History, Fiction, and the Space in Between: Writing Histories of the Self

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:20 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Martha S. Jones, Johns Hopkins University
Today, the debate about when to distinguish history from fiction isn’t novel. Still, historians of slavery have returned to this question with a twist: the biographical turn. Earlier questions addressed through social and cultural historical methods are now explored through biographies and family histories of slavery. We recognize how fragmentary archives leave us grasping to interpret silence. We lament the elusive subjectivity or interiority of enslaved people themselves. Should we proceed by way of context, generalizations, analogy, careful speculation, or even fiction?

 I have long resisted filling in the blanks of my own history of an enslaved family, refugees from the Haitian Revolution making their way in several North American port cities. I have been able to follow this group through five generations, from the 1780s to the 1880s, but the records are in shards: baptisms, deaths, sales, mortgages, freedom papers, travel permits, court filings, the census. I have no narrative evidence, except that which comes from the slave holders (and even that is slim). Still, when I assemble these fragments, common threads emerge. I see choices that were made and paths not taken. I see signs of what constituted what we would term “family.” For me, the silences are artifacts that demand explanation rather than filling in. Voids in the historical record, and there are so many, need to be left undisturbed. The historian’s charge, as I see it, is to explain the lives of slaves through their very distance from the archive. This approach makes the instances in which enslaved people broke the silence more meaningful.

In this paper, I contemplate another approach. How might fiction, memoir, and a historian’s imagination and capacity for informed speculation produce insight that advances our understanding of the past. Through such approaches, is it possible to know rather than simply imagine slavery?