Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Interviews with Historian Andrew Ward

Uprooted. Image of a lone slave among the battle ruins in Richmond, Va. 1865.

History News Network interview with Andrew Ward:

HNN Robin Lindley: And you made a point of including a unique directory of witnesses.

Andrew Ward: One of the things that clobbers me the most about slavery is the notion of disappearing. I’m not a religious person, [but] I have a horror of oblivion. That probably has something to do with why I write, why I feel I have to leave something behind. And these people were dragged over here on slave ships, managed to survive the Middle Passage, got here, were told their name was another name, and became almost strangers to themselves, and die without a marker or record. There are all these stories of someone dropping dead in a field or running away and being killed. In [several] cases, a slave recounting would say, “We never knew his name. He just came, but he tried to run away. He was from Africa. They hunted him down and shot him.” It’s sort of this exaggerated version of the obscurity to which are all destined.

HNN: That’s a remarkable way of expressing why you included all the names.

Andrew Ward: This business of robbing them of their identities, their pasts, their selves, was part of it. That was what was redemptive to me about the Jubilee Singers because [they] created themselves. A classic American story is to come out of nowhere and reinvent yourself, overturn everybody else’s expectations about yourself, and become something others would never imagine you becoming.

That has a lot to do with why this [material] grabs me. It’s not just righteous indignation about slavery, although that’s a big chunk of it, but it’s also this sense that these people disappeared, many without a trace, but now, since Roots, there’s been a big African-American genealogical movement. There’s an organization [in Seattle] with Jackie Lawson. They’re ingenious and indefatigable in tracking down information. It’s discouraging to contemplate initially because the written record is not apt to be there, and you have to figure out if [a particular slave] on a manifest is related. You go back to plantation records. And they are tireless and very tough-minded about it.

That’s why I feel obliged to individuate these people as much as I can. I did that also in River Run Red. I try to make it clear these are individuals, and it’s one reason The Slaves’ War has such a variety of perspectives. It’s also why I put in a directory. African-Americans need, whenever possible, additional background information, and it’s incumbent on me to provide it. But it’s basically their book, not mine.

Andrew Ward on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart


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