Monday, 27 July 2015

Article Review: A Question of Custody: The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands

Title: A Question of Custody: The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands
Author: Jeannette Allis Bastian
Publication: The American Archivist, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2001), pp. 96-114

This article describes the competing archival principles at work between the United States, Denmark, and the Virgin Islands. The lands now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, made up of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas were Danish colonies in 1672. The Danish West Indies Company brought enslaved people from Africa to work on plantations run by Englishmen, and they operated a moderately successful sea port in the islands. In 1848, the island's African majority won their freedom from Denmark, and the Danes attempted to govern the islanders. By 1916, the Danish felt that they were losing more money than they were making with the colony, and decided to sell the land to the United States.  

In the 20 years leading up to the sale of the islands, the colonial government began to ship island government records to Copenhagen. The Danish were meticulous record keepers and the weather, insects, unstable political climate, as well as the belief that those records were an extension of the "home" country, made them want to keep records in Denmark. Although the United States could have made a claim for all of "Denmark's" records when they acquired the islands, there was no national archives program at the time, the records were written in Danish, and the infrastructure needs of the new territory trumped a tug-of-war over records. Not only did the Danish keep the 4,000 linear feet of materials that were transferred in the late 1800's, the United States did not protest an additional 2,000 linear feet which was transferred in 1917. By 1936, a U.S. national archivist was in place and arranged for any government archival materials (1,260 linear feet) remaining on the islands to be shipped to Washington D.C. During the 1940's, the U.S. plan to extract more records was executed but contested by the local government; and by 1950 the practice of removing records from the Virgin Islands was stopped completely.

So what is there to be done with this fragmented set of records, the subjects of which have no clear line of access or control of? The United States and Denmark felt satisfied with the arrangement because they have provided sound storage and protection of documents, and are legally entitled to the government records of their past or current territories. While the inhabitants of the Virgin Island have a basic need and numerous obstacles to the access of their community records. Based on the principle of provenance, all of the records should be in the Virgin Islands because all of the records are about the Virgin Islands; inhabitants are critical to the "context creating process". Without the benefit of autobiographies or diaries, inhabitants have to rely on government records to re-create the worlds of their ancestors, records that are an ocean away. Hopefully with the on-going use of EAD, and other forms of linked data in the archives, we can intellectually piece together community histories that are physically separated.      

As I read this article, my first impression was that hegemonic nations have always disenfranchised the poor on every front; land, people, language, and now the records! Then I began to consider how complicated the situation really is. Can we say for sure that if left to their own devices, the locals would have maintained these 6,000 linear feet of archival documentation? Would the Danish records have been destroyed once the Danes left the port? Perhaps there is wisdom in the big bad colonizers for protecting these documents. Also, can we eliminate all other forms of record keeping in favor of the written one, what about oral traditions, sacred objects, or songs that are passed down from one generation to another? Removing the records does not necessarily mean that entire nation's history is gone. I suppose the greatest injustice is the inability to choose, perhaps the islanders would have happily shared certain records with Danish or Americans in exchange for some airplane vouchers and second language correspondence courses. Since they never asked, I guess that we will never know.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Article Review: Local Color: The Southern Plantation in Popular Culture

Title: Local Color: The Southern Plantation in Popular Culture
Author: Jessica Adams
Publication: Cultural Critique, No. 42 (Spring 1999), pp. 163-187

This article represents a detailed analysis of how race is simultaneously presented and obscured in the experience of plantation tours, novels, and popular films. Adams also discusses how Southern identity is portrayed as "otherness" as well as normative. She uses the film Deliverance as an example of how backwards and grotesque a Southern existence can be, but points to the success of Gone With the Wind as the highly praised tale of a woman portraying important American values like, loyalty, strength, and optimism.  When it comes to plantation tourism, she cites multiple examples of how the plantation building and the planter are draped in the nostalgia of a pure past, a national treasure, and relic of a more peaceful time. This whitewashing of history comes straight from the archives of planters who lament the work of "tending to negroes", they can't get any rest as they are always called upon to resolve problems on their land.

On plantation tours, guides use words like butlers, skilled nannies, and servant boys to describe the work of enslaved Black people in chattel slavery. Of course this mythology is problematic because it erases all of the horrors of a plantation system and makes white privilege and superiority the preferred societal system. Adams argues that these versions of history have very real social and psychological consequences for African Americans today who are facing challenges that they may not understand because the historical context is not clear. The article ends with several deep literary analyses of plantation motifs and race in Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Interview with a Vampire.

I hope that the director of every plantation tourism site has an opportunity to read this. I can say that I have been on two plantation tours, Drayton Hall (Charleston, SC) and Stagville (Durham, NC) and the treatment of African American history has not been as hidden as the author describes. At Drayton Hall, the guide explained that the there are annual Christmas celebrations for planter and slave descendants from the plantation. In Stagville, the relatively stable slave quarters structures are called Horton's Grove, and make up an integral part of the tour. To me, there is no way that a rational individual can be aware of the climate, the technology, and the land mass of these Southern land parcels in the 17th and 18th centuries without considering the volume of human labor that made any of this success possible.

I would encourage the use of more slave narratives and other primary sources in the interpretation of these historic tourism sites. The guide at Stagville related a story from a letter in the Cameron family papers which is summarized as follows: The mistress of the house is writing a letter about a recent encounter with one of her female slaves shortly after the war the Civil War. The mistress is trying to give instructions about sweeping the floor, and the black woman stops her work, stands up straight and says that my skin is as white as yours and now I am as free as you and she marches our of the house and off of the plantation. That was one of the best examples of dis-spelling the victim myth of the Southern planation family. Let's find some more!