Monthly Archives: October 2014

Variation on the Concept – Thu October 23, 2014

This week I continued the evolution of the concept for my film.  As I’ve done more research, I’ve come to realize some of the nuances of Shadd’s history, Black history more broadly, and the history of the documentary evidence of subaltern communities.

I still want to consider, in the film, the intriguing story of the demolition of the house and the discovery of Shadd’s letters.  I want to use this as a way to consider the importance of the letters to understanding her private life.  I will link the discovery of the letters to some other famous documentary losses like Lincoln’s first speech, Lewis Carroll’s diaries, and an early version of Hamlet.

Then I want to go back to the significance of the Shadd collection and use it to introduce the fact of the burying of Black Canadian history until relatively recently by predominantly white institutions.  I will consider the argument that Black history went unnoticed because, like other poor and sometimes illiterate peoples, Black fugitives in Canada may not always have had the resources to document their histories.  But, I will refute this argument, since, to the contrary, many Black fugitives were prosperous and well educated, and they actively recorded their own histories.  And I will also introduce the argument that there was a great public interest during the 19th and 20th centuries about the experiences of slaves and fugitives that led to the collection of hundreds of so-called ‘slave narratives’.  So in fact there was more documentation about the lives of slaves and fugitives than of poor, uneducated whites.

But nevertheless, Black history was ignored.  I want to introduce the coincidence of the rediscovery of Shadd’s letters in the 1970s, paralleling the emergence of Black history starting in the 1960s and 70s with the Black Civil Rights movement, as well as the emergence of a wider interest in social histories…history from the bottom up.  Had it not been for this lucky coincidence, there might have been less interest in Shadd’s letters by the archival institutions when they were discovered in 1974.

Then I want to return to the fact that we know relatively more about Shadd’s life because she was widely published and became a relatively high profile person in Canada West and in Washington D.C.  But we know less about her personal life.  I will use some passages from the letters to explore her personal situation – her family life, her husband, and her children – reflecting on the challenges of being a professional woman with a family to care for in the 1850s.

Finally, I want to explore why she would have abandoned the letters:  whether she forgot them, got busy, or didn’t care about them.  Although we will never know for sure, we do know that she packed up and left Canada when the country of her birth was in the midst of a Civil War that would determine the fate of the African American community.  This war would ultimately result in a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery – a project that had been Shadd’s focus for her entire adult life.  This amendment would render emigration to Canada unnecessary.  But it would open up a new chapter in her life: her study of the law and her pursuit of equality for women in America.  And being a woman with a mission, she may have simply moved on and not looked back.

So at this point, this is the concept that I’m leaning towards.  Also this past week I was able to finish transcribing the content of the three interviews I obtained while in Chatham and North Buxton, and had a peak at a few more of the letters in the expanded collection.

This coming week I want to complete the majority of the Concept Proposal, including starting to find some visual imagery to use in the film, as it is still my intent to have it done and submitted to Drs. Miller and Walsh by November 6.

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A Precarious Record of a Historical Memory – Thu October 16, 2014

This week I moved ahead on several things.  I did some more reading about the collecting of letters, and tried (although unsuccessfully) to find a secondary source about abandoned letters, or lost letters.  But I made a bit more progress on transcribing the interviews, and going through the new (to me) letters from the collection that I hadn’t seen before.

But one of the more significant things I started this week is my Concept Proposal.  It is intended to give a very high-level overview of the messages that will appear in the film, and it begins with a 100-word summary of the film.  It forces you to really get focused and clear on what it is the film will say.

When I drafted this, I found myself looking specifically at the discovery of the letters in the rubble of Mary Ann Shadd’s old house after it was demolished, and wondering about the precarious nature of historical artifacts.  I thought it would be particularly interesting to consider this “precariousness” in a population, like the Black Canadian population, that had a limited historical documentary record.  This discussion gives me the opportunity to talk about Mary Ann Shadd, who was quite widely published, but whose personal life is not well known.  The archive in the rubble was actually a great source of personal letters.  But, unlike Shadd, who was well known and published, the part of the Black community that came to Canada as former slave refugees left relatively little to record their pasts.  Many couldn’t write, and most would never have their photograph taken.

I’ve started looking for secondary material on the subaltern documentary dearth of historical evidence.  But before I was able to find anything, I got sidetracked by going into Google Ngrams to graph the frequency of words relating to white- and black history.  This tool uses a digitized corpus of 5.2 million books of which some large portion are in English.  There are some challenges, since white people don’t tend to self-identify as white.  However, here are two samples of what I found:

Google Ngrams - history phrases

Reading this we can see that, between 1750 and 1880, the terms “American history” and “European history” appeared in English language books much more often than the terms “Negro history” and “Black history”.

In a second graph, I found that, between 1800 and 1900, the terms “man” and “person” appeared much more often than “Blacks” or “Negro” followed by any other word.

Google Ngrams - people phrases - larger

So this analysis seems to indicate that, at least during the 19th century, not much was written by or about Black people in the English language.  But perhaps much Black writing was unpublished and therefore unscanned by Google.  However, this too, indicates that even Black unpublished writing is precarious as a historical record and in danger of being lost.

This has become a rather long blog, but here is the 100-word paragraph that I have drafted for my film:

This documentary is about a free Black woman named Mary Ann Shadd, who came to Canada West from Pennsylvania in 1850 to avoid possible enslavement. In 1863 this impressive woman returned to the U.S. to recruit soldiers for the Civil War effort, and left behind a cache of letters in her Canadian house containing much of what we know today about her personal life in Canada.  In 19nn, her house was torn down with the letters inside.  By chance, the letters were discovered and preserved. Through the story of Shadd’s letters, I will consider the significance of her contribution to Canada and the Black community, and the precarious nature of documented nineteenth-century Black historical memory in light of the relatively few artifacts that remain about this important part of Canadian history.

This coming week I want to continue reading about the documentary evidence of subaltern histories.  I also want to finish transcribing the content of the interviews.  As well, I will continue to examine the letters collection and to work on the Concept Proposal, which I plan to submit to my supervisors by November 6.

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A Paper Trail and a Demolition – Thu October 9, 2014

This past week has felt as if every step forward has been followed by a step backwards.  Firstly, the letters collection that I went to see in Chatham contained a lot of new letters that I had not seen before.  However, they were only new to me.  As I’d feared, the letters have all been to the Ontario Archives where they were catalogued, stabilized, read and probably studied.  Secondly, I was fortunate to film footage of three excellent interviews to gather differing points of view on Mary Ann Shadd.  However, the points of view are not all that different from each other, and I fear that the differences between today’s PoVs and historic PoVs will be kind of predictable, and therefore not very interesting.

That said, the second day of filming in Chatham, last Friday, led to an interesting story.  According to the Robbins’s, who found the letters, the collection had been in the attic of their old house ever since they moved in.  They never knew it was there.  When they built a new house and had the old one demolished, they still didn’t know the letters were there.  It was only when Maxine Robbins went back looking in the pile of debris from the house for some pieces of wood, that she came across the first of the letters.  Seeing a letter written by a girl, she looked further, and in due course, and with the assistance of others, the rest of the collection was found.  The total collection probably includes 200-300 documents.  It was total luck that the entire collection was not lost.

But it raises some questions in my mind about why Mary Ann Shadd took such care to save these letters and other papers, but then just abandoned them upon her return to the U.S.  What does this say about her priorities and her motivations?  She was a prolific writer, with at least four books published, and a newspaper, as well as many sermons and speeches.  She left a massive paper trail but perhaps a collection of letters was just unimportant in the context of her life at that point.

We know that when she returned to the U.S. in 1863, that the country was in the middle of a Civil War that would ultimately determine the fate of 4 million Black slaves as well as half a million free Blacks.  Abolition of slavery had been the focus of her parent’s life and then became her focus as she grew to be an adult.  And in 1863 she was being called to help recruit Black soldiers to fight in the war.  In 1863 she was also a recent widow with two small children of her own to care for, as well as three stepchildren.  Perhaps she just forgot about the letters and then later was preoccupied with more important matters.

More broadly, what does this collection tell us about the meanings of letters collections, and of letters collections that become separated from their authors?  Or are abandoned?  I have been reading over the past few days about letters collections in Maynes, Pierce and Laslett’s 2008 Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History.  Also Jennifer Bernhardt Steadman’s 2007 Travelling Economies: American Women’s Travel Writing which has an entire chapter on Mary Ann Shadd.

For a film, the visual imagery associated with the house, the letters and the demolition is strong.  The story of the discovery of the letters is also compelling from a film-making standpoint, and I think there is a good narrative that situates Mary Ann Shadd in the context of her life’s work on abolition of slavery and her paper trail, at the point in 1863 when she left her letters behind in an attic, and literally turned the page.

This coming week I want to continue reading about letters collections.  I also want to finish transcribing the content of the interviews, since this is a helpful approach for my later script-writing.  As well, I have begun the process of organizing the already large numbers of still images I’ve collected, and want to make progress on that, as well as tracking down the original sources of some of the images for which I presently only have improperly-sourced copies.

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Shooting Film Footage in Chatham, Ontario – Thu October 2, 2014

On Monday morning I went over to the Media Commons in Southam Hall at Carleton U. where I collected the camera, lights, tripods, microphones, etc for the filming trip to Chatham that is now underway.  Hasi Eldib was really helpful giving me a briefing on how to use the new cameras and audio equipment.

My husband, John, and I left Ottawa yesterday morning and got close enough to Chatham by 5pm to get some footage of fields, trees, birds and rivers in the late afternoon sunshine.  This morning we got up and out the door before 7am to shoot dawn footage of a bunch of 1850s and 1860s houses in the east end of old centretown Chatham, which was the Black neighbourhood at that time.  At 10am we filmed our first interview with an elderly lady, Gwen Robinson, who is a great great niece of Mary Ann Shadd, and who has been a big mover and shaker on a range of issues in the Black community here.  In the afternoon we filmed another interview with Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton Settlement and Museum.  We shot the interview in an original restored cabin from the Buxton Settlement.  After that we got some footage of the exteriors of the cabin, the school and the barn.

Tomorrow is supposed to be rainy with thunderstorms so we will be doing two indoor things: an interview with Maxine and Ed Robbins who have the letters archive that I’ve been examining, and a meeting with the President of the Board of the Black History Museum, where there are some photographs that I’m interested in.  So all up, I think I’m going to come away from this trip with some great material for the film.

Last Sunday my secondary literature review led me to discover that the archive I was examining, that I previously thought was a new find and as yet unstudied, had been seen and written about in the past.  Tomorrow, when I meet Maxine and Ed Robbins, I will have my first chance to see the actual archival letters in their original format.  At that point I will be able to determine if any of the letters are, in fact, new finds.  But even if they are not, this film will be able, I think, to present a new perspective on the stories of Mary Ann Shadd from the points of view of communities, both past and present.  This blog post falls in the middle of a very pivotal week, both for filming as well as archival discovery.

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