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Nudging Students into the Past Is Delicate Work

Nudging Students into the Past Is Delicate Work

This school year was the second in which I invited students at Rust College (Holly Springs, Mississippi) to participate in the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople's Transcription Project. Last year's participants, two in particular, feel like professional, rather than novice, researchers now, and their enthusiasm for the work has been rewarded through the granting of a UNCF Mellon Mays Fellowship. The generous award will provide further training and a stipend that will allow them to spend time on project research that might have been spent on other activities like workstudy. These students, whose names I'm not yet disclosing (because they are not pertinent to this post), have not only been unexpectedly enthusiastic but have been  from day one intellectually and emotionally in sync with the spirit of the Project, something that I have wondered about but not really questioned before now.

Partly as a result of our work, one of the students and I traveled as William Winter Scholars to Natchez, Mississippi in February to attend the city's Civil War themed Literary and Cinema Festival, which coincided with Governor Winter's 90th birthday. The student and I chose to drive the usually five-hour trip, and we took the Natchez Trace because I wanted to get a real feel for a part of Mississippi's countryside I had not traveled. Somewhere between Vicksburg and Natchez, around Lorman actually, my student began to feel her sensitivities heightening. There was something, she said, about the area that felt less modern than Holly Springs. She wasn't seeing very many McDonalds or even gas stations, none along the Trace, which is the point of the beautiful old road that begins in Nashville and ends in Natchez. As for me, I enjoyed the Festival and Natchez. Obviously, much lies beneath the surface of any city, but I find that I am comfortable in multi-layered spaces, ones where traces of the past are not difficult to see visually and where one can smell them as well. Old houses for instance have a distinct old-house smell, and to me it is a comforting muskiness. But for my student, the layering of time and space is unsettling. She said as much while admitting at the same time an attraction to historical research. Regardless, by the second day of the trip, she was ready to return to the northern part of the state, where Memphis and its suburbs are within striking distance. Somewhat selfishly, I made her stay a third day as I soaked in every discernible essence of Natchez's past.

Elsewhere I may write more about Natchez. The point I'm leading to here is the ethics that arise from involving students in historical research and not just any historical research but slavery research. On our way out of Natchez, we--not really to my student's liking--stopped at Fork of the Road, a site that marks the city as a major antebellum slave market. Fork of the Road is like most sites of its kind, but one feature that perhaps is different is the shackles cemented into the ground. I was taken by them; my student refused to look at them, and I took that as a cue that enough was enough. As we left the city, I understood how important it was to return her to the present. As I did, she asked me to promise that I would, in orienting students to slavery research, allow her to speak with them about the spiritual and mystical nature of the work. It is an excellent idea, and I appreciate her willingness to speak to what may be an issue for some more than for others. Students, she explained, have different levels of sensitiveness. She is right, and for all of the discomfort she felt while in Natchez and, to the contrary, because of all of the ways that she has connected to the people of the past we have studied, she remains deeply interested in this work.

This year, one or two additional students emerged from my Composition II course, as potential researchers for the Project. There were several candidates, especially one, who I learned shares an ancestor with my spouse (this, unbenknownst to all concerned at the outset). Yet another young man, who a day or so after I had described the research stated that he would rather choose a different topic, anything, I thought at the time but this topic, stated that he was "straight." I translated his statement to mean that he saw no reason to dig up the past, but he later told me that the work of slavery research just sounded like more work than he wanted to do. Once a student is in they're in, which doesn't mean that students cannot later beg off; rather, it means that the information held in The Register immediately connects them to a past that is so rich this fact does not go unnoticed. Most students, it seems to me, will be affected in one way or another. So, I gave my recently "straight" student a list of  freedpeople from Fayette County, Tennessee, his home county. On the first day, I asked him to skim the list to see if there were any familiar names; he said some seemed familiar, but there seemed to be no immediate connection. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. The fact was the student, being not only from Fayette but the town of Somerville, was a major asset to the project since most of the College's students are from Memphis and Chicago not, surprisingly, Mississippi. Yet, I have learned with this work that patience is one of the most important aspects of the research methodology. A "no" often in time turns into a "yes," even if the character of the eventual affirmation is different than what one might have expected.

A few days after I'd first presented the student with the list, I'd honestly put it out of my mind, so I was somewhat startled actually when he placed on my desk stapled papers with the names of the freedpeople from Fayette County on them and pointed with his finger to a group of three, whose last name had been written by the Union officer who recorded their residence at Camp Shiloh as "Mabin." Looking up at me, he asked, "how do you pronounce that?" Right away, without doubting that I knew, I said, "May-been." He nodded, as though he too knew and yet had only wanted his knowing affirmed. He informed me that "May-been," which he himself had known throughout his life as Mabone, was his 96-year-old maternal grandfather's last name. Not only that, but freedwoman Catherine Mabin, a 25-year-old former slave of John Mebane (spelled Mabin in The Register) also rung a bell. Despite the fact that Rust students had been making many connections to the Civil War record, I felt nevertheless overwhelmed by this news, unsure of just how significant the connection was. But the Somerville student on the other hand seemed convinced that a project he initially had eschewed either because it suggested more work than he had been interested in doing or because the whole idea of slavery had given him pause, he now seemed comfortable with being a part of. 

The first task for this student was to interview family members about the record and specifically about the five freedpeople in it who identified John Mebane as their former owner. Having a grandparent who was a near centenarian meant the student would have access to information and memory from the early twentieth century and knowledge, through his own ancestors, of the late nineteenth century. The student's grandfather would likely have known his own father and grandfather, the latter of whom could have been born before emancipation. The student did interview his grandfather, and he included the interview in his research paper. With the student's permission, I share here what transpired in their talk. Much like I had modeled, the student showed his grandfather the stapled papers, and after explaining where he'd gotten the list, he pointed to the five Mabins. According to the student, his grandfather gave him the paper back and stared away from him. Though the younger felt funny doing so, he pushed the elder for an answer. Simply, he asked his grandfather if he recognized any of the names. Turning back, Grandfather said he knew who Catherine was; Catherine was his own sister's name, as well as the name of their aunt. He and Catherine, his grandfather shared, had been extremely close before she died at an early age. He told his grandson of the time they had spent together, and then he, the student said, became teary-eyed, a state in which he had never seen his elder before.

It is not likely that Great-Great Aunt Catherine Mabone is the same person in The Register, for they are separated by a generation, but it does seem possible, maybe even probable, either that she was a blood relative or, at the very least, that she came off of the same plantation as the student's known ancestors. And, in any case, it hardly seems to matter that Great Catherine is not Grandfather Mabone's own beloved, departed sister; he made a connection that he could not have dreamed of making, a gift of sorts brought to him by his grandson. And in acknowledging this past he helped connect is grandson to it. I cannot help but to recall the student's voice on the day I made my initial pitch for his participation. I didn't believe there was any getting around his declaration of being "straight." As the professor and director of the Project, I cannot twist the students' arms to participate and of course I would not. I did not then in this case, yet I exercised patience and waited. Still, I am encouraged to think seriously about what it means to involve modern students in this kind of work, how it might change their lives. My Somerville student presented his research to his peers at the end of the course, and he admitted to them that he had not ever before seen his grandfather cry. This fact reminds me of my own grandfather, a south-to-north migrant whom also I never saw cry before his declining years. I know, as perhaps my student does as well, how our elders compose themselves, hiding their pain, to model deportment that will set their children well in life emotionally. One implication of student involvement in the transcription project is that they risk breaking through well-intentioned facades. The repercussions of doing so are great; it is delicate work. Must it be done? Is it worth it, and who benefits? One benefit is the resurrection of family, a definite goal of the Project from the outset, but I am aware that not all of the consequences of such resurrection are good. Yet, more important I think is the way in which this act of discovering the past unsettles the modern sensibilities upon which our present social order depends. That is not what drives my own involvement, but I have believed for a long time that our temporal orientations should be questioned and/or unsettled, and I have believed even more strongly that a society (a government) that does not assist African Americans, whose pasts have arguably been robbed them, is negligent. And so, this project turns to the victims of such neglegence and makes them agents of history and in history, people in charge of retemporalizing their worlds, and it is maybe fateful that such work would commence precisely 150 years after our ancestors walked to freedom.

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