- Addressing the Problem of the Archive in Afro-Diasporic History
In October 1745, a white slaveholder named Margaret Arbuthnott placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette. "RAN away from the Subscriber, living in Hanover," it began:
two new Negroe Men, imported from Gambia, in the Brig. Ranger, and sold at Newcastle the 5th of September last; they understand no English, and are near 6 feet high, each; one of them is nam'd Jack, a right Black, with a Scar over the Right Eye-brow; the other a yellow Fellow, with 3 small Strokes on each Side of his Face, like this Mark (|).
Both men, Arbuthnott continued, wore "nap'd new Cotton Jacket and Breeches, without either Buttons or Button-holes, a new Oznabrig Shirt, and new Felt Hats." They carried a host of other goods, too. Arbuthnott alleged that Jack and his unnamed accomplice "stole a fine Damask Table-Cloth, 10 qrs. Square, 5 Yards and a Half of fine Scot Linen, 3 Yards and a Half of Sots 3 qr. Check, a white Holland Shirt, and a Silk Handkerchief." She promised that whoever returned the "said Negroes, and Goods to me, or to Mr. Robert Brown, Merchant, in Newcastle, shall be rewarded as the law allows."
For Arbuthnott, the runaway ad contained all the information that her audience needed. Every detail about language, skin tone, height, injury, ritual scarification, and dress was crafted to ensure the capture of the two fugitives from West Africa. Each description of cloth, linen, shirts, and handkerchiefs conveyed what needed to be returned in order to make Arbuthnott and Brown whole. The ad was meant to re-secure their mastery. Its sole purpose was to draw attention to Black lives in the way most useful for white domination. [End Page 579]
Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans and Euro-Americans like Arbuthnott documented the forced migration of enslaved people out of Africa and their ensuing enslavement and racial oppression in the Americas. Their documents were neither natural nor neutral. Instead, arising out of economic self-interest, cultural bias, and finally, modern racism, surviving sources including shipping records, plantation ledgers, and runaway ads reified slaveholding power. White power. Disjointed descriptions of buttonless cotton breeches, nameless slaves, and scarred black skin formed part of an archive that re-enforced the conditions of enslavement. They established the terms on which Black people were pursued by slavecatchers and scholars alike.
While scholars including Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Colin Dayan, Saidya Hartman, Stephan Palmié, Brent Hayes Edwards, Stephanie Smallwood, and Marisa J. Fuentes have provided invaluable work that identifies and addresses the role of white supremacy in the production of historical knowledge, the problem of the archive in Afro-diasporic history persists. Questions persist. How do we write about enslaved and even free Black subjects without replicating the violence of slavery, racial oppression, and archival reproduction? If the available sources impose limits on our understanding of people like Jack and his nameless companion, then how do we transcend them? For subjects who became fugitives in seeking freedom, is it even responsible to try?
Lisa Ze Winters, an Associate Professor of African American Studies and English at Wayne State University, provides compelling answers in The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic (2016). The book opens with a passenger boarding the slave ship La Galathée at Gorée Island, a historical center of slave trading and international commerce off the coast of Senegal. According to the ship's log, the passenger was a free woman of mixed European and African ancestry in possession of three enslaved people and traveling to meet her husband, a French gunsmith deported from Gorée Island to Louisiana for some unspecified crime. The log shows that she landed in New Orleans after four months at sea but she then disappears from the historical...