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What We Talk About When We Talk About Slaves

A memorial @ The African Burial Ground on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. 
Photo: © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

"Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves."

 

Frederick  Douglass, 1855

 

 

"Such is the story that comes down to me."

 

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County Ohio, 1873

 

 


I've been reading American Colonial History, interviewing people, and researching in historic archives non-stop since my arrival in New Paltz just over a year ago in preparation, I thought, for a long narrative nonfiction project about the legacy of slavery in one small Mid-Hudson Valley town. How is it coping with new revelations and interpretations? I arrived in the midst of a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus--an echo of the discourse we're having about monuments across the country--and published a guest column in the Poughkeepsie Journal in September, 2018. I was excited by the prospect of being a peripheral narrator in this story: both a participant/citizen and a reporter/observer. But I had heard that a prominent historian at the Historic Huguenot Street Archives had been released from her duties after conflict with the Board of Directors some years ago. This did not bode well. I was trying to provide a fresh perspective, ask interesting questions, but it didn't take long for me to become persona non grata, and to receive emails reminding me—a bona fide journalist—that I could not have press tickets to certain events. It was enough to question whether my project was viable.

 

For a while, I worked around resistance, and even drafted an article, but I stopped after I attended a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Jacob Wynkoop houses—more below. I was no longer an observer/reporter; I had become an activist.


When a profile of me appeared in the local paper about my new murder mystery, "Say Nothing," a two-page spread with a photo, and only those near and dear turned up at the reading at a local independent bookstore, despite a lot of publicity, I knew that the gate had closed, that I was done. What had happened? It would take an investigative reporter with the clout and resources of a major newspaper to get the full story, but I have my hypothesis: I'm an outsider, a newcomer. Who am I, therefore, to remind the settled population here, many descended from the original settlers—to "lecture" them, as one vicious FB post said—that the legacy of slavery is visible, extant and troubling; Dutch, English, and French Huguenots all owned slaves.


One day in the late spring of 2019, surfacing from the dusty archive at Historic Huguenot Street, a tour bus parked in the visitor's lot. I stopped to watch what looked like a high school group and their teacher saunter toward Bevier House. For some reason they began to roam around on their own, without the assistance of a docent. The teacher was talking as I approached, but I didn't hear what he said; he was peering into the cellar window. I had done the same in recent weeks and found it haunting. I imagined the slaves sleeping on pallets on the dirt floor, spinning wool, or cooking, and struggling up and down the steep stairs leading to the outside entrance to the house--more steps--as they carried food, or laundry to their "master," Abraham Bevier, and his family. The 1790 census confirms that Abraham Bevier owned seven slaves. Did they all live in the cellar? And even if there was an interior staircase as an empathetic and charming Huguenot descendant recently explained to me--by way of softening the slaves'travail, perhaps--would that have made any difference?


I went up to the teacher and asked if he knew what he was looking at. "A cellar," he said. "A slave dwelling," I corrected him, wishing there had been a plaque to explain the dwelling and its relationship to the house, but the teacher seemed less than interested and quickly moved away to gather his students around the well, an educational opportunity lost. I was, at least, pleased that I had mentioned something.


Juneteenth, 2019, a holiday commemorating Emancipation after the Civil War. I went on a tour--to which I did get a press pass because it pertained to my project, presumably--of the Jacob Wynkoop houses in New Paltz with Kara Augustine, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street. The story of Jacob Wynkoop, a prominent African American citizen of New Paltz, a Union soldier, born free to a slave mother in 1829, one year after New York State emancipated its slaves, has been known since the 1980's. He died in 1912 and is buried in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in Plot A-74/82. And though he was a member of the New Paltz (interracial) Grand Army of the Republic's fraternal organization, there are no streets named after him, nor did SUNY New Paltz, to my knowledge, consider naming one of their dorms after him. He was a builder, contractor, and carpenter. Several of his compact, well-made houses—with their signature attic windows—are still standing here; one was an investment property. Today we might call him an architect and real estate developer, two occupations revered in this burgeoning valley.


Where are his descendants? Possibly in Poughkeepsie, New York City and points beyond, I have learned. Why did they leave New Paltz? Was the town unwelcoming, or worse? Why haven't his houses been landmarked, or marked with a simple plaque? Why is this ostensibly progressive town so ethnically homogeneous? Apart from the SUNY New Paltz Campus, with its diversity outreach initiatives and faculty from all over the world, the 14,000 plus citizens are mostly white, with a smattering of Latinos.


In this era of transformation, as we reckon with our fraught past and complex political present, the failure of Reconstruction in the South and integration in the North, the redress of African American slave descendants (HR-40) is gaining traction again in Congress. The removal of monuments is one thing, the acknowledgement of contributions by the survivors of enslavement another. Both are important.


https://www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf\


http://images.burrellesluce.com/image/6322C/6322C_5605


The author wishes to thank: Carol Johnson, David & Susanna Lent, Jennifer Dubois Bruntil, Kara Augustine, Josephine Bloodgood, Albert Williams-Myers, Susan Stessin-Cohn, Eric Roth, Alan Kraus, and Michael Groth for their scholarship and insights.

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Real Journalists

The holder of this card is a professional journalist and all authorities and IFJ affiliated organizations should extend to the bearer every assistance and courtesy in the performance of his or her mission.

 

 

I have just received my new International Federation of Journalists press card, which is accepted as a bona fide credential in 141 countries. As a free lancer, I have been reliant on press passes for many years and have never had a problem, until recently. I am a member of the prestigious Authors Guild which offers this prestigious card via the IFJ in Brussels. A writer/journalist has to qualify; the passes are not given to anyone. But now that I've proudly stashed the new card in my purse, I'm wondering if it will do me any good in the United States where there are so few news outlets left that value real journalists. Even worse, perhaps, are the many publicists who make certain that a journalist's uncomfortable questions remain unanswered. Obstruction of information. Sound familiar?

 

Controlling the flow of information, spinning, all that I accept as a publicist's job and a journalist's nemesis. But outright lying, refusal to grant interviews, stonewalling voice messages and emails in the hope that an intrepid reporter will go away and give up, that's new. And it does not bode well for our democracy. Isn't it an American journalist's mandate to exercise her First Amendment rights. Or have we forgotten?

 

Consider, for example, the demise of a robust local press. Stories in local—print and online—newspapers these days often read like unadulterated public relations handouts. So-called "facts" are unattributed and uncorroborated, and journalists on staff are frustrated by the lack of editorial support for their investigative efforts. In other words, we cannot blame the current regime in Washington DC for spinning, or faking the news, or telling vicious lies; they are merely taking advantage of the new, yet more market-driven news culture. And that includes all the punditry on broadcast and cable outlets. We need them, they are mostly doing a good job, but they are also making a fortune as they deliver their audience to the advertisers 24-7.

 

It's taken me a long time to accept this and, frankly, I am both disgusted and deeply concerned. It's one of the many reasons I started this blog. At least here I am free to write what I wish, uncensored, and oblivious to market pressures. Consequently, I don't quit. When I have a difficult question to ask, I ask it. I don't take no for an answer. If one source folds, I find another. That's what real journalists do. And when I discover a complicated story that requires the resources and clout of an institution, I pass it along to a still-standing, still reputable major news outlet such as The New York Times; they often pursue a lead for which all of us should be grateful. Most of the time. A recent story I generated didn't lead to much more than a cub reporter gathering clips and re-arranging them. No original interviews, no footwork. To say the least, I was disappointed. Time to get back into it, and unearth the real story behind the story, even if I have to do it on my own. Worse case scenario, it goes up on this blog which is RSS fed to four outlets. Dear reader, thanks to you I get some traffic. Viva the internet!

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A Writer in The Family

Once upon a time there was a writer in the family who used his backstory in the first five chapters of his novel, fictionalized, of course. He changed the names of his nearest and dearest—his familiars, people he loved, people he found troublesome—and amplified the characters beyond recognition. Or so he thought. He told his writers group, and then his agent, and then his publisher that the work took on a life of its own, that the story wrote itself, without reference to his own story or anyone he knew. By the time he was done, he said, he didn’t remember how the book had started or who had inspired it. Nonetheless, a brother recognized himself, then a cousin, then a former lover. A more distant relative threatened to sue. Luckily, the writer carried indemnification insurance. He had been warned by his agent: publishers no longer indemnify. So what had started as a writing project became a legal nightmare. Many writers have been through it; few can afford it. Including me.

I have had more than one such conundrum in my writing life. I’ve had a death threat and a request from an English Lord in the House of Lords—where I’d been called to testify because of an article I’d written—to return to the country from whence I came, post haste. My very own mother asked that I refrain from writing a memoir about her side of our family for fear of legal action, which never happened. The book was published, it did well, my mother was proud.

I am a reporter, Nancy Drew writ large. I gather evidence. The story is told from my point of view; I own it and take responsibility for it. I write fiction now, too, which is different in many ways, but the same ethical rules apply.

Recently, not that long ago, alas, I published an essay called “Why I Believe in Interventions.” Someone in my extended family took exception to it and threatened to sue unless I withdrew it from the online magazine, or changed a few of the sentences. I no longer carry indemnification insurance so I had to prevail upon a mediator—my skillful husband—to quiet this relative. It was an unpleasant episode that affected me and members of the family adversely. Afterwards, I asked myself questions: Should I have written and published this essay? YES. Did I have a right to publish it? YES. Should I have shown a draft to various family members mentioned in the piece, directly and obliquely? PERHAPS. Would that constitute censorship, or prior restraint? YES.

Every term I begin my workshop classes with a mantra: every writer must feel absolutely free. No self-editing, no censorship, no prior restraint, no coy references or hidden agendas. Remain credible, write honestly and fairly, do your research, raise your knowledge base, state your point of view, and the writing will soar.

I do not live in a police state, I am free, I am a writer. This is what writers do.  Read More 

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The Trump Effect

What kind of times are we living in? If I asked my NYU workshop students this question at the beginning of every session, their answers would probably sound similar. They are distressed, distracted, preoccupied, disappointed, concerned, even frightened, at times. As am I. Close to a primary election, I prevail upon them to vote not vent, or vent and then vote, and then wonder if I have crossed a boundary I should not cross into advocacy, though I know that in journalism and in the classroom neutrality is an illusion. Is there any writer who does not have a point of view? Of course not. Just think about how we frame a story—what to put in, what to leave out. It’s like a photographer who crops an image, or blows out a detail either distorting or eliminating what surrounds it, or emphasizing what matters to us.

Writers can sometimes be elusive and reclusive, or they can be annoyingly engagé
and write only to illuminate, blow the whistle, and persuade. If we read Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, for example, and then shift to his non-fiction essays, we segue from family saga to polemical narrative about environmental degradation, particularly the decimation of bird life. An avid birder, he wants us to share his concern. What matters to him, he hopes, will matter to his readers.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times. Confusing times. It’s our mandate as writers to focus and clarify, reflect accurately, illuminate what’s hidden under the skein of the visible story, not let the tendrils of that skein pull us asunder before we can understand what is going on. Has there ever been such a gathering of intelligent, articulate print and broadcast journalists working as there are today?

My husband is an historian and political scientist and more optimistic than I am about strength of our Republic. He is glued to MSNBC and CNN and all the news and analysis he can read. He has an historian’s perspective and is already writing—in his head, not literally yet—the history of our difficult times as an historian would see it 10-20 years from now. So I count on him to keep events in perspective and to keep me informed. We begin our morning with my question: “Any new developments?” And he gives me the rundown, much of it troubling indeed.

I have zero tolerance for what is happening to our country and for the people in this so-called administration, and what they are doing to our language and to my students—the young ones in particular. Their feeling of hopelessness, their fear for the future, their dangerous new cynicism is new in my classroom. Young people, for the most part are enthusiastic, idealistic, and they cannot abide injustice. Given the opportunity to think and discourse, they question everything. Their silences since Trump was elected is unnerving. It even has a name: the Trump effect. Is this an unintended consequence of the reign of terror Trump and his handlers have unleashed? Or is it a calculated consequence? Are we expected to tremble and stop asking questions? Is there a Gulag waiting for us?

New York Magazine reported recently that 20,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested by ICE in New York City in recent months. Some of these are parents of the ambitious and hard-working Dreamers who have passed through my classroom. I want to scoop them all up and take them home with me. I want to protect them from the anxiety they are all feeling every single day. How can they possibly study?

NYU has a campus in Shanghai. Not long ago the greatest challenge in my workshops were students from China who were quiet in the classroom, who would not speak. The reasons are various—cultural and political, mostly. Now this challenge of privileged, shy Chinese students—most of them children of government officials, seems quaint.

What kind of times am I living in? Zero tolerance times. It’s a law enforcement concept Rudy Giuliani admired and instituted when he was Mayor of New York. I was in New York when the “policy” began, running in Central Park one day when a police car careened down the West Drive and nearly killed me, three pedestrians, two other runners, and a mother pushing a stroller. It didn’t even stop; it kept on going. We exchanged names and phone numbers, caught our breath and shakily went on our way. Only later did I find out that the police were chasing three kids who were selling pot. And that they didn’t even catch them.

Giuliani is 45’s man. What was that I heard about stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship? Did I hear correctly? Did my refugee parents flip over in their graves? Did 45 say it, or 45’s man, the one who had zero tolerance when he was mayor? Mr. Mayor: I have zero tolerance for you.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times, as Charles Dickens would say. What can we do about it as writers and citizens? Stay awake. Stand up and be counted every single day. Speak out. Rally. Stay focused. Don’t lose heart. Write our hearts out. Vote.  Read More 
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Freedom to Write Redux

I went to see the Diane Arbus exhibition—her early work—at the Met Breuer last week. The arrangement made me dizzy—free standing syncopated columns. But walking through them, around them and, sometimes, into them, I began to experience the photographs in a new way. Many of the images have become iconic so the unusual curation was necessary to witness anew the work of a controversial photographer. She was a “super recognizer” of what used to be called freaks, people living on the edges of life, who may or may not have had mental or physical deformities. Arbus asks us to know and accept them, as she has done, and to reflect on our own afflictions. She grew up in a privileged world where suffering was kept at arms length and rarely acknowledged. What was her quest? I believe she wanted to find an affinity with the suffering of others so that she could feel her own—and to acknowledge it with her camera. Sadly, she took her own life in 1971 at the age of 48.

Not every artist or writer lives as intensely, of course. At the very least, we observe differently—with a heightened sensibility like the marginalized freaks in the Arbus portraits, like Arbus herself. And what we produce is far from perfect. Maybe the rendering isn’t clear enough, or we’ve faltered in our understanding, or we’ve made errors of judgment, or gotten a chronology wrong, or our readers/viewers take offense. They may even assert that we have no right to tell their story in concert with our own. And though our eye penetrates and the heart is full, a negative response is always startling.

Years ago, when I began “Searching for Fritzi,” the memoir about my Viennese family and the genocide that had killed nearly all of them, my mother did not want me to write the story. Our famous cousin, an Oluympic ice skating champion, had disappeared during the war. What had happened to her? It didn’t take long for me to find out. Fritzi had married a Japanese national and spent the war years in Japan. Worse, she had entertained German officers when they visited the Japanese High Command; she was a collaborator. My mother feared that Fritzi would sue if we exposed her even though the facts had been corroborated multiple times. Nonetheless, my mother’s intuition was correct because she had grown up with Fritzi Burger, watched her become a celebrity, and knew that she would not tolerate a tarnished image.

Fritzi had died before the book was published but her son and grandson were still alive. Both of them threatened to sue. The threat itself—like terrorism—was enough to scare me, of course. What writer has the money to go to court to defend a libel suit? None that I know. But I checked and double-checked what I had written and I still stand by it. The book has had legs—it found it’s way not so long ago to a library in Berlin and was taken up by a scholar there who has lived in Japan and speaks and reads Japanese. He’s dug even deeper, pulled articles from contemporary newspapers, and continued the examination of Fritzi Burger’s war years in Japan. I’m gratified by his attention to this piece of history.

Like Diane Arbus, who also was a writer, I write to see, to understand, and to share whatever insight I’ve managed to attain about subjects that others cannot or will not write about. If I allow any kind of prior restraint—whether it is a wish that I not write about a certain subject, or a warning that if I do I might be sued, or a request to read the copy before it is submitted, I could not continue being a writer. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances—when we write about loved ones, for instance—but they are few and far between. And, even then, we should pause before we hand over copy.  Read More 
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Pussy Riot Silenced

I went to a conference at the NYU Law School last Friday called “Pussy Riot & Protest; The Future of Dissent in Putin’s Russia & Beyond.” The conference was also sponsored by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, The Art Law Society, the Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Performance Studies and the Department of Art and Public Policy. It was an impressive gathering, the second I had attended in one week about the freedom to write, the freedom to protest, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to perform. On the dais: Pussy Riot’s Russian defense team, four articulate lawyers, all of them risking arrest when they return to Russia.

Why should it matter to American writers, artists, lawyers, professors and students that three Russian feminist punk rock artists have been sent to a hard labor camp for two years because they staged a protest performance at a church in central Moscow? Moscow is far away. Russia is not America.

I was struggling to answer this self-inflicted question—partially rhetorical—when a poet got up on stage and declaimed a wild, bold and obscene poem, riffing on the word pussy in the spirit of the Vagina Monologues. That was a show stopper because this bold poet would have been bleeped continually on American television. In fact, the other night when Salman Rushdie appeared on The Daily Show, he was bleeped several times, as was Jon Stewart. Comedy Central is owned by whom? The FCC has these rules because? Our media operates without prior restraint? The articles I have submitted for publication have never been censored/edited to satisfy the advertisers?

So, we live in a Great Democracy where freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. True? Partially true? Almost true?

Consider Facebook, for example, which I thoroughly approve of and enjoy. I was skeptical at first—see early blogs back in 2008 and 2009—but no longer. And I belong to an open group where the administrators welcome comments so long as they cheer everyone along. No dissenting voices are allowed to remain as comments; they are deleted. I am always writing dissenting comments and asking questions; they are often deleted. Why not open the conversation? No, not permitted. I find this disheartening. My free speech has been deleted. I have been silenced. Debate on an important subject has been eviscerated.

In the smallest of ways, and at the most local level, all silencing matters.  Read More 
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