Astride the difficult pony of historical fiction
a talk given on Saturday, March 6, 2010 - having been intended as a Black History Month event, but rescheduled twice due to snow storms.
Many thanks to the The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America for inviting me to give a talk in commemoration of Black History month and Women’s History Month at Dumbarton House. Thank you, Dames, also for honoring our city's and our country's national heritage through the preservation of manuscripts, artifacts, material objects and this building, as well as, providing a forum for discussion of American history.
I'm a native Washingtonian with roots in Georgetown. Both of my parents lived in the neighborhood when it was home to a vibrant African American community. I’m the author of two novels set here in Georgetown. The first RIVER, CROSS MY HEART - is set in the early 20th century. My most recent novel STAND THE STORM -- is set in mid-19th century Georgetown.
When I am asked why I have placed my novels in Washington, D.C.( and specifically Georgetown) I answer that the District of Columbia is an exciting place to consider the lives of African Americans. Exceptional African Americans and ordinary individuals have made this city their home. This group includes the distinguished women, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Macleod Bethune, as well as, Carter G. Woodson and Kelly Miller. Many have seen this town as “the city on the hill” -- the place to get to -- for freedom and for opportunity.
Many descendants of people enslaved by our most notable, slave-owning presidents - Washington, Jefferson and Madison -- settled in the District of Columbia. And because of the impact of Abraham Lincoln’s compensated emancipation program in the District of Columbia that resulted in the creation of the so-called “first freed” there was a small geographical advantage for this region. In fact, it is just such that created opportunities for the self-starters I wanted for my novel, STAND THE STORM.
There is a dedication at the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City that articulates my purpose in writing STAND THE STORM -- and for that matter for RIVER, CROSS MY HEART:
FOR ALL THOSE WHO WERE LOST
FOR ALL THOSE WHO WERE STOLEN
FOR ALL THOSE WHO WERE LEFT BEHIND
FOR ALL THOSE WHO ARE NOT FORGOTTEN
In the introduction to his classic work ASPECTS OF ANTIQUITY, M.I. Finley speaks of history as a dialogue between the living and dead, between the current generation and those generations past whose voices have come down to us in the documents and artifacts they have left: “It seems to be inherent in human existence to turn and return to the past (much as powerful voices may urge us to give it up). The more precisely we listen and the more we become aware of its pastimes, even of its near-inaccessibility, the more meaningful the dialogue becomes. In the end it can only be a dialogue in the present about the present.
For the student of history, Finley provides both a challenge and a caution. The challenge is to craft a more precise interpretation of the past from the raw materials of history -- the facts and artifacts that have washed down through time to lodge in the present. The caution is that what the past has left us by way of documents or artifacts may not be what is most important to a sound recounting of history. This residue of time may simply be what is most durable or what has been preserved through sheer happenstance. In history, then, part of the story is inevitably missing, though even some of what seems irretrievably lost may be recovered through imaginative interpretation based on the smallest patina of fact. That this is so makes history an art not a science. By the same token, it is the job of the historian to be ever mindful that more voices have gone mute than have survived to speak to us.” -- from introduction, “Not For Filthy Lucre’s Sake: Richard Salter and the Antiproprietary Movement in East New Jersey 1665-1707” by Daniel Weeks.
I don’t claim to be an historian -- I’m a novelist. Undertaking/writing historical fiction, puts me astride a difficult pony. It is a headstrong muse - one that wants to go one way then change and go down another path. How to guide it? How to keep on track? Which path to follow -- history? or fiction? That is one of my big questions. Well, I will stay with fiction.
I recently attended the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. The lecturer was Dr Annette Gordon-Reed whose excellent book, THE HEMMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY won the Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Gordon-Reed made the point that she was motivated to write her history more by a desire to know, hear, acknowledge and verify the account of the descendants of Sally Hemmings than to toss mud on the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.
"Highlighting the variable experiences of the earliest blacks in Virginia is much less useful than keying in on the one constant in the lives of whites from Jamestown to Appomatox: they were never to be designated as chattel who passed their condition down to their children, and their children's children, in perpetuity. "
--- Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed, THE HEMMINGSES OF MONICELLO, AN AMERICAN FAMILY
My disdain for the slaveholder is unequivocal, but I’m not motivated today to demonize them. Rather I’d like to focus on what may be known and what may be imagined about the lives of the enslaved persons who worked in the homes of the wealthy -- people who lived and worked in Georgetown.
One thing I recall most poignantly from the remarks of Dr. Gordon-Reed is the figure of 135 -- 135 people were sold after the death of Thomas Jefferson.
“Centuries later historians would ridicule as a numbers game attempts to count the millions forced to suffer the trauma of the transatlantic passage. Yet for those who witnessed the murderous raids by Arabs, Europeans, or hostile black Africans upon their communities, for those who were discarded on their march to the African coast, for those who were banned to the hold of the ships, for those whose bodies were cast overboard, for those who made it to the unknown on the other side of the ocean, every single one mattered. For every single woman, every single man represented the difference between life and death, between the "I am" and chattel, between history and the void, between the voice and silence. For every single one defined the whole.”
-- from Black Imagination and the Middle Passage by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Carl Pedersenen
A hip-hop term that I like is "represent". I like to see an historical landscape, consider all the possibilities of inclusion, look at what is presented to me, then I re-present the story with excluded people included -- I say "you over here and you over there and you over there and . . . " I also "represent" because I feel I stand up for my characters to redress their exclusion.
Why write historical fiction rather than a history of people or a biography -- one individual's story? Simply -- I don't want to have to be fair -- even -handed. I like to compel the reader to see things my way. I enjoy having an attitude and expressing it. Also I like to imagine individual accounts of historical events. I suppose the most important task I see to perform is to add specificity so as to get beyond stereotypical images.
The period of most of the focus of Dumbarton House's interpretation is the Federal period - roughly 1790-1830 - Of course, STAND THE STORM is set in the Georgetown of the mid 19th C - roughly 20 -30 years later than this period.
My appreciation for the architecture, landscape, the furnishings and the art of Dumbarton House is tempered by the feeling that many of the people who made this display of wealth possible are unknown. We know facts about the family of Joseph Nourse and, of course, about Charles Carroll primarily because it was their wish to be remembered and lauded that motivates this building and display.
selected readings from the slave code of the District of Columbia - http://www.myloc.gov/Exhibitions/lincoln/vignettes/EarlyCareer/Pages/Transcription.aspx?ex=1@c2fd7ca0-c76f-4cce-ab2e-a07cabae1fdb@1&asset=c2fd7ca0-c76f-4cce-ab2e-a07cabae1fdb:7f8f8e61-ec87-4a73-b0e4-a71da3341575:37
for information about Dumbarton House: http://www.dumbartonhouse.org/
"If my people forget about slavery . . ."