Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

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This battle is remembered annually by a faithful group of hobby history buffs who reenact the event, as a public form of commemoration. This narrative has been developed over years and is even recorded and posted on the internet. In addition, this battle has been represented in the film The Patriot, which was shot on location at Historic Brattonsville. Brattonsville is also a museum that uses actors to embody history representing not events, but ongoing activities that occurred repeatedly over time. Interestingly, there are few artifacts on display; the most notable collection is of period medical tools used by Dr.

Though the two house museums do contain some period furnishings, many of the rooms are empty, and others are off limits to visitors. As a result, the majority of the display activity takes the form of interpreters depicting life on the plantation. This primarily consists of demonstrations of period artillery, cooking and preparation of attire.

These living history interpretations are situated in the environment of the plantation estate. The estate is approximately seven hundred seventy five acres, and features over thirty colonial and antebellum structures including the two plantation house museums. In spite of the vast size of the estate, the main activities are limited to the plantation homes.

The museum features seasonal events, re- enactments, and living history programs that interpret life on the plantation between approximately and Thus, history coalesces with memory in inextricable ways, naturally mixing with the narratives used to articulate life on the plantation. Pierre Nora proposes the idea that what we conceive of as history and what we conceive of as memory are increasingly becoming separate from one another.


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As the world has moved toward democracy and mass culture globally, history carried forth in the form of ritual and tradition has receded. These are forms that contain the interwoven and dynamic relationship between history and memory, where memory solidifies, yet overflows Nora 7. These sites are the result of the increased speed endemic to modernization, and arise out of a collective desire to capture fleeting moments.

Nora elaborates three aspects of this new form of memory: archival, embedded in individual identity, and nostalgic. This form of memory is prosthetic in its nature, and is distinct from social practice. This form of memory translates itself into individual identity, as opposed to collective identity. As individuals, we each search for our own history. The less that memory is embodied in social practice, the more it must be embodied in identity. The third aspect of memory Nora describes is nostalgic. It represents a change in the distance between present and past.

As opposed to attempting resurrection of the past, the past becomes a question of representation. Of course, the loss of history poses a special problem for African-Americans. As Nora suggests, in the case of those disenfranchised from history, there is a sense that history must be reconstructed by memory. In his seminal work, Slavery and Social Death, Orlando Patterson describes the condition of slavery as a form of symbolic death.

Less is known about these men and women than about any other generation of American slaves Horton If, as Nora proposes, memory has only two forms of legitimacy: historical and literary, we can see the problem the loss of historical evidence presents Nora Thus, the two problems, the contemporary issue of changing social dynamics of memory and history, and the permanent nonexistence of historical marking points, congeal in the crisis at Brattonsville, compounding each other.

The system of archives of which Brattonsville is a part serves as a claim to historical legitimacy.

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For some, these archives necessarily serve as the foundation for accurate representation. For others, the absence of archival evidence renders history invisible and inauthentic where representation is restricted by archival evidence. For some, the gaps in the archives demand interpretation, while for others the gaps are the condition for forgetting.

Here, we can observe another level of complexity inherent to this conflict: the reproduction of the past symbolic death in the present due to the symbolic death of the past. The struggle to produce social relationships and symbolic representations in spite of domination is also reproduced in this exchange. However, the embodiment of these ghosts creates conflict over identity in the absence of evidence, and the absence of this archival history problematizes a radical reconstruction of slave identity, ultimately reproducing a form of social death by making slave identity invisible and inauthentic.

The failure to reclaim historical identity via memory seems to lead to nostalgia, as Nora predicts, and manifests as a sort of diffused lighting and sepia tone, disclosing stock characters detached from historical or temporal relevance, and attached to a particular dreamy denial of the past. Both descendants of perpetrators and victims of plantation life call for the remembrance of parts of history that are only compatible as fragments, and can only oppose each other as dominant narratives.

Some believe the path to reconciliation involves forgetting the brutality and victimization of ancestors, others believe that reconciliation can only be achieved by remembering. Ultimately, Historic Brattonsville, as a site of memory, reveals the complexity of the relationship between memory and history, and alludes to the way in which these conflicts play out in the material realm of narrative representation.

Brattonsville as Narrative On a fundamental level the experience of Historic Brattonsville is a narrative one. This can be perceived by the way the visitor is incorporated into the story, by the handling and representation of time, and the ways in which connections are drawn to a familiar metanarrative about plantation life. Upon arriving at Historic Brattonsville, the visitor cast into a story, sometimes as an active participant, and other times as an observer. The visitor is asked to participate with the interpreters as they emerge against the backdrop of nostalgia. Depending on the event, the visitor may be assigned a character to play.

This narrative strategy engages the visitor in the story as an active participant. It generates visitors as protagonists moving through history.

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Historic Brattonsville attempts to capture two historical moments simultaneously. The first moment is the time period during which the original structure was built and utilized, circa the s. The second moment is the time period of a second and substantially less modest structure built circa to house the second generation of Brattons. These time periods are separated by a road, which physically divides the estate into two. The buildings that surround these two main homes are a mix of original structures and fabrications. Upon arrival, visitors are given a map, and encouraged to walk a particular path so that they can experience the plantation chronologically.

The path weaves its way through the major sites, creating a seamless experience that incorporates both the reproductions and original structures. The interpreters either perform or describe scenes of what would have been happening in a particular location at the approximate time of the display. Although there is no specific plot, the experience of encountering characters in a temporal construction can be viewed as a genre of story, or at least excerpts that fit into a larger narrative.

This kind of narrative seems to ask the visitor to contextualize what they experience in a temporality they are familiar with prior to visiting the museum. This seems to call for a greater imaginary than other kinds of stories, but seems in keeping with narratives found in artwork common to museums and familiar to museum visitors. The stories of Brattonsville intersect and connect with a familiar metanarrative that constructs the antebellum South.

This narrative is an extension of the development of historic home preservation in the United States.

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Thus, the plantation museum became a form of national representation that was constructed on top of a national narrative of patriotism and nobility. Of course, this fit well with the way in which plantations were constructed in memory from their earliest representations, culminating in Gone with the Wind, which is one of the most viewed movies in history. Narratives are typically conceived of as stories with a beginning, middle and an end. They are temporal structures for cultural concepts.

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed that the relationship between narrative and time causes us to position a story into the context of narratives that we have synthesized in memory previously. It is through the connection between our understanding of life in the context of time before the story, the representation of time within the story, and the change to our understanding of how events may be ordered in time after the story that the mediation between time and narrative occurs.

If events in a story do not correspond to our pre-understanding, then the story does not resonate. If the story does succeed in fulfilling our expectations of time, then the story offers us insight into how events occur. This seems to offer insight into what gives narratives social power, and what makes them so resistant to change. In the context of Brattonsville this raises two issues. First, the gap between the story that we come with and the story that is presented seems to be easily filled with all of the previous stories we have seen about antebellum Southern life.

This is an area of conflict between the curator and the interpreters. The museum director believed that a radical break with the story that has always been told would not be believable. The second issue that this raises shows up on the side of the interpreters. Interestingly, social relationships are not represented at Brattonsville. In other words, interpreters do not represent interactions the characters they embody may have had with one another.

Thus, our understanding of the social relationships in the narrative expressed in current day Brattonsville are derived from the narrative we had stored in our memory of previous narratives. This raises a further issue. Andreas Huyssen points out that museums have become a form of mass media. Historic Brattonsville is an example of how the museum has become a mass medium, attracting less erudite visitors and offering wider access to the public by engaging participation on numerous levels and through different forms and styles of representation.

French philosopher Bernard Stiegler theorizes the connection between media as the prosthetic devices through which we enable memory. Stiegler goes further than either Nora or Ricoeur in his analysis of what he perceives as an original default of poor memory for the human being. For Stiegler, there is no real distinction between story, event, story of event, and event of story. Any distinction is only formal; what is recorded is what is remembered.

As a result our memories are profoundly impacted by the industries that produce knowledge symbolically.

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For Stiegler, the media does not merely serve as a co-producer of memory, but produces memory. Further, he theorizes the inseparability of industrialization and memory to such an extent that industrialization changes the structure of our thought itself. We think the thoughts that fuel the cycle of industrialization. In other words, we become complicit in the process of industrialization through our failure to see outside of it, which is a natural outgrowth of our need to exteriorize memory in material sites that contain narrative memory.

Narrative is our only way of making sense of representation, so without a radical intervention that operates in juxtaposition to previous narrative, it seems impossible to alter this process of forgetting. In this way, radically redefining the slave becomes a political action that fundamentally challenges capitalism.

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Simultaneously, however, this act of freeing memory, freeing identity, freeing the self, becomes increasingly impossible. This raises questions about the viability of a counter- hegemonic narrative and the conditions under which it can be successful. The conflict at Brattonsville manifested as a problem of form. The embodiment of the slave called for a conception of slave identity.

Further, the dispute was resolved by modifying the form of representation such that the conception of identity was eliminated from the portrayal. This poses the question of how form influences narrative. Living museums can be viewed as specific story forms that present narratives of identity through embodied characters.

The National Park Service, which has been responsible for the majority of living history sites, began using costumed interpreters who described historic times and events as early as the s, but these programs only became popular in the s. The Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums was founded in the s, and began to publish guides for developing these sites and incorporating living history into their representation.

They produced several manuals on implementing living history directed toward site staffs and interpreters. The Plimoth Plantation went a step further by developing theatrical techniques in which interpreters embodied characters dramatically. They began to share their successes with museums seeking to develop interpretation. Living history intentionally draws connections between representation and identity. Benedict Anderson draws an interesting connection between narrative and time, the collectivization of narrative memory as culture, and the creation of identity. For Anderson, narratives develop out of lapses in memory Anderson Like Stiegler and Nora, Anderson sees memory as contained outside the body in material representation as various prosthetic devices like photographs and documentary forms of archives.

For Anderson, even identity cannot be remembered without representation. Because representation is only legible as narrative, identity also must be narrated Anderson This aspect of narrative occurs in such a way that although the framing is historical, the setting is sociological Anderson In this way the living museum can be viewed as a kind of prosthetic for narratives of identity. The performances within the historical environment become referents for identity. First person interpretation requires the interpreter to become a character who is either a historical figure or a composite of figures who performed specific roles in society.

Whereas with third person interpretation, the museum interpreter dresses in period attire, but simply describes events and provides information about the period. In this case the interpreter retains their present day identity. This change once again highlights the issues that were at stake in the controversy. The attempt of the interpreters was to reclaim and reconstruct the identity of the slave by interceding in the museum narrative. By embodying slaves, the interpreters were faced with the choice of either participating in the mainstream hegemonic narrative, in which slaves are a minor part of remembered Southern history, or they could participate in a process of reconstructing African-American identity, in the manner Nora describes as critical to living at a time where memory and history are bifurcated.

The actions of the interpreters seem to play into a narrative of resistance to imposed identity and the active construction of representation from within oppression that has been an integral part of the African- American experience since the beginning. Narrative interacts with form here, as the objective of change to identity could only be accomplished in the narrative form of first person. The conflict specifically and most potently developed over the portrayal of Watt.

Watt was considered a hero worthy of commemoration by the Brattons because he empowered their freedom, while disempowering his own. Since the reasons that Watt made that decision will never be known, there is actually no claim to a particular representation of his identity based on the legitimacy of anything other than the hegemonic narrative of the plantation. Of course, this is the same narrative that annihilated the identity of slaves in the first place.

The post civil rights African- American consciousness breaks with an identity that can be reconciled with the subjugated mind. Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave. A disconnect has developed between the image of the slave embedded in prosthetic forms, and the identity of African-Americans today.

Identifying Watt as a heroic slave calls for a buying into a narrative in which African- Americans were satisfied with their condition as slaves. Eichstedt and Stephen Small identify four main categories of representing race: symbolic annihilation and erasure, trivialization and deflection, segregation and marginalization, and relative incorporation Eichstedt and Small Whereas third person represents the slave as a kind of an object, first person represents the slave as an identity.

By eliminating first person, slave identity was eliminated from the depiction. This change is a form of eradication. Furthermore, on the infrequent occasions that first person representation of a slave is allowed, this interpretation is restricted to the special narrative of the event, such that some other aspect of slave identity is depicted and universalized.

This allows the hegemonic narrative that claims that the plantation was a place of grandeur to thrive in spite of the truth that the structure of the plantation was only successful due to the extraction of slave labor under a reign of terror. The first person performative form of slave narrative allowed access to a space for a counter-hegemonic representation in a way that cannot be achieved by a third person representation. The dynamic fusion of history and memory at Brattonsville compounds the significant gaps in archival documentation, and naturally generates conflict over representation.

Present day narratives intertwine seamlessly with the narratives of past, and congeal in the surreal mix of time periods, artifacts and interpretation that comprise the representation of plantation life. If narrative is perceived as the process by which this mix memory and history becomes legible, and also as naturally tending toward stasis and reification, we can also perceive reasons why the radical action of the interpreters failed to produce change.

Further, we can understand why a simple change to form of representation, from first person to third person interpretation, places a limitation on content that produces the disappearance of slave identity from the museum. In spite of a progressive urge to represent slavery, the dynamics of contested remembrance at Brattonsville operate as a process that ultimately reproduces the power dynamics of slavery, reaffirming the identity of the planter.

Much more work is necessary to understand the exact process by which narrative either reproduces status quo or has the material force necessary to produce change. The dynamics of narrative did not have to result in the eradication of slave identity. A comparison with similar events at plantations including Colonial Williamsburg might reveal more about this process. When Colonial Williamsburg sought to stage a slave auction, numerous groups, including the NAACP, objected and prevented the first display from starting on time.

After debate and at the strong request of the museum, the performance opened, and the harsh portrayal of slavery was perceived as a success. A comparison of these incidents might reveal other important dynamics of representation and narrative, and point to a process by which narrative intervention could be used as a strategy for social change.

The slave was represented as a mother having lost a child. No reference was made to the other facets of the slave identity. This house is positioned adjacent to and only a short distance from the main house. The interior of the structure is windowed and is approximately three hundred square feet. It seems impossible that this structure could possibly have housed so many slaves.

It seems unlikely that the conditions of slavery were so comfortable. We are told that house is that of a domestic slave, who is embodied by a light-skinned woman. This begs the question of the relationship between the planters and their slaves. It is well known and has not been disputed that many of the black descendents of Brattonsville slaves are also related to the Bratton slave owners. Rufus Bratton is widely accepted as having produced the majority of the mulatto descendents.

Rufus Bratton is also widely known as the most brutal of the Bratton planters. Historical archives inform us that he was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan, who at one point had to flea to Canada because he was wanted for lynching. So, when the interpreters felt the need to dramatize rape, it seems that there is plenty of evidence to support this claim. The museum claims to have tried to establish relationships with the local African-American descendants so that the representation could be more effective.

But, in reality they are unwilling to even tell the truth that is widely known and shared amongst African-American Brattons. Since the article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, I have known that I am one of these descendants. And as I have studied Brattonsville, from time to time, I have caught myself looking for traces of my ancestors and myself in the image of the plantation. I was immediately welcomed as equally a descendant of the Bratton planter and his slave. Strangely, it had never once occurred to me that I was a part of both sides of this history.

Ultimately, I left with a strange feeling of ambivalence, and a sense of the profound unknowability of the past, yet its grave pertinence to the present. Anderson,Benedict R. Benedict Richard O'Gorman , London: London : Verso, The item may have some signs of cosmetic wear, but is fully operational and functions as intended. This item may be a floor model or store return that has been used. See details for description of any imperfections. Skip to main content. About this product.

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Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Shipped to over one million happy customers. See details. Buy It Now. Add to cart. Be the first to write a review About this product. About this product Product Information This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and re-enactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology.

Lisa Woolfork cogently analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their recreations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.

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Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
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