Talk of Souls in Slavery Studies:
A Conversation with Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Tiya Miles, Co-Winners of the 2018 Frederick Douglass Book Prize
Moderated by Jim Knable
Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Tiya Miles are the co-winners of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for 2018. The Douglass Prize was created jointly by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University’s MacMillan Center and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City.
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria / 37 Ink) by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University, was a National Book Award Finalist and has recently been adapted into a Young Readers edition by Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleeve.
The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (The New Press) by Tiya Miles, Professor of History at Harvard University and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, won the 2018 Zora Neale Hurston / Richard Wright Legacy Award for nonfiction.
On February 11, 2019, the professors joined Gilder Lehrman Institute Staff Writer Jim Knable for a recorded phone conversation about their work. The original transcript has been edited by all parties for length and clarity.
Jim Knable: In the process of writing your Douglass Prize-winning books, you were researching one thing when you were perhaps lucky to discover something else.
Erica Dunbar: For me it was finishing my first book project and encountering an archival document about Ona Judge and her life. I had no inclination at that point to think about a second book. But I was doing the work, digging in the archives, and looking through 18th-century newspapers on microfilm, searching for insight into how black women had been enslaved, indentured, and then emancipated over a significant period of time. By the 1790s it appeared as though much of black Philadelphia at least was technically free, when up pops a fugitive slave ad from the nation’s first president about a woman who had escaped his household.
I thought, “Well, maybe I should find a way to include this in the first book project.” But then I thought, “No, there’s something else here. And there’s something that I must return to.”
In many ways, I think that I had to have written my first book, A Fragile Freedom, about how black women became free in the North, in order to be able to write Never Caught because it prepared me to understand the climate and the space in which Ona Judge would live and escape. I don’t necessarily call it luck. I feel like it was supposed to happen that way.
Tiya Miles: I want to underscore Erica’s realization while tunneling into these newspapers and seeing that ad that “there’s something else here.” It’s a question that too many scholars, generations before us in the past, who weren’t interested in black lives, native peoples’ lives, women’s lives, and so on, didn’t ask. They weren’t interested in whether or not there was something else, or someone else, or other experiences.
I also really like the point Erica made about luck. I always remember a conversation I had with the historian Barbara Savage about the question of luck. She had found something that was really incredible in her research on Merze Tate. And I made the casual comment, “Wow, that was lucky!” Barbara corrected me, and rightly so, to say, “That was a lot of hard work.”
We do not come across our discoveries because of sheer luck. We come across them because we are sitting there in that seat, doing the work, hour after hour.
My previous work had mostly been on slavery in Native American societies, particularly in the Cherokee Nation of the Southeast and Indian Territory. In this project, The Dawn of Detroit, I moved to the North, where I thought I was going to be telling a story of black enslavement in the early 19th century. But once I started doing the work, I realized just how closely connected these two different strands of an early American story were. In the South, a minority of native people owned black people. And in the Midwest, native people were also involved in a really traumatic, violent, confusing, alarming set of circumstances that sometimes led to their capturing and trading of people from different indigenous nations. Sometimes these circumstances led to their enslavement of people of African descent, as well as being enslaved by Europeans alongside people of African descent. So it was basically an extension, an expansion, and, in some ways, an opposing picture — the flip side of a story I had seen in the 19th-century South.
Without native people and native land, without black people, there would be no United States. We all know this as students of history. But I think many people in the public are still not really aware of — or wish to deny — the fundamental exploitation that went into the development of this nation. I mean, Erica’s book — my goodness — George Washington! And my book, looking at a city that has become iconic for so many reasons that people associate with freedom, which was absolutely invested in slavery. This is the story of our country.
Jim Knable: Is exploitation the fundamental story of our country, Erica?
Erica Dunbar: I’m a social historian. And I’ll be very honest. We know that exploitation is the underpinning for the system of slavery and for the foundation of what would become the United States of America. However, while that’s a part of my critical analysis in the work that I do, I’m less interested in the story of exploitation than I am in the story of survival.
Those of us who focus on this kind of work have to approach it as such because, one, if everything is based upon exploitation, if that is the center of the story, it’s very hard to recognize, honor, or engage in the lived experiences of these men, women, and children who were technically considered property. If we can’t move beyond the exploitation, we don’t get to understand and learn about the really complex relationships between enslaved people, and between enslaved people and the men and women who called themselves their owners. I’m more interested in telling the stories of how men, women, and children found a way to live and love and pray and think and survive. That’s what I think is necessary as we fill in our American narrative.
The other reason that I feel like I must look at this through the lens of survival as opposed to anything else is because, as a historian, I must focus on what was courageous and beautiful or this will be the most depressing work ever. I don’t think we talk often about the kind of emotional work that is involved in our scholarship and this is specifically for historians who are people of color — doing work on native people, enslaved people, women; the kind of documents that we see on a daily basis, like Tiya said, when we’re sitting in the chair doing the work. We are charged with reading some of the most devastating, horrific information. It’s the stuff from which nightmares are made. That work is heavy. And it’s constant. As a historian, if I don’t choose to see survival as the center of the narrative of the people that I write about, then I’m probably going to just quit the game.
Tiya Miles: Survival is key. I will put next to it the theme of visibility, particularly in Native American history and indigenous women’s history. I have felt interested in the tension between invisibility and hypervisibility in all of my projects, and especially the Detroit study — where native women at the center of the story were often held as property, used for sexual purposes, and barely mentioned in the record by name. We can only glimpse some of the terrible things that they must have gone through. For them and for the many people like them in various other populations, I think seeing them is key to respecting their lives. Recognizing that their family members saw them. Their elders saw them. Their descendants remember them.
This connects to a value that I hold dear: the notion of witnessing. I feel, as odd as it may sound, that the work we do functions on more than one plane. We do this work in the material world. We go to real libraries. We go to real historic sites. We publish real books. At the same time, we’re doing this work on a whole other level. It is emotional, as Erica said. It is also spiritual. It is partly in this realm of the life that can’t be readily accessed, the life that may never be known, that is interior, that may be in a wholly different location than the one that we’re occupying right now. And so I feel a part of our work is being witnesses both on this plane and this sphere [of the physical] and at that other level. To say to the people who were abused in the past, whose identity was not recognized, who tried to preserve their honor but often had it stolen from them, to say to them, “We see you. We love you. We want to be engaged with you and your experience. We want to amplify your voice.”
There’s a different purpose here that has to do with these human beings. These are people with souls who didn’t deserve the lives they had to live. And recognition, visibility, and witnessing, are so important in that process of helping to restore a portion, a facet, of their honor.
Erica Dunbar: Amen.
Jim Knable: Is there an expectation that historians today should acknowledge souls in the way you’re talking about, where perhaps before there was not that expectation?
Erica Dunbar: No, absolutely not. We are still trained in graduate school and in the academy to do everything except that. Tiya and I are in a position, at least in terms of our careers, to be able to offer our insights and our feelings about the work that we do. As academics we’re never encouraged to talk about our feelings. Emotion or an acknowledgement of an emotional connection to the work that we do is seen as problematic. Lots of historians make the decision to never speak of it in order to be seen as scholarly and objective and removed. I would argue, though, that in the work that we do, it’s almost impossible to be emotionally removed. And I think that if you are, your book probably isn’t very good.
Tiya Miles: Many modern historians might think the things we’re talking about are foreign and even outlandish. In Erica’s and my overlapping fields, though, many of our colleagues have adopted a language like the one we’re speaking. There’s a lot of talk of souls in slavery studies.
Jim Knable: What does winning the Frederick Douglass Book Prize mean to you?
Erica Dunbar: The Frederick Douglass Book Prize, aside from being a tremendous honor, has been such a beautiful experience. I felt such a connection to all of the finalists who were recognized for the competition in this, the 20th anniversary year. The fact that all four of the finalists were women is important: that to my knowledge has never happened before. It made me pause and think about the state of the field and hope that this moment recognizes a shift in a field that has been predominantly male to one that centers on the work of women historians.
But ultimately, what this prize means is a recognition of Ona Judge. Judge gave the first of the two interviews she offered at the end of her life to The Granite Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper, in May of 1845. Her interview was understood as an example of an enslaved person who worked in the Washingtons’ household and Judge became a part of an abolitionist rhetoric and conversation that was peaking in the mid-1840s. But what’s so interesting to me is that in the next edition of the newspaper there’s a description of this guy who’s written an autobiography about his life in slavery and his name was Frederick Douglass. And so, while Judge may not have called herself an abolitionist, their life stories crossed paths. It seems perfectly logical that a book about Ona Judge would receive an award named after Frederick Douglass.
Tiya Miles: It was sensational to have four women who approach slavery studies in distinct ways named as finalists for this prize. And it’s amazing that Erica and I have won it together. There’s something that does feel almost metaphysical to me about being the descendant of enslaved people, writing about enslaved women, and winning this prize with Erica, who shares that history. Who would have thought? Can our ancestors have ever conceived of this, Erica?
Erica Dunbar: No.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. Her first book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City was published by Yale University Press in 2008. Her second book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria / 37Ink) was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. The Young Readers version of Never Caught (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster) was published in January 2019. Dunbar’s op-eds and public writings appear in outlets such as the New York Times, the Nation, TIME, Essence, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her commentary in media outlets such as CNN and the Los Angeles Times, and her appearances in documentaries such as Philadelphia: The Great Experiment (an ABC production) as well as The Abolitionists (American Experience production on PBS) speak to her engagement in history for public audiences. She has been the recipient of Ford, Mellon, and Social Science Research Council fellowships.
Tiya Miles is the author of three multiple prize-winning works in the history of early American race relations: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom; The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story; and most recently, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. She has also written a prize-winning work of historical fiction, The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts; shared her travels to “haunted” historic sites of slavery in a published lecture series; and written various articles and op-eds (in The New York Times, CNN.com, The Huffington Post) on women’s history, history and memory, black public culture, and black and indigenous interrelated experience. She is a past MacArthur Foundation Fellow and Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow and a current National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars Award recipient. She is currently Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at Harvard University.