A review of Trafficke…and what came next

I am happy and impressed when anyone takes the time to actually read Trafficke, much less review it. I was exceptionally pleased when I learned Jon Curley had reviewed it on Galatea Resurrects, an outstanding venue for engagements with poetry books and projects. Jon brings great historical depth to his review, and writes more eloquently than I do about why and how the method and poetics of Trafficke matters. I was so pleased by his words that it took me a couple of times through to realize that our family’s 200 years of slave holding–the book’s ultimate ethical challenge–was never mentioned. Take a look at the Galatea page now and read the ensuing comments and discussion. Sean Pears (a brilliant young writer now working on a PhD in Poetics) took the lead; Karen Branan chimed in; Jon responded with generosity and insight; and I added my thoughts. Taken together, this is an outstanding way to review a book and to keep bringing hard truths to consciousness. We all have to learn, and sometimes we have to learn in public. I’m grateful to Jon, Sean, & Karen, and to Galatea Resurrects for providing the forum. http://galatearesurrection26.blogspot.com/…/trafficke-by-su…

Probing the Past

I’ve added a link to my blogroll for this excellent site (from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and Gunston Hall Plantation). You’ll find, in addition to resources for teachers, a fully-searchable archive of 325 probate inventories from the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia from the period of 1740 to 1810. As the introduction says–

Probate records provide valuable information about the lifestyles of people during the colonial and early national periods. Such listings of possessions, from a time when household goods were not widely mass-produced, illuminate a family’s routines, rituals, and social relations, as well as a region’s economy and connection to larger markets. They also shed light on attitudes and policies toward slavery. For famous people, these records enrich our knowledge and understanding of their daily lives and values. For ordinary people, they offer a rare glimpse into their lived experience. These records also provide an opportunity to engage in comparative studies with other eras and to analyze how culture changes over time.

The project was begun by researchers at George Mason’s home, Gunston Hall Plantation, as a way of building a context for data about Mason and life on his plantation. The criteria used in selecting the 325 estates therefore assure that this is primarily a portrait of the wealthiest planters of his day. A few others sneak in because they have features of special interest, such as room-by-room inventories. Three Magruders by name and other Magruders by female descent are included. Note that in the record for Nathaniel Magruder (who met the room-by-room criterion) the transcriber omitted two pages, including the page where slaves are inventoried. All pages seem to be present in the scans of the original document.


Evidence Explained

Yet historical truths are rarely rooted in either shortcuts or comfort.

–Elizabeth Shown Mills

I guess this is the ultimate nerd moment: excitement over Elizabeth Shown Mills’ 800-page bible of accountability: Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Not being a professional historian, I wasn’t familiar with this book until I read about it on Michael Hait’s blog, at which point I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

My practice on this web site may fall a bit short of her exacting and exhaustive standard of documentation, but many things are becoming clearer thanks to Mills’ lucid explanations of not only how to record your sources but why. As she says in the Foreword:

As students, when we were introduced to research principles, we may have been told that identifying sources is important for two reasons. First, we provide “proof” for what we write. Second, we enable others to find what we have used. Both purposes are valid, but they miss the most critical point of all:

We identify our sources–and their strengths and weaknesses–so we can reach the most reliable conclusions. (10)

In the next 700+ pages, she walks us through the documentation of every imaginable kind of source, from a quilt to a videogame. Not interested only in the “output” of a clear and useful footnote or bibliography, Mills starts with the “input”–the steps we must take while researching to record and evaluate each source…and to maintain the flexibility to re-evaluate it later on, as our knowledge and range of contexts grow.

She also reminds us that “family-history standards require a higher level of proof than does most litigation” (18) and in fact can accept no margin of error at all, because “Correct identification is the foundation upon which all else rests.” (19)

If you’ve never had a systematic introduction to research, this book is your crash course. If you’ve been over all this stuff before, but don’t always remember how to apply it, here is your right-hand helper. Far more than a set of templates–though plenty of those are provided–this book is a thorough course on the fundamentals of sound research and evidence analysis.

For someone like me, moonlighting out of my own field, it’s a very powerful torch.