The following is a guest post by Whitney Nell Stewart, author of This is Our Home: Slavery and Struggle on Southern Plantations, which is now available wherever books are sold.
This summer may have been one of the hottest on record, but in July 2012 I experienced a suffocating heat and humidity unlike anything this Gulf-South girl had ever felt. And I was elated about it, for I was spending four sweat-soaked weeks ransacking attics and basements of privately owned antebellum mansions in Natchez, Mississippi, and St. Francisville, Louisiana. Don’t worry; I’m not admitting to a crime on the UNC Press Blog. I was part of a team of field researchers for the Classical Institute of the South (now known as the Decorative Arts of the Gulf South). We were tasked with finding, describing, cataloguing, and photographing material culture of the Old South, items like furniture, ceramics, carpets, tools, and clothing. While my three talented Winterthur-trained decorative arts colleagues contributed through their connoisseurship—an impressive skill that allowed them to easily and expertly identify the materials, style, and even quality of an object—my role was that of historian, to put things in their contexts. That included consistently bringing us back to presence and influence of slavery in these homes, something that from my perspective suffused every inch of them even though it was rarely acknowledged by the current owners.
This historical context seemed doubly necessary as we toured multiple historic plantations during our time along the Mississippi River. I had just spent my first year of graduate school at Rice University reading about Southern history, particularly the history of slavery. But as I stepped onto these sites of enslavement, I encountered little that acknowledged the institution nor the people it bound. Slavery was rarely alluded to; enslaved individuals, who made up the majority of residents on these large plantations, were virtually absent. Even more than their general omission, though, I was struck by the racialized narrative presented during the few moments when a tour guide mentioned enslaved people: only and ever as laborers, whether in the mansion, in the fields, in the kitchen, in the blacksmith shop, or even in the slave cabins. Most of those cabins were either gone from the landscape or retrofitted into gift shops, while the white home remained standing in its antebellum glory through painstaking preservation and funding, some of which came through tourism during the Lost Cause-seeped Pilgrimage tours that happen each year in Natchez. These tours presented a racialized dichotomy to visitors: labor was Black, home was white. And the more tours I went on, the more this puzzled me. Why was home racialized as something available only to white folks? It turns out, like everything else, that narrative has a history. I wrote This Is Our Home: Slavery and Struggle on Southern Plantations to try to understand why we grant enslavers the right to have homes on plantations but rarely do so for the enslaved people who not only lived there, too, but who also made home for white folks possible.
I was struck by the racialized narrative presented during the few moments when a tour guide mentioned enslaved people: only and ever as laborers, whether in the mansion, in the fields, in the kitchen, in the blacksmith shop, or even in the slave cabins.
It was that summer of researching artifacts and touring the southern landscape which confirmed for me the power of material culture and my desire to explore the past through the stuff left behind. Though I never trained in connoisseurship, I realized material culture studies encompassed a much wider range of concepts and skills that I could develop through reading widely, listening closely, and learning from the many disciplines that engage with the material world. Material culture—a theory, source base, and methodology that centers the material world in humanistic investigations and interpretations—offers the opportunity of exploring people, places, and cultures even when documentary evidence is sparse, a common occurrence for those studying the history of slavery. At the heart of material culture theory is the assertion that objects reveal much: they can tell us about the tangible worlds that people lived in, but they also can tell us about individuals, relationships, communities, beliefs, values, and institutions. And while the term “material culture” may seem limiting—calling to mind specific types of artifacts like a teacup or silver spoon one might see at a museum—it actually signifies a vast corpus of diverse sources. Anything that is made, modified, used, or consumed by humans can be an object. The domestic sphere is clearly a rich place for finding and investigating material culture, for every thing within a house (including the building itself) can be analyzed as an object. Even natural artifacts can be material culture evidence if modified by people. Both the built environment and wider landscape can therefore be examined as material culture, from houses to shops to outhouses, from crop fields to yards to burial grounds. Unfortunately, so much of the material past is lost to us, especially for communities who have been consistently oppressed or marginalized. We don’t have nearly as many extant buildings, well-preserved objects, or maintained landscapes relating to enslaved Black Americans as we have of elite white families. Yet still, archaeologists are constantly unearthing artifacts; museums are exhibiting objects long held in storage; and families are finding and donating boxes of treasures found in attics or basements.
If we seek out these alternative archives, our source base and thus our understanding of the past expands. Scholars of slavery have long bemoaned the lack of sources available from the enslaved perspective, but that holds true only when we maintain a rigidly narrow definition of the archive. In fact, material evidence of enslaved individuals’ lives and labor was at the homes and sites I visited in 2012, if you looked for it: the punkah fan found in the attic of Green Leaves in Natchez, the ladder-back slave-made chairs found in the basement of Richmond outside the city, the ramshackle sharecropper cabin (perhaps former slave cabin) sitting alone amidst acres and acres of open fields in St. Francisville. Even though many plantation sites did not show it and white families stored it away from sight, the physical evidence of enslaved people’s lives was there. It just took patience, time, curiosity, dedication, and listening to archeologists, public historians, descendants, and local historians to see it.
Scholars of slavery have long bemoaned the lack of sources available from the enslaved perspective, but that holds true only when we maintain a rigidly narrow definition of the archive.
While many historians recognize the legitimacy of utilizing objects as sources, some continue to express hesitation about or push-back to what material culture scholars actually do with objects: speculate about what they meant, represented, and demonstrate to us about individuals and communities in the past. It is the word speculate that seems to worry some historians, who assume speculation is purely subjective and thus a careless humanistic endeavor. But this is just one of the many skills and steps of material culture methodology which together demonstrate that the process is not haphazard but one of careful consideration and rigorous research. Because of this I wrote an appendix that takes readers into material culture methodology and theory, laying out the what, why, and how of approaching the past through objects. It lays out a five-step method of observation, description, deduction, speculation, and contextualization, each of which involves a series of questions that guides the researcher. It also applies these five steps to one object from the text to demonstrate how I came to interpret the artifact.
My hope is that the appendix encourages historians at all stages—from undergraduates dipping their toes into historical methodologies to graduate students questioning the limits of the archive to established scholars seeking new or more sources—to approach the non-textual world of the past with more confidence. And perhaps it will encourage more open discussion about how historians actually do history, about the kind of evidence we use and how we use it. I just hope your inspiration to do so comes without heat exhaustion or wasp attacks.
Whitney Nell Stewart is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas.