Blog Post

The Whale's Hand: Pushing Against Limits

In my last post, I wrote that it sometimes takes me five years or more to fully comprehend the relevance of a single piece of "new" information. With this knowledge, I understand as well that the work that I have embarked upon will take my entire lifetime and that of others. I'm not referring simply to the hands-on stuff--the typing of names, for instance, but to the challenge of shifting to a new paradigm or of inviting people to engage the past through study of slavery. The Somebody Signed My Name Transcription Project (soon to be included on this site) is up against many walls and other barriers. 

When I first returned in the summer of 2009 from the National Archives, I didn't hesitate to share my finding. I posted my ancestors' names to my Facebook wall (no pun intended but intriguing, huh?). I received three responses, two from fellow church members, who are white, and one from a high school buddy, who is black. My white acquaintances expressed sadness; my high school friend wrote that finding out my family's owner would create a mixed bag of emotions. No other thoughts, even from my own family members, who irregularly visit their Facebook pages, were offered.

After a couple years blogging on various topics and networking socially, I certainly have come to realize that much of what one writes is never seen, and what is seen is not very often commented upon. I think that the tendency of people not to offer comment results from several factors: 1. people's lives are made busier with each passing day, i.e. they do not have or take the time to write 2. new information, no matter its nature, joins so much other noise, i.e. we are overwhelmed with too much stuff already 3. the culture and parameters of social networking sites are not intended for deep engagement, and 4. the postmodern mind itself is not prompted to engage deeply. Looking at the scarcity of comments in this way, what I could take as a lack of interest in the subject of slavery may in fact be a good thing--a sign that my readers or "friends" know the depths (not to mention the political dimension) of the topic and suspect that neither I nor they have the words or the space to do it justice.

Still, I optimistically push as did Noralee Frankel when in trying to describe the lives of African American women's transition to freedom she wrote:

Trying to squeeze three-dimensional human beings into a two dimensional page represents a frustrating challenge. Until writing in holograms becomes possible, authors continue to be forced to divide people's lives into categories that inevitably oversimplify (ix).

I am hopeful that the Internet does offer a heretofore unknown dimensionality. Both still and moving images can easily accompany words. The question, then, may not be if we have the equipment, the technology, or the applications to create a degree of depth but, if, our society will encourage "deepening," for how compatible is going beneath the surface with the consumer mindsets and behaviors that have been prompted in this era? And what incentive is there, in this day and time, for deepening? I think my high school friend's response goes right to this question. More than anything, people will have to ask if revisiting slavery is worth aggravating the wound, if this is a door best left closed or cracked.

But for me there is no such choice; the very idea of a choice on this topic is a modern democratic delusion. My ancestors have been with me all along, pushing me to open the door.

Reference: Frankel, Noralee. Freedom's Women, Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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