History as Selfie?

15195Today we have a fascinating, wide-ranging, and personally insightful guest post from historian Michael Guasco. Guasco is is Professor of History at Davidson College and author of Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World, first published in cloth by Penn Press in 2014 but newly available in paperback. Slaves and Englishmen looks closely at how slavery shaped the ways the English interacted with people and places throughout the Atlantic world, illustrating the significance of slavery in the international context of the early modern world—before the rise of the plantation system or the emergence of modern racism. In this post, Guasco meditates on the discipline of history and the nature of historical scholarship and writing more broadly, ultimately circling back to his own experience of researching, writing, and reflecting on Slaves and Englishmen as he seeks to understand the relationship between historian and history.

History, sad to say, is not all the different from a selfie. In its purest form, history is perhaps a more dignified selfie, but it is most certainly a selfie nonetheless. Imagine you are standing on a ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon. How can you possibly absorb such a thing or take in the moment? How do you remember it once you are gone? There are only so many ways to address this problem. It’s always possible to assume a contemplative demeanor and simply soak in the grandeur of nature’s spectacular. You could, I suppose, take out your camera and try – hopelessly, I assure you – to capture an image that does some justice to the beauty you are witnessing or the awe you are feeling. But what do an ever-growing number of people do these days? They turn around, pull out their phones, extend their arm, smile broadly, and take a selfie. The lesson here is simple: no matter how you choose to preserve your encounter with the Grand Canyon, it is impossible to do so in a way that removes you – the viewer – from the story. Sometimes your presence is imperceptible. Other times you can’t get out of your own way. But you are certainly always there.

History is not all that different. We like to think when we study the past that we can access it directly (if the evidence allows). We certainly try to get a feeling for things based on a range of artifacts, but much of what we do is actually akin to taking a picture of ourselves with some stuff in the background. I am, of course, overstating the case, but smarter people than me have observed that the past only becomes history when we choose to remember and record it, usually in relation to ourselves. It’s unavoidable. For one, the past cannot be seen without a set of eyes or heard without a set of ears. There is no past without an angle of vision. History, in other words, can only occur when the present gives the past purchase. Understanding the difference between what happened and what we claim to have happened, between why something mattered then and why it matters now, is why historians go to work every day.

This problem has plagued history of slavery in colonial American and the United States for as long as scholars have tried to make sense of it. What is the relationship between the problem of race in American history, and the American present, and slavery? Did slavery hold back the economic development of America or did it make America great (again)? Should we hold our ancestors accountable for the role they played in perpetuating and extending slavery? How should we factor slavery into conversations about mass incarceration, quality education, accessible and affordable housing, voting rights, health care, and so forth? Or is it just better to forget and move on? These are all important questions about us – for us. Aren’t they?

Because of my own lack of awareness of these problems, Slaves and Englishmen isn’t the book I set out to write more than few years ago. I once thought that I was going to solve the so-called “origins debate” but I kept changing my mind about whether racism generated slavery or the other way around. Earlier versions of the book were also shaped to a large degree by my belief that, even if I couldn’t solve the causal relationship problem, any investigation into the history of slavery was necessarily an investigation into the history of race (because that’s how we tend to think about the subject). Only as I began to appreciate the value of really letting the sources determine how the material could, or should, be presented did the book take on its current form – an effort to understand how early modern English men and women thought about slavery.

Winthrop Jordan famously quipped in the preface to White over Black (1968) that he wished that he could’ve polled the inhabitants of Jamestown about their reaction to the first Africans who arrived in the colony in 1619. For my part, I want to know something different – if people living in the English-speaking world at the dawn of the seventeenth century heard the words “slave” or “slavery”, what did they think? What images passed through their minds? How did they define those words and what contributed to the definitions they constructed? And why? Why did English men and women think that slavery meant one thing and not another?

The answers to these questions make it clear that slavery was a surprisingly integral feature of the early modern English-speaking world. As a result, it makes little or no sense to begin the story of slavery in 1619, much less in the Americas. If we put ourselves in a frame-of-reference defined by the past rather than the present, we can see that there are some rather different questions to be asked about slavery than the ones that have typically framed historical debates and conversations. For too long we have accepted a general narrative that suggests that slavery was either an accidental outgrowth of local circumstances or invented in the colonies to satisfy particularistic demands. But slavery wasn’t new. So the really interesting questions are “why did the English extend slavery across the Atlantic in some ways but not in others?” and “why were some forms of slavery deemed appropriate or acceptable in certain parts of the Anglo-Atlantic world but not in others?” These are the kinds of questions that encourage us to rethink not just the specific subject of slavery, but the relationship of the periphery to the center (and different peripheries to each other) and the meaning of Englishness in colonial settings more broadly.

So, is Slaves and Englishmen still a selfie? Probably. I’m fairly confident that there is no way I could every entirely remove myself from the frame of reference. There are certainly good reasons why somebody living in the twenty-first century might be interested in how a community in the past thought about its own complicated relationship to slavery. Even so, this book represents a good faith effort on my part to get out of the way and try and let slavery be whatever it was and mean whatever the sources say it means, even if it might not look a whole lot like the slavery that came into sharper relief during the second half of the seventeenth century.