Monday, July 8, 2013

A Preview of Historically Speaking, June 2013

Randall Stephens

In not too long Project Muse will post the June issue of Historically Speaking.  In the meantime, copies are being shipped across the country and overseas to subscribers. 

The latest issue contains a lively range of essays.  This month we have the last of Joe Amato's three essays on revitalizing local history. Here he sketches a sensory history of 20th-century rural America. He then explores some causes and effects of the countryside’s marginalization in modern American society. On a related note, Don Yerxa interviews Canadian cultural historian Constance Classen about sense history.  Classen has written extensively on the senses, exploring the lived experiences of embodiment from the Middle Ages to modernity and helping us appreciate the tactile foundations of Western culture.  

Also in this issue are pieces on history and political thought, Mormon historical studies, Stalin and Nazi Germany, Civil War naval history, Britain and the Treaties of 1713 and 1763, family life in colonial New England, and a critique of hagiographical popular history. To round it out, Sean McMeekin speaks with Don Yerxa about the significance of July 1914 and the coming of World War I.

In "It’s Complicated: Rethinking Family Life in Early New England" Allegra di Bonaventura writes of the private lives of colonial Americans, teasing out a fascinating tale from the existing evidence.  "[W]riting about the early African-American family in New England," she notes, "depends unavoidably on the histories of the literate English who often owned and worked their African neighbors and bedfellows. Less evident, however, is that any mainstream history of the New England family faces a similar reckoning with the ethnic, logistical, and emotional complexities of real households."

She begins her piece with a harrowing story:

When his pregnant wife Joan and son Jack were taken from him by law and forced into slavery, a penniless former slave named John Jackson refused to submit to the prevailing powers or to society’s conception of him. Instead, he bided his time and planned a most audacious rescue of his family. After many months of preparation, he pulled it off—traveling across land and rough waters in the middle of the night to break into the house where they were held and “steal” them home. The year in which John Jackson staged this daring rescue was 1711, and the place he ran back home to was New London, Connecticut.

John and Joan Jackson belonged to New England’s first generations of enslaved people, men and women dispersed across English households and found especially along the region’s long coastline and in its port cities. John had arrived in Connecticut in 1686 as a young man of eighteen, emerging as freight and human property from the hold of a West Indian trade ship. At first, he probably worked the wharves at New London Harbor, then went on to receive training in husbandry, the stock and trade of the vast majority of New England men. His wife Joan was a different sort of New Englander. Hers was already an “old” New England family by colonial standards, one that could trace itself at least to the 1650s and the early years of settlement in New London. Joan herself was a native Connecticut girl. Arriving enslaved in a new land, John Jackson would nevertheless make a place for himself in its cold, unwelcoming clime. In time, he would unabashedly assert a life and family of his own—in freedom. 

Around 1700 John Jackson became free and married Joan. Still, whatever happiness the couple felt at uniting in marriage was dimmed by the reality that they had to live apart. Joan was an enslaved woman living in another man’s house entirely under another man’s control. Their first two children, a boy and girl, were born into this grim and uncertain reality—mother and father separated against their will and by miles. Within just a few years, however, Joan Jackson received a highly unusual grant of freedom from her master and mistress, acknowledging in part her dutiful service. Once free, Joan was able to join her husband, but even that reunion was cruelly shortchanged. Because their children, toddler Adam and baby Miriam, had been born while Joan was in bondage, they inherited their bonded status from her as well. By law, Adam and Miriam would be perpetual slaves, the property of their mother’s former owner. When she left to join her husband, Joan was forced to leave the children behind. She and John could visit them, but they would never live together as a family. Yet the Jacksons added a succession of additional children to their family, spending nearly a decade together in relatively peaceful domesticity. John was a farmer who owned no land but who could nevertheless hire himself out in support of his family. Joan was skilled at housewifery, an occupation that she, too, performed for others, as necessary. Any tranquility was abruptly halted in 1710, however, when a powerful local landowner claimed ownership of Joan in court, calling her freedom into question and eventually winning her as his property at trial. The sheriff came and seized a then pregnant Joan, along with their youngest child, two-year-old Jack. Joan and little Jack were taken to live in slavery across the Sound on Long Island, and it was from there that their husband and father would rescue them.

When John Jackson did act, he was not alone. With him that night in 1711 when he retrieved Joan and two of his children (a baby, Rachel, was born in slavery on Long Island) was an aging merchant by the name of John Rogers. The merchant, too, was an ardent family man, and one who had also found it necessary to fight for his family when the law took his wife and children away. For Rogers, it had not been slavery but religious difference that led him to suffer that deeply personal loss repeatedly. A religious radical, Rogers founded his own Baptist Sabbatarian sect, diverging from the prevailing Congregational way. Rogers was rich; Jackson, poor. Rogers was English; Jackson, African. Rogers had bought and owned Jackson after he arrived in Connecticut, and freed him more than a decade later.

The bond between Jackson and Rogers had unusual characteristics, formed first in the injustice of slavery, but also steeped in the new ideas and common purpose of a shared insurgent faith. . . .
Read more by subscribing to Historically Speaking.  Or, access the June issue on Project Muse through your library's account.

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