Saturday, September 16, 2017

Quote: Charmaine Nelson

FM: What is the most interesting, surprising thing you’ve come across in your archival research or reading?

CN: I found a fascinating person in the Quebec fugitive slave ads. Part of what I’m looking at is creolization, or how Africans became African American or African Brazilian and so on, and what that meant culturally. This one man—Joe—was particularly haunting. I found five different ads for him, and you can actually map Joe’s creolization across these ads.

In the first ad, Joe is described as a “negro lad”. His owner, a man named William Brown, owns the newspaper—he’s putting an ad for Joe in his own paper. The ad says Joe was African-born, which is significant because a minority of enslaved people are people born in Africa. Slave ships always stopped in South America or the Caribbean first. So, Joe survived two middle passages: one from Africa to somewhere in the American South, and then one to Halifax, Quebec City, or Montreal. William Brown also says Joe speaks English and French tolerably.

By the fifth ad, Joe is a man. He’s fluent in English and French, and he was working as a pressman—he was running the press! Joe must have known exactly what a runaway slave ad was. He had probably been made to formulate, print, and edit ads for his fellow enslaved people. The newspaper he was helping to print, the Quebec Gazette, was owned by the guy who owned him. He must have known Brown would come after him.

But, ads can’t tell you if a person was caught or not. So, how do you finish Joe’s narrative? You can go to other archives and personal letters. But, the real obscenity is that you go to the will or the state inventory of the person who owned the slave. The thing is—William Brown would have had to die before Joe in order for him to be in the will. If Brown dies, Joe is passed down or sold, which was likely because enslaved people had shorter life expectancies. So, my question is: How do you read fugitive slave ads against the grain? They sought to criminalize stealing yourself. How can I use the ads to re-humanize people who were dehumanized?

From the Harvard Crimson's "15 Professors of the Year, 2017: Charmaine Nelson." According to the Harvard Crimson, Professor Charmaine Nelson is "an art historian from McGill University [who] joined the faculty of Women, Gender, and Sexuality...[in 2016] as a visiting professor. Nelson’s work examines art and visual culture from across America, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Her research at Harvard concerns fugitive slave advertisements in Canada, challenging the myth that Canada was always a refuge for enslaved people in North America."

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