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To Treat the Slaves as Kindly as Their Conduct Will Allow

I've just returned to Mississippi from an undergraduate research conference at Southern Arkansas University. I took there  two sophomore students enrolled last spring in my Composition and Research course. Both students prepared papers on research that they did for the course and which they have continued to work on long after receiving their grades. Both students made me proud; they were so poised and articulate about their work, meaningful and useful contributions to the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Transcription Project. One student, Naomi, received honorable mention for her paper--"To Treat the Slaves as Kindly as Their Conduct Will Allow." The title of the paper comes from a contract between Marshall County, Mississippi slave owner Ebenezer Nelms Davis and a prospective overseer Booker Flippin. The other student, Joshua, and I came across the contract which is one piece in the Davis Family file, housed in Special Collections of the James Williams Library at the Universityof Mississippi. (The contract has been published in Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, Four Generations of a Mississippi Landscape.) The language of the contract shocked me, even after spending last summer reading slave narratives. Both experiences have left me in somewhat of a mental fog which writing about or talking about the text might only partially heal.


On our ride home from the conference, the students and I did talk, about how they did but, more importantly, about our next step in the research. Both students have committed themselves to this work of researching slave owners. I did not ask them to, and clearly at this point they are not working for a grade. (I'm not sure that they ever were actually.) We talked also about what's driving all of us, and, though we each chose to tread lightly on mystical possibilities each of us told a story either of a dream had during the research process or of at times being overwhelmed by the experience of reconstructing the lives of the deceased. Honestly, for just a moment, I wanted to tell the two students that they could quit at any time if the research began to feel uncomfortable for them, yet I could tell that they were already deeply hooked. Joshua had said as much during the question and answer period following his paper. He ventured to talk about spiritual inspiration, not from a muse but possible influence of ancestors. I hadn't forewarned him that such talk was outside the academic realm. After he'd said what he said, I held my breath and waited to see what the response would be from professors and students. There was nothing audible. There was conversation, however, about the degrees to which the historical landscape has been preserved in the South and how industrialism demolished so much history in the North. Being from Chicago, Joshua spoke about this from a personal standpoint, and the audience could hear in his voice deep lament at the loss of visual and physical reminders of the past.


It was probably a good thing that I wasn't able to save Joshua from spooking his audience in this way. What he shared, his feelings, was such an honest moment, and, if my role as professor was deemphasized in that moment, I am pleased to say now that what we all witnessed was a student moving on his own trajectory, one nurtured but not controlled by me. The student was recognizing three, intersecting, textual spaces--the written, the physical (landscape), and the mystical (supernatural). How wrong would I and the academic audience that listened to him speak have been to have robbed him of his sense of the third? Right now, I want to affirm that this particular research experience (if it is to be as meaningful and transformative to him as he needs it to be and, as his teacher, I want it to be) requires all three. I know this because I require the same. One of the many awesome aspects of involving students in slavery research, or I think in historical research on any subject, is just this mutli-dimensionality, which may, surprising to us all, be the very channel by which we come to understand the way that some students, many I suspect, learn best.


This is a notion worth pushing, not that I am the first or the last to make such a recommendation. It must be raised in the context of undergraduate research on slavery because the students are coming into contact with so much disturbing material--"to treat the slaves as kindly..."


I had my own awkward moment when I, with others, read so many slave narratives this summer at Gilder Lehrman. Like Joshua, I blurted out before thinking...well, no, I was thinking, but I simply chose to push caution aside when I suggested that we needed some material items to study as we read the narratives. I would be offended, I said, by an intellectual experience. I don't think the comment was well-received, or maybe it was, but as with Joshua's statement, the room fell silent. I just wonder about what I'll call the economy of the intellectual vs. the spiritual and physical. That is, I wonder how easy progress through written texts, especially ones that should be deeply disturbing, is achieved when there are no physical elements to arrest such progress, when reading isn't stopped by, say, crying or by maybe physical discomfort.


I find useful what cultural geographers have to say about space, its creation or construction, and the ways in which composition theorists and rhetoricians are using the work of cultural geography to engage again the physical. Both groups speak of Third Space as "the space of lived experiences that brings together First [the physical] and Second [spatial, social, and historical knowledges] Space awareness, retaining the reciprocal and contradictory relationships between these different spatial knowledges" (William Burns). Some have spoken of Third Space as liberatory, and I don't doubt that it is. I do wonder however where to place the kind of knowledge that Joshua has, something born of engagement of physical objects and written texts. I wonder also about the ethics and the wisdom of denying that such knowledge--Fourth Space?--exists.


 

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