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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