This has been the week to finish ploughing through what I’ve come to call my “Basement Archive.” This is a collection of letters to and from Mary Ann Shadd Cary that she left in the basement of her house near Chatham when she went back to the U.S. When her house was taken down in the late 20th century, the local community rescued this box of letters and saved it in another basement. It is this archive of letters that will form the underpinnings of my film. And it is this set of letters that I have been reading and summarizing over the past few weeks.
Along with reading the letters, I’ve also recently read parts of Tony Bennett’s book Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism. In it he talks about the debates that took place in the late 19th century over the value of field naturalist analysis, where artifacts could be viewed in their natural space, vs. sedentary naturalist analysis, where objects from a wide range of places and time periods could be brought together for direct comparison. This reminded me of my reading of the Shadd letters in my own living room in Ottawa, and my interpretations of them, versus the way I may think of them when I am in southern Ontario next week. Bennett also refers to Anne McClintock’s phrase “panoptical time and anachronistic space” which seems to describe my analytical situation since I have taken these letters both out of their place and time in order to do my research. By taking objects out of their original environment and placing them in new contexts, some new analysis may be done. But Bennett also adds that, based on John Law’s Actor Network Theory, objects exist (or are understood) in the context of their material relations and they are performed or perform themselves in these contexts. So will my Ottawa-based interpretations be new and novel, or just misplaced?
I’m close to having finished my arrangements for my trip next week but I still want to do some more reading. I would like to look at some of the other archival material that I’ve collected: some letters from Fisk University in Tennessee, as well as notes from my trip to Library and Archives Canada last spring. I am also hoping to look at some more of the secondary literature on archives of letters, as well as a new book called The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlement and Beyond, edited by Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright. Finally, on Monday I will pick up all the camera gear, lights, microphones, batteries, and digital storage material to take with me next week. I am also going to get some ‘refresher’ training from the Media Production Centre at Carleton University, since it has been almost two years since I got my original training on the use of the camera.
Heading into week two I have read 79 pages of nineteenth century hand-writing authored by thirteen different hands. I think I’m getting better at this but it’s definitely not like reading typed text. I’ve also been recording the main features of the contents in a spreadsheet so that I can more easily sort the material into order by the date it was written, and keep track of who all the people are who feature in these letters as authors, recipients, or just people who are mentioned within the texts.
I have also got a plan in place to go to Chatham on October 1 to spend a couple of days filming in that area before there is snow on the ground. I have arranged to meet with the people who have the archive of letters that I’m studying, so I will finally be able to see the original versions. To date I’ve been looking at digital images of the letters.
I still don’t feel like I’ve got a clear narrative in mind, but I hope that, as I continue to read, something will emerge. I still have about twenty pages to read from my ‘basement archive’ and I still need to look back at some other letters from other archives, as well as some more of the secondary literature. So my objective for this coming week will be to do that, and to finalize my filming trip plans.
To all of you who read my blog in the past, I’m back online again. I’m now in my second and (hopefully) final year of my Master’s degree in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. This year I will be blogging about my Master’s Research Project which will take the form of a documentary film and a short reflexive essay.
As in the past, I am studying Black history in Canada. This film will focus on a Black American abolitionist named Mary Ann Shadd Cary who came to Canada in 1850 and stayed for thirteen years. As well as being a fighter and public speaker for the abolitionist cause, she also spoke out about women’s rights. She published four books and pamphlets, taught school, and later in life got a law degree and practiced as a lawyer in Washington DC. She recruited Black soldiers to fight in the American Civil War. She launched a newspaper in Canada called the Provincial Freeman, and was the editor of that paper. While in Canada, she married Thomas Cary and they had two children. She was smart, educated, and outspoken. She was opposed to racial segregation and got into public arguments with some of her contemporaries about it. Without even considering her race and gender, she was unlike the average North American person of her time.
This blog will track my progress through my research and my film making. To begin with, I have already begun reading and organizing notes on an archive of her papers. This week I hope to make progress on that, with the hope of finding the beginnings of the narrative that will form the basis of the film. I am also in the process of organizing a trip to southern Ontario to do some filming before the snow flies.
So stay tuned. This work already shows signs of being an interesting project.