How should traumatic acts be remembered? What modes of remembrance are simultaneously moving, penetrating in their insights, and respectful of the tragedy they evoke? There’s a lot to think about in considering the different forms acts of remembrance can take, as well as the potential difficulties they must navigate. So I decided to explore a bit and see what official acts of remembrance of slavery I might find. In doing so, I discovered that UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education is currently hosting an exhibit called “Slave Deeds of Buncombe County.” As a UNCA press release explains:
The exhibit includes the original bound book of bills of sale for enslaved people and wills from the Clerk of Courts, along with a recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.
If you follow the second link above, you can examine or download the records that have been collected. I’d like to think about what kind of remembrance these records enact, and I’ll return to that question in a bit. In the meantime, though, the people involved in the project have some thoughts of their own on the issue. Their ideas are captured by the following video, produced by the Buncombe County Government:
The video reflects on acts of remembrance in a number of ways. To begin, a large portion of the video focuses on highlighting the value of the kind of historical work the Center for Diversity Education has undertaken. It is clear, for example, that interested parties appreciate that the government of Buncombe County has officially acknowledged its historical role in the slave trade, as well as the role of slaves in building the infrastructure of the county and the state. In addition, the hope is that the work done will be useful for scholars as they continue to uncover the history, and explore the legacy, of slavery in the US. Meanwhile, historian Darin Waters notes the importance of a creating an object, something that provides a tangible experience of the material, rather than simply reading a printed or digital list of names. The act of holding the bound book of bills of sale produces a different effect, in terms of remembering the human agency that went into selling people, than would reading a list. And Waters hopes, finally, that information from the records, particularly the wills, will offer a look into the lives of the slaves.
These goals and claims point to different facets of acts of remembrance. For example, moments of catharsis seem to constitute one part of remembrance. There is value, because there is a sense of release, in drawing attention to things that have been lost, forgotten, or intentionally hidden. The acknowledgments of the County government’s historical participation in the slave trade and the role of slavery in industrialization seem to work in this way. Another facet of remembrance one might call perpetuation. The hope that this historical work will help produce more scholarship is a mechanism to ensure that the things that are being reclaimed won’t be lost again, indeed that more will be uncovered. Lastly, the creation, or re-creation, of a certain experience is a driving goal of this work. When Waters says there is something important about producing an object people can hold and examine, he’s stressing, I think, the value of making it more difficult to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. An object makes it harder to engage these historical realities superficially, to give a cursory acknowledgment of the tragedy before guarding ourselves against difficult thoughts.
The goal of re-creating a sense of the lives of slaves, on the other hand, falls simultaneously into several of the categories above. It falls naturally in the category of re-creating an experience, albeit one that is remarkably difficult to imagine and enter into as an outsider. It also serves to counteract the calculated and institutional effacement of the humanity of slaves, a history of action that goes beyond hiding something and points instead to the willful blindness of those who stood to benefit from the belief that humans could be property. It can’t help but make us uncomfortable. In truth, all the categories that I’m thinking of bleed into one another, and creating an image of the lives of slaves is likely only one of many ways to point to the intersections. It is a particularly poignant one, though.
In the end, it’s these intersections that I think are most helpful in understanding and characterizing acts of remembrance. I would argue that remembrance is always a fragmented and constantly shifting process. There is no complete act of remembrance, and the process requires various complementary approaches. In fact, the approaches are more than simply complementary: they are, in some ways, even at odds, though productively so. Consider the work presented by the exhibit. It seeks to give slaves a name and a place in history by cataloguing their lives—by cataloguing their lives. It’s simultaneously a way to restore some of sense of their individuality and a process that highlights how difficult it is to maintain that sense when doing this kind of work. The same process that names and provides some history for the slaves also groups them together in a de-individualizing way. But the realization that different acts of remembrance, or even single instances of it, produce this tension spurs on new, unique work in the quest to recapture things that cannot be fully retrieved.
I’ll point now to my favorite part of the exhibit, the “recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.” You can watch the video here:
It’s my favorite part for several reasons, most of which are straightforward. Sarah Gudger was interviewed in 1937, at the age of 121, for the Library of Congress project. She passed away the same year. The first link goes to the general page of the collection, the second to her particular interview, the one re-created in the video. It’s just remarkable that she lived long enough to share her story. It’s also fascinating to think about the way that the video literally gives her a voice, both in the sense that it (re)verbalizes her testimony and that the producers chose to re-create what it might have sounded like coming from her.
The last thing I’ll mention is that I learned of this exhibit on “The official UN [Facebook] page for the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade commemorated each year on 25 March.” Check it out if you’re interested.