Acknowledgement of a veiled death threat prior to a book lecture formed part of the historian’s tweeted thanks on April 29, 2019 to staff and security guards for keeping her safe.
A year later, I saw Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s reaction this month on receiving the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History for They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Holders in the American South. I read her book after helping staff the talk she gave last year at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
In announcing the selection of They Were Her Property for the prize on April 17, 2020, Nathan Deuel writes in the Los Angeles Times that,
The hardest reading in “They Were Her Property” illustrates the sadism with which white women controlled their captives. They were unafraid to use the threat of bodily harm not just to keep slaves in line but also to squeeze greater profits from them. Out of both necessity and choice, white women could be even more devious than men in the brutal mechanics of corporal punishment and torture.
Based on research in contemporaneous records (court documents, notices in newspapers, business records, personal correspondence) and the oral histories collected by the New Deal Federal Works Progress Administration, Dr. Jones-Rogers’s book shows a way of life dependent on treating others as lesser, as property. In the worst cases, this resulted in torture as well as subjugation.
A particularly horrific example in They Were Her Property describes the punishment of eight-year old Henrietta King by the mistress of a southern plantation where the enslaved suffered near starvation. The grotesque torture, in which the daughter also participated, disfigured her for life for taking a piece of candy from a dresser.
Dr. Jones-Rogers wrote the book (“a very ugly feminist story”) in an accessible style. She had in mind not just academics but also the general reader. “I wanted to write a book my mother could read, and she only has a high school education.”
The book lecture in the National Archives’ McGowan Theater last spring offered insights into the archival research process as well as a previously under-explored perspective on history. It built on her doctoral dissertation, winner of the Lerner-Scott Prize of the Organization of American Historians.
“I just want to thank Doug Swanson for his quick action and the wonderful security officers at the NARA for ensuring that I remained safe during my talk and book signing.” The April 2019 tweet by Dr. Jones-Rogers adds her own experiences as well as her book talk to history.
With the National Archives building closed temporarily, Swanson and other museum programs colleagues now share video links of archived noon and evening public programs. Some archives and museum education activities continue virtually. Others, such as children’s museum sleepovers, have centered on being in the building.
In 2018, Charles Bolden, the first African-American astronaut to serve as Administrator of NASA (July 9, 2009-January 20, 2017), talked to children at NARA about “Spaceship Earth–It’s the Only One We Have!” Fifty years before Bolden took took charge of NASA, a fictional television series, Star Trek, finished a three year run (1966-1969) on broadcast television. Among its stars was Leonard Nimoy, who advocated for Planet Earth as a private citizen and later as a famous actor and celebrity.
Star Trek (The Original Series) featured executive producer Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the 23rd Century, embodied for many fans in the concept of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” As played by Nimoy, Mr. Spock, the half Vulcan, half human, science officer of the Enterprise, quickly became a fan favorite.
Memoirs and books about the stars, Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) and George Takei (Lt. Sulu) among them, provide varied perspectives on the show and the later series spinoffs. Nichols describes viewer reactions to what was called the first inter-racial kiss on U.S. television between her and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Nervous about backlash and Southern affiliate stations, NBC executives considered substituting Nimoy’s Spock for Shatner’s “traditional” TV hero lead.
More recently, powerful essays by fans working in knowledge professions, such as Ashley Stevens and Dr. Robert Greene II, have added insights about the original show and successor series. In “How Ben Sisko Wrestled with American History,” Dr. Greene looks this month at the use of history in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Benjamin Sisko’s relationship to American history is the best example of the complicated story of the American people. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s willingness to tackle this complexity is part not only of that show’s enduring legacy in pushing the boundaries of what Trek would talk about, but also of the larger cultural shift in the 1990s towards greater awareness of America’s history — warts and all.
In “Far Beyond the Stars,” Captain Sisko adopts the persona of writer Benny Russell in a vision about New York City in the 1950s. His experience “represents the lost dream of Black science-fiction fans and writers in the 1950s. Science fiction has always had a diverse fanbase, with some of the earliest science fiction fan clubs being formed in Harlem, New York. But Russell’s struggle to get his story published at Incredible Tales mirrors the real-life lack of diversity amongst most of the science fiction writing club of the 1950s.”
In another episode, “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” Sisko resists going back to Las Vegas in the 1960s. He argues, “We cannot ignore the truth about the past” about racism in Las Vegas, or America more broadly, in the 1960s. But his wife-to-be, Kasidy Yates, persuades him to join her and other crew members.
Kasidy’s push-back on this question is interesting to note. She tells Captain Sisko, “Going to Vic’s won’t make us forget who we are or where we come from. It reminds us that we’re no longer bound by any limitations. Except the ones we impose on ourselves.” Kasidy reminds Sisko, and the audience, that the fantasies seen on the holosuites aren’t meant to be taken as real history—and, in fact, show us what could have been in a far better, freer world.
Dr. Greene notes how in “the 1980s and 1990s, films such as Brother From Another Planet (1984), Malcolm X (1992), Glory (1989), and Do The Right Thing (1989), among others, tried to show how America’s complicated and painful relationship to Black history continued to shape the nation throughout its history.”
Looking at what was, what might have been, what can be applies to our professions, too. For me, this starts with Star Trek (The Original Series), which debuted on U.S. broadcast television during the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War. Its appeal grew after cancellation as the show gained fans in syndication during the 1970s, a period when many citizen activists focused on women’s rights and environmentalism.
Some of the competing dynamics (collaboration, hyper-competitiveness; teamwork; defensiveness) of the Boomer-dominated Archives & Archivists Listserv, which operated from 1989 until decommissioning in 2017, go back to the time when Gene Roddenberry created the first Star Trek series. What you saw on the Listserv reflected the individual, political, and policy reactions that shaped the forum’s dominant posters in different ways in their youth during the 1960s and 1970s. It now shows at times in differing selection of avatars (Robert E. Lee; Eleanor Roosevelt; Princess Leia).
In the late 1960s, Washington area high schools featured civics classes, including “Problems of Democracy.” Other local jurisdictions throughout the United States handled civics education in different and varied ways. That, and many other influences, later shaped online interactions in professional forums
In my school, we used historical context to discuss current events. The Vietnam War. Voting Rights Act struggles in the South and the aftermath of “Freedom Summer.” The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. And Robert Kennedy. And the effect on foreign policy of events in Europe, such as the forcible suppression in 1968 by Soviet military and political forces of “Prague Spring” efforts to increase citizen freedoms in subjugated Czechoslovakia.
The Problems of Democracy class focused on structural and human issues and choices. In my class, this began with assessing and analyzing the content and purpose of news reports we discussed. And starting to learn in high school that these needed to be filled in later, which to me remains the purpose of records management and archives.
Fiction, including science fiction, helps us understand others as much as does reading history. Centering the human being as an individual within a larger community is key. In a powerful essay about Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Greene observed in 2018 that
While the inspiration for The Original Series had been the classic western, with James T. Kirk as the rugged white-hatted cowboy, the casting of British theatre actor Patrick Stewart for The Next Generation changed the framework. In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, Stewart remembers asking the franchise’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, for guidance. Roddenberry handed him a stack of Horatio Hornblower novels, suggesting a new model of introspection and quiet dignity. Picard became a man who only fought when necessary, even allowing for his ship to take damage rather than fight back. He was comfortable with Shakespeare and Gilgamesh, using the latter story to forge a friendship with an alien captain from a species that communicated only through metaphor and archetype.
He described what Stewart and screenwriters showed us on STNG and why it matters.
Picard’s complexity reminded millions of viewers during Star Trek: The Next Generation’s heyday that we all contain multitudes. Following in his footsteps, Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway on Voyager continued to expand the range of Star Trek’s commanding officers. Breaking from Kirk’s more traditional male heroism, Picard’s thoughtful, contemplative example allowed Sisko and Janeway to adopt some of those same traits. Picard’s humanist disposition became part of the Starfleet way. After his tenure as a Starfleet Captain, space opened up for an African American and a woman to succeed him.
Archives offer insights into complexities not covered in traditional journalism’s “first draft of history.” The researcher of the future who wants to study Leonard Nimoy will need to go to different places, online and physically. And to understand what shaped not just the man but the collections they study at repositories as different as Boston University and the National Archives and Records Administration.
So, too, what affects acquisition of records for memory work. Eira Tansey and Maureen Callahan have looked at that in the academic environment. Several NARA blogs have explored accessioning in Fedland, including Records Express and recent candid, illuminating posts at The Text Message by historian-archivist Dr. Greg Bradsher.
In a powerful documentary filmed in 1977, Nimoy takes us through a series of horrific events on an imagined May 19, 1981. A mythical yet plausible day of lives lost or changed forever because of chemical hazards. As on-screen narrator, Nimoy urges workplace compliance, for the greater good, with Department of Transportation safety rules and guidance.
Nimoy’s activism centered on a concept of care. We see that in the purpose of some archives and library work, too. I don’t mean vocational awe, although I’ve touched on it at my blog as something to avoid.
More so the risks and challenges I featured in my last post about front line representatives of galleries, archives, libraries, and museums. And the horrific assassination at the Holocaust Museum which affected people I know. And why knowledge and memory workers do the work they do.
Work we do not because it is easy, as the slogans professional associations use sometimes suggest. Or as cartoon depictions of practitioners as “super heroes.” But because it is hard. And finding solutions challenging, much more so than when most Boomers started their careers.
When historian Eric Foner spoke in 2015 at NARA about the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, he observed that historical narratives may seem inevitable to readers as written. But that as events unfold, participants often must act decisively and quickly on partial information or in an environment filled with unknowns. Foner is right that history doesn’t feel like history while you’re living through it.
Ken Burns once noted that the National Archives makes records available but doesn’t tell researchers how to use them. (As a NARA retiree, that’s my training, too.) He later experienced that himself during the airing in 2017 of his Vietnam War documentary series, when historians and other viewers offered their reactions, some sharply critical, some laudatory, of his work.
While still editing the documentary, the film-maker discussed in 2016 how he and his team worked. He described how they “unlocked”nearly every “locked” episode they thought they had completed to add new insights. The same concept guides our work. We’re privileged to contribute to the sharing of knowledge others can use. And to provide speakers virtual or physical space to share their insights as as researchers.
In the absence of Roddenberry’s vision for Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, followed by an active, engaged Captain Picard as humanist leader, what happened over time on the Archives & Archivists Listserv and other online forums too often adversely affected potential Captain Siskos (male or female).
I know and have worked with Picards, Siskos, Uhuras. We can learn from them. Study the past of our professions. Consider what might have been. Identify structural and human issues. Examine choices. Create space for others. And work to reduce not only the gatekeepers to our collections. But to our professions, too.