This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: "At the time, no one knew what was coming."
-Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
On Inauguration Day 2021 we learned that Seamus Heaney is one of President Biden's favorite poets and that he recited poetry in front of a mirror to tame his stammer. Every inauguration within my memory has featured a poet's perspective, a poet's sensibility, song and dance. In a time deadened by a pandemic, recovering ever so slowly from four years of toxic waste in Washington, pomp, ceremony, ritual and poetry was solace for our aching souls. But now it's over and the restoration of our lives continues in tandem with the restoration of our nation state's democratic first principles. To whit it is now incumbent upon us to look backward into the fault lines of our history—slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy and the genocide of the indigenous tribes—to understand how we almost lost our democracy.
Many historians were not surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. We need only return to the candidacy of Sarah Palin, not very long ago, as described in President Obama's book, to understand what happened: "Hers was a biography tailor made for working class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elite—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life," he writes in "A Promised Land," the first volume of his presidential autobiography. It is a fascinating read, a reminder that President Obama thought of himself as a writer long before he went into politics. It's also a plea for continuing historical study, re-interpretation of that history, vigilance in the present, and activism.
At a webinar at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY this week, I heard the now standard disclaimer—which also appears on their website—about living on Munsee Lenape land: Historic Huguenot Street acknowledges that it is located on lands of indigenous peoples. These lands have been home to Esopus Munsee people for thousands of years, and are still culturally significant to Native Nations today. This disclaimer was amplified with a reference by Kara Augustine, the Director of Public Programming, to the enslaved laborers in the Huguenot settlement, four of whom lived in the 1760 Abraham Hasbrouck House, which is undergoing extensive restoration, a now twenty-year project paid for by the extant Hasbrouck family. Like other Huguenot descendants, they have a Family Association. Though their historical roots in France are modest, and they were persecuted and massacred as Protestants in a Catholic country, by 1760 the settlers were already wealthy and prominent. Their property ledgers included slaves. Centuries later they have what seems to be a fabricated coat of arms, an emblem of status we associate more with the Old World than the New.
"Museums are fundamentally conservative," Kate Eagen Johnson, a history consultant, told us at the webinar. She specializes in material artifacts, all of which tell a story. She investigates, reconstructs, sometimes commissions replicas. All such restoration is a very long process requiring patience, she says. "The past is past and they [the museums that hire her] want it to stay that way." She went on to explain that the slaves, who lived in the cellar kitchens, were referred to as "the kitchen family," a historic euphemism, best abandoned in this era of racial justice reckoning.
Neil Larson, an architectural historian well known in Ulster County for the documentation and restoration of stone houses, revealed that the doors leading from the main house to the kitchen cellars were often kept locked. "Much that is said about how humanely white families treated their slaves, there still was a need for security…Kitchens were a space of isolation." Slave uprisings and slave runaways were feared by the enslavers for good reason; there were many precedents—in Haiti, in Jamaica, in New York City in 1741. Indeed, enslavers trembled in the shadow of their self-inflicted turpitude.
We must ask: Is the Abraham Hasbrouck house being restored, renovated, stripped down to its essence, or re-examined and re-interpreted? Perhaps all of the above. How shall we consider the lives of those who lived and died there when it is reopened to the public? What words will the tour guides use to explain the lives of the Hasbrouck household in 1760? How will the signage change to reflect the re-interpretation?
Descendants of the enslaved population in New Paltz are hard to find and therefore cannot participate in this discussion. Before emancipation they were thrown into an unmarked pit, now known as the "African American Burial Ground," on the edge of town. (See my blog post, "Chattel," of October 26, 2020). After emancipation, a small settlement, including a church, formed south of New Paltz, some residents buried in the segregated cemetery nearby. At least the graves there were marked. But most former slaves fled New Paltz in search of work and more welcoming communities. Who could blame them?