Oral History in Ink
After years of teaching, researching and writing about literature of the African Diaspora, several English professors have turned their focus toward a more personal nature.
By Robin V. Smiles
Growing up in Charles City County, Va., Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance and her family did not know the story of their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Brown, whose three sons were taken away from her at different times and made indentured servants. The story they had been told, over and over again, was about Abraham — a free Black man who owned land and founded one of the earliest Black churches in the nation in 1810.
“We knew we were the descendants of Abraham,” Dance says.
Tracing that lineage back to Abraham and his mother, Elizabeth, has been a life-long journey for Dance, a professor of English at the University of Richmond in Virginia. When she was 20 years old and about to marry, Dance realized that she was the last to carry the Cumber name. That realization sent her on a desperate quest to record the stories she grew up hearing and the history of the name. The search, which began with interviewing family members, took her to the archives of Harvard, Hampton and Virginia State universities, inside the court records of Charles City County and through the public documents of the state of Virginia and anywhere else that her ancestors trod. In 1998, more than 35 years later, the search culminated with the publication of the Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, Va., Dance’s written account of her family’s direct history.
After years of teaching, researching and writing about literature of the African Diaspora, several English professors, like Dance, have turned their focus toward a more personal nature. They have become modern-day griots — retelling and retracing their families’ stories and preserving them in the printed word.
For Dr. Carla Peterson, the desire to write about her family’s history grew out of the need to fill a gap she noticed in her research on 19th-century Black women writers and the subsequent publication of her book ‘Doers of the Word’: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880).
“One thing that came out of Doers of the Word was how much work had been done on African Americans in Philadelphia and to a lesser extent Boston, and how very little had been done on New York City,” says Peterson, a professor of English at the University of Maryland College Park.
The silence intrigued Peterson, whose father’s family came from New York. During the past year alone, as a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Peterson has been able to trace her family’s lineage back to 1779 and the birth of one set of great-great-great-grandparents, Elizabeth Hewlett and Joseph Marshall. The truths she has uncovered reveal a counter-narrative to what traditionally has been taught. The untold story is one of free people of color in New York during the time of slavery running their own schools and businesses, building their own neighborhoods and communities, establishing political organizations and fighting for civil rights.
Peterson’s great-great-grandfather, Peter Guignon, was a member of the New York Association for the Political Elevation of the People of Color. Her great-grandfather, Philip Augustus White, was secretary of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children. He was also the first Black appointed to the Board of Education in Brooklyn. In the 1880s, White was responsible for getting Brooklyn to integrate the schools. Outside of education and politics, one of Peterson’s collateral ancestors, James Hewlett, was the first African American stage actor in the 1820s.
The stories are also romantic. Peterson’s great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Hewlett worked as a domestic servant for a number of wealthy families. Peterson found accounts in an unpublished autobiographical narrative written by Maritcha Lyons and held at the Schomburg Center in New York that recount trips Hewlett made to Lord & Taylor to buy lace as well as her marriage to Joseph Marshall, who ran away from his home in Venezuela because his family wanted him to become a Roman Catholic priest. And in a made-for-television twist, Peterson first copied the story of Joseph and Elizabeth because she thought it was interesting; it was not until later that she realized she was related to them.
Although the story of Peterson’s family might not be familiar for those approaching it through a traditional historical lens, many of the accounts are reminiscent of those in the fictional works of the noncanonical writers Peterson studies. Themes of community building, political activism and educational pursuit are prominent in the writings of 19th-century novelists such as Pauline Hopkins and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Another connection between the novels of the 1890s and Peterson’s project is the importance of tracing one’s history before arriving in the United States. Peterson points out that in the novels of Pauline Hopkins the characters go back to England and back to Africa to search for their roots. And in their attempt to be a “New Negro” in America, they are always aware of coming from somewhere else.
That somewhere else is an important aspect of Peterson’s project.
“I really want to tell the New York story, but I need to bring my ancestors from wherever they came from. I think that one of my big contentions is that these people came to the United States from different places. They came to New York to start a new life and become Americans and what happens is that they become African Americans.”
Peterson’s goal is not just to tell her family history but an untold social history as well — one that addresses broader issues of race and class within the African American community.
“I want people to realize how complicated the African American community is … and how both African Americans and the dominant culture have let all of this be forgotten,” she says.
For the last 12 years, Dr. Helen Chavis Othow, an English professor at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., has been working to reconstruct the memory of her ancestor John Chavis. Chavis was one of the first African American educators in the United States, teaching Latin, English and Greek to White students as well as some free Black students before the Civil War.
Like Dance’s memories of Abraham, Othow grew up hearing that she was a descendant of Chavis. So when she got an opportunity to do research, she decided to document that claim. Over a 10-year period she visited the archives in North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey as well as the National Archives in Washington. She also spent some time combing historical documents at Princeton University, where Chavis studied. The result is the publication of the book John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor (1783-1838) — an accomplishment that Othow readily admits is a high point of her career.
In traversing Chavis’ path, Othow discovered much about 18th-century African American culture. She uncovered a history of free Blacks in North Carolina that goes back to before the Revolutionary War. She discovered that these Blacks owned extensive land in North Carolina’s Granville County, where Othow lives today. And she documented that her ancestors were some of the first settlers in North Carolina.
Unlike Peterson and Dance, whose ancestors are mostly unknown outside the family, Othow’s story of John Chavis as an educator and minister is celebrated around North Carolina, particularly in Raleigh, where a middle school and park are named after him. Yet this public acknowledgement is partly what compelled Othow to undertake the project. According to Othow, articles written about Chavis have indicated he had no descendants. Therefore, part of her goal has been to correct what has already been written.
“When others try to write our history for us they often contradict the truth, the reality . . . We have to do our own research to find out the truth,” she says.
There is no question that family members and those directly affected will want to read these histories, but finding a broader audience has been a challenge for both Othow and Dance.
Dance, who has published several books related to her research on Caribbean writers and African American humor and folklore, was unsuccessful in finding a publisher for the Lineage of Abraham. One publisher was interested, Dance says, but wanted the book to be more commercial. Dance, however, was successful in self-publishing the book as a direct history primarily for her family.
Even without the backing of a big-name publisher, the stories in Dance’s book have found their way to a diverse audience. In addition to lecturing around the country on the book, she includes some of the stories in a book on folklore coming out in February, being published by W.W. Norton. Also, the story of one of her grandmothers, who had been written out of the family history by others, is included in Nikki Giovanni’s book Grand Mothers. That grandmother, Dance says, supposedly had children by President John Tyler, an angle she knows would interest publishers, if she made more out of it.
Othow’s book on Chavis was published by a small publishing company based in North Carolina. Although there were a number of book signings in North Carolina when the book first came out, Othow believes there needs to be more promotion of the book, and that it should be targeted toward a more general and widespread audience. “The general public needs to know about their past,” she says.
Peterson has not yet secured a publishing contract for her work, but is encouraged by the recent publication of two related works by others: a book on the New York African Theatre which includes an account of the career of James Hewlett, and a book on abolitionists that includes James McCune Smith who went to the African Free School with Peter Guignon in the 1820s and took Philip Augustus White as an apprentice in his pharmacy in the 1840s.
At the center of each of these professors’ family histories is a strong emphasis on the importance of education. All speak of ancestors who built schools, taught children and promoted literacy. The importance of higher education is also evident. Peterson’s ancestors were physicians and pharmacists. Three of Dance’s ancestors were enrolled in professional schools at Harvard at the same time. And Othow’s ancestor John Chavis received an education in the classics and rhetoric from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, as well as attended classes at Princeton University.
Yet, the story of free, educated, self-sufficient Blacks during the time of slavery is one that many have forgotten and many more have never known. What is more familiar is one of dependence.
“There is a kind of comfort in picturing Black slaves relying on the master or free Blacks relying on Whites,” Dance says. “But what is amazing to me is that their lives were not determined completely by Whites. They were individuals who struggled, learned to manage the system as racist as it might be, and raised their children, educated their children and made all kinds of sacrifices so they could be successful.”
Though these family histories might not have the commercial appeal that some publishers are seeking, “it is a story that should be told,” Dance says.
The fact remains, however, that these projects are a departure from the more traditional works of literary criticism and textual recovery that most English departments expect their professors to publish.
Dr. Barbara Griffin, acting chair of Howard University’s English department, admits that a new faculty member might have a problem convincing a review committee that such work is a contribution to scholarship in the academy. “It is a chance that an academic takes, and those people who have arrived have nothing to lose, so they can do it,” she says.
Griffin, however, also sees the move to study one’s personal history as a “natural second step” for those who study African American literature.
“Reclaiming roots is not an anathema to African American literature,” she says. “There has always been that blurring. African American literature has always been a story of connecting and reconnecting, displacement and replacement.”
For Dance, Peterson and Othow, writing their family stories can be seen as a synthesis of their professional obligation to academic research and their personal commitment to educating others. Even in their projects of a more personal nature, they rely on the tools of critical analysis and the kind of academic rigor they have honed on their road to tenure.
Whereas other projects might only occupy an academic milieu, these family histories have the potential to educate a broader audience.
As Peterson explains, the family is the entry point to capturing the reader’s interest. While someone might not pick up her book on writers of the 1890s, the family aspect might encourage them to pick up her new project. And in doing so, they will encounter much of the same themes surrounding the construction of the Black family and community and the role of education, she says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com