Dudley Warner, a Massachusetts-born writer, traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to learn about the Southern way of life. Soon after arriving, Warner received an invitation from William Giles Harding and William Hicks Jackson to visit their home, Belle Meade, one of the most profitable and famous plantations in Tennessee. Known for its exquisite displays of Southern hospitality, Warner knew of nowhere better to research the South’s customs and people. In particular, it seemed like the best place to catch a glimpse of the South’s legendary “mammies.”

After Warner asked to see a “real Southern Mammy,” Jackson summoned Susanna McGavock Carter. When the small, gray-haired, light-skinned Black woman entered the room, Warner stared at her, captivated. He asked Carter what she thought about freedom, and, according to his account, she replied: “The hardest days I have known have been in these years of freedom. I never knew what work was nor what anxiety was when I had old master to provide for me and mine.” Later, when asked about his visit to the South, Warner exclaimed: “the colored woman Susanna I met at General Harding’s was the most remarkable thing I saw in the South.” 1

I was immediately skeptical of Carter’s response in light of the larger contexts of a post-slavery and post-Reconstruction South where Black people constantly deployed deference as a shield against racial violence. My question then became, how do we read these sources and restore their voices? In my own research, I’ve attempted to flesh out Susanna McGavock Carter’s life through an intersectional and interactive methodology: questioning, analyzing, and reinterpreting the sources in the archive and stories echoed at places like Belle Meade. I’ve asked myself: what were the thoughts running through her head when Warner asked her about freedom? How did she conceptualize freedom? How did she experience both slavery and freedom as an enslaved and eventually working-class Black woman? Looking past and through what her owners, employers, and other white people have written and said about her, what is Susanna McGavock Carter trying to tell me?

As a woman household worker in slavery and freedom, Carter likely saw, heard, or experienced sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological violence that would have had a lasting impact on her. As someone who suffered family separation earlier in life, she intensely feared it happening to her own family and community at Belle Meade.2 While General William Giles Harding detested any form of enslaved music, “the soft singing voices of the Negroes as they plodded home from work” consistently filled the air at Belle Meade.3 Enslaved people sang music infused with prospects of freedom, pleasure, possibility, and defiance, and Carter possibly joined or listened intently, in harmony with her fellow enslaved people.

Susanna McGavock Carter c. 1880 (Belle Meade Plantation)

After emancipation, she moved away from Belle Meade and created a home away from the surveillance of white people. By at least 1879, she was not a contracted worker at Belle Meade, instead choosing temporary, part-time work in an attempt to control her own labor and truly enjoy the promises of freedom.4 As evidenced by these actions, Carter did not detest freedom but reveled in it. She was not the woman Warner described.

Herein lies the problem within the archive. In identifying this tension between the realities and histories of marginalized people and their historical interpretations and productions, we must ask ourselves how to define the archive to determine its potential harm. Empirically, the archive appears as a set of sources documenting the past. However, because these sources have innate biases that dictate our historical knowledge, we must reconsider what should or should not constitute the archive.

Sources written by white people, like Warner, can dominate the process of the creation of historical knowledge about marginalized people, distorting and silencing their realities. So, while the archive may not include sources directly written by Black people, they include sources that illustrate their presence or emphasize their absence, allowing us to eke out their truth. The archive must not only include the sources that document the past, but also include a significant attempt at the interpretation of the sources and recognition of the harm that they can contain.

So, while placing Carter’s words to Warner within her broader biography reveals the play of power and Carter’s true perspective on freedom, we observe that Carter’s own feelings and words are obscured and dismissed. The epistemic violence perpetuated against Black women within the archive influences and dictates how we consume and reproduce historical knowledge in public settings like Belle Meade. For Carter, the mammy trope superimposes itself over her lived reality, silencing her voice and leaving us with a distorted, mythologized, and shallow fragment. Susanna McGavock Carter is an object, able to be manipulated by the sources within the archive to further an Old South mythology and, consequently, this is what consumers of history draw from. When these sources are reproduced without taking special care to unearth the voices of Black women, we risk perpetuating a history of Black women shaped by white authors.

Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because so few archival sources are written by or focus on the perspectives of Black women, historians have had to attempt to fill in archival silences to flesh out the lives of enslaved women. To do this, historians have to use and reproduce sources with fragments of these women, which are often written by white men and women. According to Marisa Fuentes, “enslaved women appear as historical subjects… spectacularly violated, objectified, disposable, hypersexualized, and silenced.” Archival sources are thus dangerous because they reproduce the violence and subjugation of slavery by leaving the fragments of Black women in whatever image the white authors desired. This results in both the perpetuation of the lived experiences of Black women, such as subjugation, violence, mutilation, and silencing, and can also result in the romanticization of slavery.

So, while the sources within the archive and the reproduction of these sources can inflict what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls epistemic violence, which reproduces the lived subjugation and silencing of enslaved and free(d) Black women, by seeing these women as historical actors, we can allow them to speak for themselves. Through this process of historical production, we, as historians and consumers of history, become responsible for contesting the reproduction of their lived conditions. We can reconsider their victories, hopes, feelings, and thoughts to gain a fuller, more complex understanding of the lives of Black women. We must center Black women’s own voices in their own stories, knowing that, as Fuentes writes, “we cannot redeem or rescue them, but we can reconsider their pain.”

The tours at Belle Meade Plantation only reinforce the problem of the archive. While Belle Meade’s Journey to Jubilee project aims to make Black workers a larger part of its tours, they heavily rely on sources written by white authors. Drawn from Harding-Jackson family history and letters, the tours not only tell myths of benevolent slaveowners and content slaves, but they also craft and distort enslaved people’s realities. This perpetuates epistemic archival violence that continues to silence the voices of enslaved people by relying on a history told by white people.

Carter’s story on the tour, similar to Warner’s portrayal, represents her as an unfailingly loyal slave who would not abandon the Harding-Jackson family even after emancipation. In turn, tourists, tour guides, and other casual history consumers accept this as a truthful history. This history draws from the sources within the archive, sources that are full of the voices of white people and often remiss of those of Black people, especially Black women. Because the archive silences the voices of Black women, it and the subsequent production of public history productions perpetuate myth and invalidate the realities of Black women, subjecting enslaved and free(d) women to epistemic violence.

Like Warner, I had expectations when I visited Belle Meade for the first time. I wanted to see myself in the past. I desired to see strength and complexity in Black womanhood—to feel intimately connected with the past. That did not happen. However, seeing and hearing the perpetuation of the “mammy” stereotype has inspired me to dig deeper into Black women’s history. In continuing to uncover their voices, I hope to further discover my own.

  1.  Memorial Book, pg. 16, 1886, Box 3, Folder 10, Microfilm Accession Number 842, William Hicks Jackson Papers, 1766-1978, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  2. At the death of her mistress, Sarah McGavock, Carter was separated from the rest of her family and taken to Belle Meade. Will of Sarah D. McGavock, 1849, Box 4, Folder 26, Microfilm Accession Number 842, William Hicks Jackson Papers, 1766-1978, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  3.  Sketches – “Belle Meade,” Box 4, Folder 8, Microfilm Accession Number 842, William Hicks Jackson Papers, 1766-1978, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  4. Cash account of William Giles Harding, 1879, Folder 8, Box 2, Harding-Jackson Papers, 1819-1911, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
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Halee Robinson

Halee Robinson is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University where she is double majoring in History and Political Science with concentrations in the United States. Her recent research focused on the lives of enslaved and free(d) Black women in Tennessee, which she plans on continuing in her senior honors thesis. Follow her on Twitter @hayy6747.