Qualified Citizens: The Most from the Least

Below is the text of a talk I delivered on October 18, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA, at the event Monument Lab Live #2: Hidden Histories and Missing Documents. A longer version of the central story that I narrate can be found in an academic article I published here. This talk was given while taking a knee, in order to hold space for the black girls and black women stolen by the state amidst the ongoing onslaught of state violence against black bodies across the globe.

Today marks two months exactly since I moved from Philadelphia to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived here longer than any other city of my adult life; but, as millennial that means I may lived here like six months. Short as my stay was, this is the city I came to know and love as an adult. But upon my first return, I must admit: I don’t recognize this city. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t even smell the same. Ok, yes, it does smell the same.

But, people are excited about the Sixers. The Eagles lead their division. And, do you know that during my cab ride from the airport just now, I didn’t see a single SEPTA bus run a red light, change lanes without signaling, or narrowly miss a cyclist? This isn’t the city I left in August. What’s Philly sans shameful Sixers, embarrassing Eagles, and snaky SEPTA buses? I don’t know what you’ve done with yourself, Philadelphia, but I want the old Philly back.

While I say this mostly in jest, I’m actually quite interested in the stories people tell about the worlds they inhabit. I’m especially interested in how those stories emerge, and not only what they tell us about the world that we once inhabited but more importantly what these stories tell us about the world we hope to inhabit.

This curiosity led me to a career as an archivist, which I ended this summer to embark on a PhD program in cultural anthropology so I could examine memory and storytelling from a social justice and liberation lens. But since my retirement, as I call it, I occasionally contemplate my archival career. It wasn’t until I hung up my white gloves for good that I noticed one common thread linking all the archival projects in which I was deeply involved: each project exposed a palpably painful past. From each project surfaces stories of struggle, of slavery, of sorrow or of separation.

So I stand before you today to think aloud about why my career took this turn, and in doing so I hope to respond to the central question of Monument Lab, which is: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” I contend that Philadelphia, like any self-proclaimed free society, should construct memory sites for peoples whose experiences of exclusion, exploitation, or enslavement contradict that society’s common conception of itself. I urge this consideration because a free society will learn the most about itself by confronting its treatment of the least. Allow me to explain by briefly describing one of the earliest such archival projects from my past, one that took me right across the River to Trenton.

I was fortunate during my archival training and education to take classes at the University of Michigan with a mastermind professor, David Wallace. One reason I call him a mastermind is because he believed archivists could hone their crafts by exploring the world to see how records impact people’s daily lives. One such way to do this was to use archival records and subject oneself to the same silence, surveillance, and solitude to which we as future archivists would one day subject others; think of it like secret shoppers but with less money and more anxiety.

So, by way of a seminar with the historian Rebecca Scott, my secret shopping experiment brought me to the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton. I went there to chase a clue I randomly found on the job at the Bentley Historical Library. This clue suggested that the town of Princeton, New Jersey, was once home to a community of black refugee former slaves who fled the French colony of Saint-Domingue amidst the Haitian Revolution. At the New Jersey State Archives I’d hoped to find evidence of this community and write a triumphant tale of glory, fate, and freedom that would produce a history of hope and happiness.

Alas, I found no such evidence. An archivist on staff, however, pointed my attention towards another set of documents that she thought would interest me. These records told stories with a less harmonious end than the one I went there to find. In this story, in 1818 roughly seventy-five enslaved persons — some enslaved for life, some for a term of years — from New Jersey’s Middlesex County allegedly “consented” in the presence of the county judge, as required by state law at the time, to their sale out of New Jersey and into the state of Louisiana.

If that sounds absurd to you, that’s because it also sounded absurd to state prosecutors, who soon after the slaves’ removal brought charges of illegal slave removal outside the state limits against two New Jerseyans that arranged the affair: the son and the brother-in-law of the same judge who supposedly verified the consent of these slaves. I will spare you the suspense: amidst pressure from the judge’s powerful connections, the state eventually dropped the charges and the enslaved persons who were illegally trafficked to Louisiana likely never saw New Jersey again.

Important to this whole sequence is the likelihood that a good number of the enslaved people forced upon these southern-bound ships were to be freed after reaching a certain age, in accordance with New Jersey’s gradual abolition law. Confirming this likelihood is the trend over the three decades preceding the Civil War of enslaved individuals in different parts of the South who petitioned local courts claiming they were enslaved illegally by virtue of their birth years in the states of New Jersey, New York, and, yes, Pennsylvania. It stands to reason that as in New Jersey, Pennsylvania removal schemes also benefitted from judicial and legal collusion.

American nationalism, pride, and hope for happy endings hinders us from dedicating memorial sites to people with experiences similar to the seventy-five enslaved persons illegally trafficked out of central New Jersey and into the Deep South, likely leading lives to toil in turmoil and suffer in somberness. Theirs is a story of exclusion, of exploitation, and of enslavement that commands the story’s inheritors — us — confront the past and not merely celebrate it. American society, which purports itself to be free, typically earmarks memorials and monuments for history’s heroes whose valor should evoke the envy of villains and the pride of posterity. Yet, I submit that a free society learns the most about itself by confronting how it treated people with the least rights and least resources. This is to learn the most from the least. In particular, a free society better lionizes liberty through its enshrinement of the excluded, exploited, and the enslaved because of these peoples’ value and because of their vantage point.

The value these groups provided for individual and collective profits is almost immeasurable. With their hands were cultivated crops such as cotton, cane, and tobacco that produced unprecedented wealth for generations of white Americans, wealth that is currently eleven times that of black people. On the backs and bones of these bodies were built bridges, homes, universities, libraries, prisons, railroads, and nearly every public works project of the nineteenth century. That the wealth and health of this country, commonwealth, and city have been excised on the stolen labor of the oppressed is not contested. What’s contested is whether that value should be acknowledged, and, if so, where. I maintain that an official monument for a city occupies prime opportunity and real estate to afford in death what can never be repaid them in life.

Moreover, these peoples’ lived experiences on the margins stand as testament that their vantage point into a free society’s rhetorical reverence for righteousness and liberty can bring these large ideals into focus in ways that those closer to the center cannot. In a physical sense, the further back one steps from a large structure, the better able she is to see its totality, its vulnerability, and whether it is soon due to collapse. This is to say, if a free society truly seeks incisive insights into freedom, liberation, and justice, it would do well to look through the lenses and learn from the lives of those most deprived of them. To concretize the vantage point of the least is an indispensable ingredient to the inclusion of the oppressed into the American Dream, which started right here in Philadelphia, but for the least has been nothing but a nightmare.

I will conclude now with another story from right across the river, this one not from an archive but a prison. As I walked into the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility classroom on November 4, 2015, prepared to teach that evening’s session on appositions and relative clauses, my student Ace prompts me with an urgent question:

Yo J, did ya city have a mayoral election and did you vote?

A full workday of failure at crafting computer code found me in a rather beleaguered fog that night. Caught off-guard, I respond:

We had one but nah, man, I ain’t vote.

Ace reacts with rupture:

Yo, you fa real?!

Defeated and dumbfounded, I mumble an excuse about the election’s rubber stamp for Kenney, but Ace’s incredulity cuts me off:

“Yo I can’t believe you ain’t vote man…nah man, I’m done.”

Weeks passed before for our relationship returned to normal. I register Ace’s disgust and disappointment as the true inception of my political identity. Inspired by Ace’s acumen and ashamed by my apathy, I vowed to myself to know the political landscape of whichever city or town my millennial self inhabited that week. In preparation for this talk, I realized that I never once bothered to read the charter of the City of Philadelphia. Has anyone here read it? The charter’s preamble reads, in part, that the electors of Philadelphia seek local self-government for “all qualified citizens” to participate in, regardless of their racial or ethnic background.

Screenshot of the preamble to the charter of Philadelphia. See here for its context within the Philadelphia City Code.

As a matter of legal fact, Ace is not a qualified citizen and nor were the dozens of enslaved, exploited, and excluded children, women, and men who were shipped like sugar to the New Orleans slave market. Yet their ability to bring into focus what we nearer to the nave of the American project fail to see disrupts that notion. In fact, it is because they have had the least rights and the least resources that they are indeed the most qualified citizens. And if we accept the assertion that memorialization and monuments are not just portals to a past but foothills to a future, then it is incumbent for us to construct for posterity these confrontational visual reminders so as to ultimately usurp the usage of these or any other superlatives, to work towards a future when stories like theirs are firmly in the past. Quite literally, it’s the least we can do.

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