Memory, Memorials, and History
“On this Juneteenth I’m on a tour being conducted by Jefferson Davis’s great grandson.” –@heirofElijah, June 19, 2019
The morning started off okay. I had gotten up early so I could make it to the Vicksburg National Military Park. It was strikingly beautiful. The rolling hills were covered with lush greenery and peppered with memorials mostly dedicated to the soldiers who fought for the Union army during the Civil War—there was even one monument dedicated to Black soldiers.
As we rode through the military park on the tour bus, the man sitting across the aisle from me asked repeatedly if I could take pictures of the monuments that were more clearly visible on my side of the bus. I happily obliged; my inclination is to help and defer to elders, who comprised the majority of our group.
But then we passed the Jefferson Davis memorial, one of the few confederate monuments in the park, and I froze. I prayed that the man wouldn’t ask me to take his phone and capture the bronze effigy of the former President of the Confederate States. He didn’t ask. He stood up as the bus stalled and took the picture himself. I exhaled. Thank God.
Later, I participated in the “Antebellum Vicksburg” tour that was offered in the afternoon. The description was relatively innocuous. I study the period, and I thought I could learn something interesting or collect some anecdotes for the students in my upcoming Civil War & Reconstruction course.
From where I was sitting on the bus, I could see that the afternoon tour guide was a well-groomed man with thick whitish blonde hair, donned in a pale blue seersucker suit. His voice boomed from the microphone and he was clearly a veteran tour guide. The man in the blue suit exchanged pleasantries with those at the front of the bus for a few moments before he introduced himself. “My name is something something something Davis. That’s right, I am the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis.” Again, at my second encounter with this historical figure in one day, I froze.
I somehow felt the urge both to laugh and to cry, but suddenly I lacked the oxygen to do either. Then, I wanted to get up and leave, but I couldn’t move. I texted a few friends. I tweeted.
I didn’t hear another word from the man in the blue suit’s mouth. Soon I began to hyperventilate. I started to cry uncontrollably—full panic. I kept telling myself to calm down, but I just couldn’t catch my breath.
I had been on a trip through the Mississippi River Valley for a few days by then, and I typically sat in the back of the bus when the group embarked on various “excursions.” That day was no different, so I, fortunately, had a modicum of privacy as I gasped and convulsed. As everyone filed off of the bus into some very old church whose parishioners “worshipped amidst cannonball fire,” I stayed behind. I intended to go in eventually, but I needed to gather myself. I rifled through my bag and found my sunglasses—thank God—and proceeded to follow the group into the church. As I parked myself on the last pew, the man in the blue suit attempted to coax me to the front of the church with the rest of group. “No thanks, I’m fine.”
The pastor of the church began to speak, and almost immediately my thoughts were eclipsed. Soon, I couldn’t focus on anything but the fact that the man in the pale blue suit had walked to the back of the church and was now three feet away from me. Again, I panicked. I was convinced that if I looked him in his eyes one of us might not survive it. I tried to recall whether or not Baldwin had explained what happens when rage is ever-present with no subject to absorb it except the host. I was suffocating.
I left the church. Our bus driver was a kind Black veteran named JD. To him I needed to explain nothing. He opened the doors to the bus and let me back on. Referring to an exchange we’d had that morning, he said “You know, that’s why I had to ask how you got involved in this.”
The church portion of the tour ended. The group was headed next door to an antebellum mansion that now operated as a bed and breakfast. I was back in my seat in the very back of the bus, stiff, trying to breathe. The man in the blue suit boarded the bus to gather the stragglers, which included me and an older man who had come with his wife but opted to nap on the air-conditioned bus for the duration of the tour. When he approached me and asked me to rejoin the group, I politely nodded and pretended to search in my bag for some misplaced, buried item. He didn’t press me. The man in the blue suit turned quickly on his heels toward the front of the bus and returned to his audience.
When all was clear, JD greeted me at the back of the bus. He said he would take me back to the loading dock, as he needed to move the bus anyway. Thank God.
There are ways to prepare to study the archive of slavery. I might begin the morning of a day in the archive with a nice, large breakfast that will keep me full all day. I am sure to dress in loose fitting clothes so that I am prepared to sit for eight hours. I carry a warm sweater because manuscripts are more comfortable than humans in cooler temperatures. As a millennial researcher, I am almost never without headphones that allow me to passively listen to a podcast or playlist as I page through the documents I’ve called for the day.
The words and the scenes described in the material I receive are often violent, disheartening, and at the very least racist. I might make a note in my research journal of a particularly egregious document, take a few additional photos, or linger on the material a few seconds longer, but in most cases, I just pull the next folder. At 5 p.m. or so, the librarian or research assistant usually approaches with a polite reminder that the library is closing. I pack up my things and head to a nourishing meal. The luxury of it all is never lost on me. This is my job? Wow, how lucky I am.
The significance of Black history in a white world is often framed as an intellectual dilemma. Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, “Worldview wins over facts; white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.” For many Black scholars, this our raison d’être. We study history precisely to provide an alternative to white hegemony through the use of data and evidence that contradict the ideology of white supremacy.
In the archive, it seems, my proximity to this subject is mitigated by the intellectualization of the process. The gratitude I feel for the opportunity to study the history of Black women for a living or the pressure to be rigorous and doggedly meticulous in my research generates distance. But this is a faulty construct; recovering histories of the enslaved is hungry work. It is emotionally exhausting, and just underneath the surface, I am constantly enraged. Perhaps this was at the root of my violent physical response to the man in the blue suit. My body knows too much, and it had not been properly braced for impact.
This raises important questions, for me, about the historian’s ability to recover and account for the emotional lives of enslaved men and women or Black people more generally. As I struggle to articulate my own raw emotional response to embodied white supremacy, I wonder if theirs are beyond enumeration.
On June 19, 1865 formerly enslaved men and women in Galveston, Texas learned that they had become free. How they must have felt. What would they have struggled to describe, even at the time of the event? How can we ever truly capture such an experience in our imaginations? As a historian, perhaps I cannot. But as a Black woman I believe I am in some small way able to access their elation, fear, anxiety, and abundant hope for the future because Blackness is also a feeling. It is a set of sometimes indescribable and indecipherable, or overwhelming and often totalizing, emotions that have been and continue to be evoked by an accompanying set of historical events that are embodied at different moments and in different ways.
On Juneteenth 2019, I engaged in what felt like spiritual warfare with a man in a blue suit. But because Blackness is a feeling, I can still rejoice. I can still commemorate the occasion of emancipation and embody the joy of freedom in all its complexity. In this I find the fortitude to continue to perform the sacred labor of telling Black histories, of honoring our past, and of teaching an alternative story to a new generation. In this I find my breath.permission.