Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Museums

Fredericksburg’s Stone in Focus

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If all problems were all easy to solve, there would be no problems. This case is one that presents me with mixed feelings, mostly since I have been considering this for years. The centerpiece here is round block of sandstone at the corner of William and Charles Streets in Fredericksburg, Va. It stands in front of what used to be hotel, but is now a locally owned grocery and apartments. I have lived all over town in my long association with my home away from home, but I have never gotten to live in this building. It sits at the center of a great patch of Civil War era photography—in fact some of the town’s most famous pics were right there in a lot across Charles St. Sadly, no one took a photograph of this corner, and there is very little documentation about the stone as well.

But that does not mean it has no story. It has long been understood as having served as an auction block upon which enslaved Africans were stood so as to be presented to bidders. The warehouse down Charles St is also said to have served as storage area for enslaved Africans before sale. It is all plausible enough—there were enslaved people sold in town, and on this corner in fact. Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 12.56.18 AMAs NPS historian John Hennessy points out, there is not much else to lock in the story of the block. The local memory though is pretty strong, and needs to be given due weight—indeed, it has. There is a rival story that the block was a stepping stone for carriages and horses, but we can just push that aside since there is nothing about that role that would prevent the block from serving as an auction block as well at another time.

I am not going to take on the question of a thing being a thing. Let’s for the sake of argument say that it is. Or rather, even if it might not be, it certainly has been considered to be genuine long enough and widely enough to have entered the public discussion as what it purports to be (clear…?). What I am interested in though is the memorialization question. Long ago I began asking students, while standing at the stone, to give me reasons to keep it there or to move it. They were always creative and now I wish I had had them write the answers! The one thing that always bothered me though was a curatorial issue. Out in the open air, exposed to the elements, and with cars zipping by, I always felt that the stone was being treated with slight regard.

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Take the LW stone at Mount Vernon (discussed in chapter six of the book I am writing now! plug plug). It maaaaay be a seventeenth-century survival, or it might not be. In either case, curators wisely moved it into storage and filled it place in the Mount Vernon cellar with a carefully matched and crafted  doppelganger. I have always sort of wanted the same thing done for the Auction Stone—if nothing else just to protect it from a drunk driver.

But now something else has emerged. A group of citizens is asking that the stone be removed from where it seems to have stood (probably stood) since the middle of the nineteenth-century. I first learned of this movement on Facebook and I had a lot of questions. Significantly, the leadership of the group is African American—specifically the contemporary community theoretically most honored by what the Fredericksburg.com editorial rightfully calls an “ugly artifact from an even uglier era in the city’s history.” In this view, the stone is a chastisement and a grim reminder of bad things in an “ugly” past.

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Fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com

Its presence is an act of atonement of sorts in stone through an ever-present reminder of past sins. But what the people asking for its removal are saying is that, rather, the stone is a needlessly painful reminder of a past that is not so distant from some residents’ contemporary experiences. The people who do not bear the lingering social, financial, and perhaps genetic effects of American Slavery I (1500—1865) and American Slavery II (1865–c1968) might need visible reminders of the past they have the good fortune to be able to otherwise forget. But others may be living more within other more immediate reminders, making some aspects of the past more present for them than for their neighbors. For those people, one stone more or less does not remove, forget, or erase the past. Instead, it might make the present less painful on a daily basis. The editorial suggests an answer—a recontextualization of the stone. The current plaque by the stone is by all measures insufficient. Thus, something richer and more informative is a categorical good. I use the stone each year to spark student conversation, and making the site a more useful teaching tool for everyone appeals to me. But at the same time, moving forward on this will require listening long and carefully to some of the concerns raised by voices within the African American community. It will require walking into those discussions without a “remainer” fait acompli in place. City officials might hear of very real pain which some citizens feel over this, and that that pain is not about a distant abstract past that needs to be remembered, but rather about how that past’s shadow is visited unevenly on people in the present. I have no idea what the memorializing outcome might be, but if that discussion was real and given time to mature, it would be a huge step forward in and of itself. It could be the stone upon which a new consensus could be built.

 

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Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Morris, Illinois. 

Riding the ACA Route 66 Trail and Google Map suggestions. 

What can I say about Illinois. It has a certain presence corn corn corn corn corn corn that really captures the eye corn corn corn corn corn corn and leave one with a pervasive corn corn corn corn corn corn sense of what this place is all about. The landscape is dominated corn corn corn corn corn corn corn by one or two stand out elements corn corn corn corn corn corn corn corn that really corn corn corn corn corn corn corn define the place. Oddly though, I am at a loss for a single word to describe it–one single stalk of a word with the kernal of meaning that can reach high as an elephant’s eye and cut through this maize. Cob dammit, I feel like a husk since I lack the grit to find the right word no matter hominy times I try! Aw shucks.  ​

​Another feature has been roads that are sprayed with tar and then graveled. In time this makes a rough but solid macadam, but when new, the way is sticky and slow, I spent many miles listening to my tires popping tar bubbles as I rolled over them. Much of Illinois looks quite a bit like western Kansas in that it is flat and farm-filled. But there is more housing here and it was of a more familiar eastern suburban/rural nature. I saw very little that caught my eye or looked old. Instead, there were lots of ranch houses with those well-mowed lawns and that big tree whose base is surrounded by plants. But the fields really were endless. 

Part of our path to Chicago has us riding the old Route 66 run. I am at a total loss as to why there is some sentimental connection to this highway. Yes, there was song, and yes, it is now a sort of self-perpetuating nostalgia long detached from its original causes, but apart from that I am lost. I guess it mattered that it once was the main road between Chicago and LA, and as such it was the ribbon which bound up many a midwestern family vacation. And no doubt many a Hollywood culture maker had it as part of their psyche and so it became part of ours–sort of in the way the economy of the Planet Televison seems to rely disproportionally on the business of comedy and comedy writing. Oddly, no one can really explain to me why Route 66 should be so important. I missed my chance to go to the Route 66 museum in Pontiac–they might have explained it. The woman at the restored Historoic Gas Station in Ordell could not answer my question either. She confirmed though something I knew–that Europeans were more connected to the Route 66 idea than were Americans. For them, Route 66 connects to some romanticized Americanism whereas for us it is, umm, maybe a fantasy memory of the 50s? I dunno. How many people are left anyway with that Happy Days vision in place? It seems pretty clear to me that as a set of historical sites, Route 66 is fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant. Only a few sections still survive and here and there remain some kitschy motels and trinket shops, but since no one really travels there this way anymore there are no new memories being made. In a generation all of this will be even more mysterious. The whole thing seems linked to that confusing and ultimately unhealthy love of the automobile I saw in elderly riding gangs in Nevada. The romance of Route 66 then becomes something akin to an old racist song or those horrible 50s comedians, who, drink in hand, told jokes about or imitated drunk people: it might have been innocent enough in its day, but it is impossible for us to put the blinders back on and see through those eyes ever again. With that said, anything that leads to the preservation of an old and easily overlook vernacular building is a good thing. So, keep the motels and the gas stations say I–but let’s visit them by bicycle. We can pop tar bubble along the way and corn corn corn corn corn corn corn. 

 

Washington in Barbados (or a Long Post About a Short Trip)

George Washington was famously well-traveled. His careers as a surveyor and soldier of the King gave him a detailed familiarity the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Riding at the head of the Continental Army brought him to and through cities and communities all along the eastern seaboard, and once elected president he used travel as a way to see and be seen by the people of the new United States.

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Walter Kerr Cooper’s imagining of GW in Barbados.

But for all of this travel, he only left the continental US once in his life. For four months at the end of 1751 he accompanied his sickly brother Lawrence to the British Colony of Barbados. The trip was meant to address his older brother Lawrence’s weak lungs by bringing them from Virginia to the softer, breezier, less humid, supposedly more healthful air of the Caribbean. Lawrence’s problems had actually begun years earlier in the Caribbean, but the view that changing one’s air could change one’s health was one was tenet of one of the competing regimes of medical logic confronting an ailing eighteenth-century Briton looking for relief. The Washington brothers had already traveled up to the Appalachian foothills to seek out the warm springs and cool dry air of what is now Jefferson County West Virginia. But that had limited effect at best. The Barbados trip was another attempt clean out, air out, and dry out Lawrence’s failing lungs.

And so it was that the two took bunks on a Barbados-bound vessel. There is some disagreement about just what ship this was. Some advocate a trip from a Potomac port aboard the Success, while others have argued that the sailed from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock about the aptly named Fredericksburg. The George Washington Papers project at UVa and the Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon are in the later stages of creating a new and probably authoritative edition of the small, damaged, and fragmentary journal Washington kept during his trip.

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A little section of GW’s navigation note courtesy of The Washington Papers

Project Editor Alicia Anderson has made it her business to master enough trigonometry to be able to use Washington’s navigation notes to plot out the pace and path of the voyage. The chart she will create will go a long way towards settling the port of embarkation question. While we wait though, the most commonly read copy of the Barbados Journal is the one edited by J.M. Toner and published in 1892. It is full of oddities and errors, but it works. I have kept a copy of it on my phone so that I can refer to it on the fly while on the island. The George Washington Diaries also handled the Barbados Diary with a very good descriptive essay and a facsimile of the original which resides in the Library of Congress. The book I am now writing has a chapter on the Barbados trip and soon the new edition of the Diary will be out. Erin Holmes also will be pairing Washington’s homes and Barbadian homes in her University of South Carolina dissertation comparing plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados, so GW’s time on the island is really happening!

The Brothers W arrived at Bridgetown in late October (or so it seems—the first actual entry on the island is dated November 4th, but pages before it are missing). They had a fairly calm crossing in which they enjoyed the swells of the sea and ate dolphin—a Caribbean favorite which smart marketers have renamed Mahi Mahi so that no one thinks they are eating a porpoise. In arriving at Bridgetown, Washington landed in the most cosmopolitan British city he had ever seen. The two colonies were roughly the same age, shared a somewhat similar history, had long-standing and extensive trade connections, and bore a superficial resemblance in government and society. Before sugar took over the island’s acres, planters had made a short- lived stab at tobacco planting hoping to recreate Virginians’ early seventeenth-century success. Like Virginians, Barbadian Britons could talk of an assembly, a governor and his council, they lived on plantations, and relied on enslaved African labor to keep themselves fed and have their fortunes made.

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Henry Partleton’s 1880 photo of Bajan cane cutters. Partleton.co.uk.

 

On top of that, the mix of Britons and enslaved Africans was a bit like that found along Virginia’s rivers. But that was where the similarities ended. Bridgetown was nothing like any place in Virginia graced as it was with in-town homes of wealthy planters, an English-style church, well-built and fully manned military instillations, and large a Spanish and Portuguese descended Jewish community of merchants. An upcoming blog entry will deal a bit more with Washington and the Jews of Barbados. But even though Washington was something of a city kid by Virginia standards having lived most of his life at the doorstep of the small city of Fredericksburg, Bridgetown was something new.

The countryside was different as well. Sugar production led to a very different form of African enslavement and called into being very different cycles of labor. And Virginia was big: really quite big. That size—especially on its western edge—had already defined a significant part of the lives of the Brothers W and would soon offer even more. Even where Virginia settlement was dense it was never particularly crowded. By contrast, Barbados was a tiny island packed tight with actually fairly small sugar plantations and the distinctive stone windmills used to grind the valuable juice out of the cane. Washington noted that “scarcely any part” of the island “is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea & land.” (Toner, 58). He was correct, and his observation is of course still true today—but the many views only emphasize the tiny scale of the island.

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St Philip’s Church in the early 19c. The church I think is later than GW’s visit, but the landscape is more or less the same. I doubt GW got this far from Bridgetown though. Pentleton.co.uk

But the young Washington was thrilled at what he saw on this grand adventure. On his trips into the countryside he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects” which presented themselves to he and Lawrence and he marveled at the “fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees &c. in a delightful green”(Toner, 42). Washington took note of landscape and vegetation on these country forays. He commented on soil quality, the scale of sugar production, and agricultural practices. This was more than a mere curiosity. Sugar was a far more lucrative crop than was Virginia’s tobacco—partly accounting for why comparatively small island holdings could yield profits enough to even allow some planters to live well back in England. By way of context, a large Barbados plantation would be about 400 acres–that was the size that Washington said were the largest plantations. Henry Drax though owned 705 acres at the end of the seventeenth-century. His was one of the largest holdings on the island and one that allowed him to live back in England. On the other hand, John Dottin’s Mount Edge was 166 acres in 1759—a far more typical holding for a nice plantation. Plots of 10 acres though were not uncommon though. Compare that with the close to 1000 acres Washington inherited when his father died (himself owning l close to 10,000) of the 18,000 acres Washington took control of when he married Martha. Washington was just then making his first money though land surveying—an enterprise that rested on the availability of ever more new lands. To a Virginian, Barbados’s planters and their agricultural system working a tiny patch of land in the middle of nowhere seemed to hold the key to a sort of magical alchemy for making a fortune. At the same time though, Washington seemed astounded that so many planters were in debt or even lived poorly–a foreshadowing of his own unease with debt.

Washington also brought some book learning to his descriptions. He referenced Griffith Hughes’s 1750 The Natural History of Barbados and matched his own descriptions of plants to those of Reverend Hughes. When and where Washington saw the book is unclear. A copy did not end up in his library, but there may have been one at the Fairfaxes’. It is also possible that he had a copy (or bought a copy) on the island itself. However he laid his hands on Hughes’s work, it is one of the earliest examples we have of Washington employing reading in this fashion.

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A folio of Hughes from the Barbados Museum. Washington was interested in nature enough to have even come home with a small bit of coral.

The brothers settled into a simple one-story rented house which sat on a rise of land a short distance east of Bridgetown. For the cost of 15 Pounds a month paid to an officer of the garrison, they had the run of the place—but they had to pay for their own liquor and laundry. The home was close to the stone coral fort at Needham’s point and close to the garrison’s parade ground. It also afforded a superb view of Carlisle Bay with its ships riding at anchor. This home is now restored to an eighteenth-century appearance and serves as a museum dedicated to the Washingtons’ time on the island. The home is larger than it was then and has had a second story added to it, but the feel is there. The area around it is completely changed as well. The commanding view is blocked by trees and a new building cut directly into the limestone hillside. The garrison has changed considerably too. What began as useful flat near Needham’s Point grew in the nineteenth-century into an expansive military complex ringing a large turf race course. Today it all is the home of schools, government buildings, the Barbados Historical Society and museum, and the Barbados Defense Forces who, by the way, have a legal monopoly on the wearing of camouflage on the island. Colonial Williamsburg conducted excavations at the home in 1999 and 2001. These mainly concentrated on the steep ravine to the east of the home—a logical place for centuries’ worth of trash to accumulate. Virginia students still return here to do some digging in the ravine to this day. The artifact assemblages though cover a large swath of time, and apart from some very familiar 1740s and 50s white salt glazed stoneware plate, nothing has emerged dating with any precision to the years of the Washington visit—nor is anything much likely to. Nevertheless, the lower parts of the house—and especially its cellar with its hewn stone and wooden beams—are good links to the eighteenth century.

While the purpose of the trip was largely medical, the Washingtons did a considerable amount of socializing with the local gentry. Their main contact on the island was Gedney Clarke, a player in the local commerce and governance as well as being Lawrence’s wife Anne’s stepmother’s brother (head spinning as that connection seems to us, eighteenth-century English families were pretty used to these extended networks of kin by blood or marriage).

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Agostino Brunias’s “The Barbadoes Mulato Girl’ circa 1765. This depiction of Barbadian women captures very much the sort of enslaved people Washington would have seen.

Clarke had a thriving trade with William Fairfax and sent not only sugar and rum to the Potomac, but also procured enslaved people and goods for the Fairfaxes and other members of their extended commercial family—including both Lawrence and George. Clarke opened society’s doors, and with his aid Washington toured fortifications, dined with several prominent families (sometimes with their daughters deliberately placed front and center), attended the theatre, went to church, and rode into the countryside when he could. It is not clear just how far northward Washington actually ventured. His descriptions best match the rising hills of the south, and nowhere did he mentioning the rather astounding natural features of the north. He did nevertheless refer to people who at least had land there even if Washington never made it that far above the Bridgetown area.

Washington clearly was matching what he saw on the island against what he knew at home. “The ladys generally are very agreeable” he wrote, but also felt that they were prone to “affect the Negro style” perhaps in speech and manner—something the young Virginian saw as a liability compared to the women he knew back home. (Toner, 61). This racially inflected haughtiness was no doubt one of the reasons that he did not return home with a Barbadian bride or a prospect in mind. He noted the level of militia service and how men were apportioned in some detail, and he also discussed the island’s defenses noting that “they have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to land.” (Toner, 62). I find it very interesting that Washington paired concerns about race and fortifications in his journal—something that I will be discussing in the upcoming book’s Barbados chapter.

Clarke—or rather, someone in the Clarke household—was responsible for the most enduring outcome of the Barbados trip—George’s bout with small pox. The Washingtons knew that someone either at the Clarke plantation house or the in-town house had the disease, but they risked a dinner visit nonetheless. Once the illness had passed Washington could record in the diary that on November 17th, he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” (Toner, 53). As these things went, it was on the mild side and obviously could have gone far worse. But that would have meant nothing to a young man sweating out a renowned deadly fever far from home and attended by caring, though ultimately unfamiliar people.

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Sugar cane was generally ground to produce cane juice which could be boiled to make sugar. English Barbadian planters used either wind, oxen, or horses to move the grinders. The windmill was so common a sight little images of them adorn over a century of maps. Today only one wind mill still functions–Morgan Lewis on the north eastern side of the island. Image from the George Grantham Bain collection.

He spent most of November in bed—the diary is understandably silent. By December 12th he was recovered enough to visit the Clarkes in Bridgetown and thank them for their care and visits during his illness. The consequences of Washington’s smallpox are difficult to pin down. There are those who like to say that that fevered island month inoculated George against the disease, and thus ensured that he would not die of it before, or even during the Revolution. That line of reasoning’s implications are clear: a small amount well-timed body fluid contact preserved Our Washington and in so doing secured the fate of the Republic. There are a lot of “ifs” in that charming premise, but one can understand how such a view could take root. The other often-cited consequence was that the fever rendered Washington incapable fathering children. This outcome is the opposite of the former outcome. In the former, Washington is saved to be the Father of the Country, whereas in the later he is denied the ability to be a father. And of course there is a relationship between the two outcomes. The challenge here is the uncertain relationship between small pox and male sterility. The simplest version of this relationship is that there is none—small pox does not cause sterility. The fever itself though can do permanent damage and other opportunistic illnesses can do their horrid work while a body’s defenses are down. The answer though is that we cannot say with any real certainty that the lack of direct line little Washingtons was because of that poorly timed dinner at the Clarkes’s.

As this rather long entry shows, I have quite a bit to say about Washington and Barbados—here I just spun out a few of the themes I am working with. And I have not even touched yet on Washington memory on the island long after the famed visit. A few important take aways though are the value of the Barbados Diary as an early and quite revealing Washington foray into the world of words. Another is the chance to see the Virginian mind (some may say gaze) examining a place similar enough to grant purchase, but alien enough to captivate. Still another is what we see of the island itself. The Barbados trip is usually a quick moment in most Washington literature. I am glad I am giving it a bit more page space than is usual.

Barbados, Day Two

Today began very gray but cleared up. I got up early and rushed back to town to try to recover my glasses which I had left on a wall in the cemetery. The Shul was open when I got there, so I had the pleasure of saying shacharit (albeit alone) in the beautiful old Nidhai Israel shul. It is very much like a British shul with the same type of stying and pillars holding up the women’s gallery. One difference was that the Bimah (raised reader’s table) was in the back and not in the center. I am a big fan of facing bench seating in shuls–in my mind it plays down hierarchy in favor of communalism.

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The Bimah in Nidhi Israel

This building dates to about 1831 when the great hurricane demolished much of older Barbados. This new shul sits on the foundations of the original which dated to the mid seventeenth century.

Some visitors came through and they must have thought that I was some sort of museum display set up for effect and authenticity. When I was done, Emerson, the tender, directed me to meet Benny Gilbert, a retired local property developer and one of the community’s elders. His wife is an Altman—one of the oldest Ashkenazi families on the island. Mr. Gilbert invited me back to his office for coffee and a chat and so we walked though the crowded Bridgetown streets having the kind of conversation one would have any where in the world after saying “shalom alechem – alechem shalom.” Mr. Gilbert had much to share about the island, its Jews, and his life as one of them. He explained that the original Spanish community was all but gone by the end of the 18c and that the Ashkenazim came in waves, many spending a few generations here and then fading away only to be replaced by new families. This was much the same as I had seen in some places in England—wandering, to paraphrase perhaps the most famous (sort of I guess) English Jew, Shylock, is the badge of all of our tribe.

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The shul is on the left, and the mikveh newly built is on the right.

I returned to the Shul after my visit and got there in time to see that the guide had brought visitors in to see the mikveh. This 1650s bath was discovered archeologically a few years ago and once the stone rubble had been removed, the water returned. It requires no filtering—it is fresh, clear, and tapped into the water table.

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Newly rediscovered mikveh

They have built a very lovely building over it from the removed stone rubble and it is quite a gem. I waited and listened to the talk about how the 17c Jews here used the mikveh—a description based largely on 17c travel narratives. The mikveh is not formally open to the public (vistors can look in with the guide), but religious exceptions are made from time to time. A few weeks ago a pair visiting Chabniks went in and today it was my turn. The water was clear and cool and the stones 17c. It was a remarkable experience.

When I was done I went back to looking over the grave stones to find specific people I was curious about. In looking around, there seems to have been some surface level change though. Some nearby construction has left some holes and poked around a bit just outside the footers of the old cemetery wall.

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Construction and stones.

I saw at least four layers including two that appeared to be mostly pavers. The most interesting thing was that this new construction had uncovered a section of the cemetery that had been buried and had had 19c shops atop it. Those shops have been gutted and their floors removed. The result are the most amazingly well-preserved stones in the yard.

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Newly exposed stones. The doorways on the right are at current surface level and lead out to the street.

These are mostly of English Jews, some of whom had adopted the stone styles of their Sephardic predecessors. I am told that the development plan calls for all the graves to be reincorporated into the cemetery which will retake its original size. More on the stones later.

Much of the rest of the day was spent at the George Washington house again, this time looking over the artifacts from the 1999 and 2001 excavations. I have the reports and the artifact lists in them, but the only way serendipity can happen is when you let it. The excavations were primarily in the ravine west of the home. The collections span a large period and of course trying to find 1751 in an assemblage is not an easy task.

Once I was done, I thought it would be nice to get out into the countryside.

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Looking south from the first major rise of land.

I was right. I drove north mostly by zigzagging the road system. The south has a large sloping plain, so that heading north means heading up as well. As Washington observed, the landscape is made so that views of the sea are to be found throughout.

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Drax Hall. In private hands and not open to the public, but still owned by the Drax Family in England as it was in the 17c and still producing sugar.

 

 

 

I wended my way up to Drax Hall—a well known 17c plantation and home just about one third up the island from the south coast. Sugar is still grown here in the hundreds of tons for shipment to European markets. Interestingly though, none of the Bajan plantations produce any molasses. That means that all the Barbados rum is made from imported molasses—not local. There is a metaphor for something in there.

 

 

 

 

Barbados, Day One.

Mid-day arrival. Airport, car, blah blah. Thank heaven I had already driven in the UK and all those trips have made looking right when crossing or turning not an unfamiliar thing. The road to Oistins where I dwell in Bajan fashion (no hotel in other words) skirts the southern coast and that tiny island feeling is pronounced. People are everywhere on the south side and the cars are all small. I got quickly settled and jumped back in the car to make the most of the day.

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Automotive conveyance in the British fashion–on the left.

The drive to Bridgeton was slow but I was glad of that since it I needed the adjustment time. One or two wrong turns and a few pull overs to reconcile to the map that has no street names. I overshot the Washington House on my way in so I chose to forge on to the center of town and find the synagogue first. I circled around and around a few times before I gave up searching by car and just found a parking area and walked. A woman asked me if I was “going to the cemetery?” “Eventually” I replied and she said “well it is straight ahead” ignoring my travel frazzled wit. I did not know just what she meant,

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Downtown Bridgetown

but in a block I saw the pink walls of the Synagogue and realized that the big cemetery is the main feature of the site. My guess is that the only tourists on that side of town are looking for the place.

This was one of those days when the doorway is always on the fourth wall after I walk the other three. In this case, it was an alley that led to the Shul, the museum, the Mikveh, and the cemetery.

On this side of the shul, most of the graves are seventeenth century and early eighteenth with a few more modern ones interspersed. The older ones are in Spanish and Portuguese as well as Hebrew. Some have remarkable art—deaths heads for example, both ornate and simple—that I don’t usually associate with Jewish graves. The whole cemetery has been the subject of a restoration project with great detail on this blog.

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The northern side of the cemetery where most of the graves are Spanish and 17c. The foregrounded ones though are contemporary and are those of the Ashekenazim who eventually replaced the original community. The shul is in the background.

I will be back at the Shul in the morning though and will have more to say after that visit. For today I was driven by the desire to sing Tehillim in the cemetery and visit. There is something very special singing “od avinu chai” (“our fathers still live”—not a psalm) in such a place. IMG_2672.JPGThe seventeenth-century Jews of Barbados lived in a world so different from ours and from the reality of Barbados today just outside the wall. But at the same time, the names and fact of a shul again close the time and make the alien familiar. Visitors’ stones are on many of the graves: a pleasant bond over time and space.

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Some of the stones have very little on them identifying them as Jewish.

And speaking of familiar names, George Washington, the reason for the season. Objective One on this trip is to flesh out what I need to create a full chapter on his Barbados trip for the new book. I already have about three ideas to play out in the chapter, but being here links things together. I made it to the Washington House just before dark and fortunately Martin Miller was still there. We had a great chat and I saw a few of the main sites, including the ravine where the middens were. Tomorrow (ideally) I will get to look at artifacts but I saw one today. It was a classic White Saltglazed Stoneware plate—making it the fourth place I can say that GW was eating off of that sort of plate.

 

“Ask A Slave” and Unintended Meanings

http://www.gofundme.com/AskASlave

http://www.gofundme.com/AskASlave

These videos have been making the rounds and I wanted to comment on this all. Yes, they are clever — even very clever. Yes, Dungey is talented and this is an imaginative way to promote herself as an actress and hit some social consciousness bells along the way. I respect her and her project and look forward to seeing how students react. But at the same time, it made me squirm on so many levels and raised some red flags.

The Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre is a staple of museum culture– and as Handler and Gable amongst others have pointed out, that is not always a good thing for either visitors or museum staff. Interpreter-visitor encounters are usually imagined as being a charming educational moment. But often these are in realty tense tug-o-wars with smugness on both sides and a high degree of trying to embarrass as well. At least visitors have the option to ask intentionally stupid questions to make their friends laugh–I suspect that that is in fact what is behind many if not most of these stories–visitors intentionally screwing around with staff. In that way, visitors get a double bang: make friends laugh in the moment and have the more incredulous repeat the feat over and over. Hey presto, a manner of immortality.

On the other hand, for interpreters, encounters are full of risk. Staff may suspect that they are being screwed with, but face employer retaliation if they get too snarky. Interpreters have to treat every question as real and have to be engaging in responding – their continued employment depends on it. Thus, the Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre becomes a sort of spiritual haven for people who are paid poorly, work their asses off in often harsh conditions (being in a blacksmith shop or a recreated eighteenth-century kitchen all day sucks now as it did then) and also will never be granted much intellectual respect or credibility from academe. These folks often see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as permanent second-class citizens in historyland. Most lack the kinds of schooling and publishing records academe cherishes, but do have often very detailed fine- grained knowledge of their fields. On top of that, they often have an intuitive knowledge that comes from experience—-something that is immensely valuable to museums and visitors, but always just a bit suspect to “book learning” historians. Buy an experienced interpreter a drink and they will tell you how irritating visitors are. But buy them a second drink and they will tell you what arrogant exclusive jerks historians can be.

What worries me about these film clips is the stupid visitor story being too public a performance. I see it as only encouraging visitors to play at this even more. But worse still, I worry for how museums (read employers) will see this. They are famous for retaliation and are always deeply concerned about public image. I don’t imagine that Mount Vernon is at all happy about this sort of “unmasking” and I wonder what HR policies may ensue not just there, but elsewhere as well. It is fun to laugh—and Dungey is good at making us do that. But, museums are workplaces and interpreters are staff, often very vulnerable staff at that. These clips viewed that way are so very full of issues of domination and resistance. The very title “Ask a Slave” is far more meaningful than most gleeful watchers might know.

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