Blogs > Cliopatria > 'Hidden in Plain Sight': Myths of Slavery & Anti-Slavery

Jan 1, 2007 11:59 am

'Hidden in Plain Sight': Myths of Slavery & Anti-Slavery

Hoary myths about slavery in the American South survive, even as the year 2007 dawns across the world. At Is That Legal?, Eric Muller builds on this New York Times article about a trend to return historic properties to private ownership. The article cites the effort by Colonial Williamsburg to sell Carter's Grove, one of Virginia's most important plantations, but that is only a major instance of the trend. In private hands, Muller argues, realistic representation of plantation life (and, with it, most of the plantation's actual population) may disappear altogether. He sites the instance of Poplar Grove, near Wilmington, North Carolina, and asks important questions about how it is represented on the net. Privatized history, says Muller, is"incomplete, deceptive, and accountable to nobody."

If privatizing historic sites threatens to obscure the work force that built and sustained them, romanticizing resistance to slavery is apparently also alive and well in our academic communities.

On H-Slavery, inquiries about the popular notion that slaves made quilts encoded with signals about the"underground railroad" appear with some regularity. In late 2005, a faculty member in Communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, inquired about it on behalf of an MA student."He's discovering an inherent problem with the project: the lack of primary research materials,"

The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I'm looking for, then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the abolition movement in general?

This faculty member was told -- in fairly clear terms -- that the quilt/code myth was just that – that the reason his student was having trouble finding primary sources was not that they had disintegrated but that they hadn't been used in that way. Yet, the UNLV faculty member, Donovan Conley, ignored the advice of historians, such as David Blight, and allowed his student, Theodore Ransaw, to perpetuate the quilt/code myth in a thesis,"Points of Contact: Nineteenth Century Visual Rhetoric of the Underground Railroad." Ransaw has also published a book called The Sexual Secrets of Cleopatra: The Wisdom of the Ancient Egyptians,"which asserts among other things that Viking culture came from Egypt, the Pope wears a pharaoh's hat, and that yoga and tai chi spread to China from Africa."

It isn't clear to me that public ownership of historic properties is any guarantee of historical integrity, if professors at public institutions foster and credential nonsense.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/2/2007

I think of tenure as recognition that serious work takes time and protection against the whimsy of administrators more than against external pressures (though that part's useful, sometimes).

I'm on record repeatedly calling for better post-tenure review, among other things. I do think, though, that there are cases where unproductive or harmful teachers with tenure are removed, but we just don't hear about them. We hear much more about the cases where problems fester because, well, because they fester.

The time-to-tenure track has shortened, it seems to me. It used to be seven years, most places; now it seems to be five or six (and the application goes in at the beginning of the year everywhere I've been, so it's really only four or five): that's not enough time to judge someone's teaching, someone's character as a scholar and colleague.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2007

To be perfectly honest about it, I'd be much more enthusiastic about "tenure," if the tenured were more vigilant about policing abuses of the system. Instead of that, we've seen repeated instances of tenured faculty recognizing a problem among their peers only after it's been trumpeted loudly by people outside the system. I can think of _many_ academics whose bourgeois lifestyle is protected by tenure; I can think of many academics who abuse their tenure rather badly; and I'm still trying to think of an academic whose pathbreaking research and publication is protected from serious external threats by tenure. That isn't how "tenure" was supposed to work in the first place.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/1/2007

1. You have a point about the harm done by reflexively defending tenure--or anything else for that matter. That is why it is important for defenders of the system to look for ways to reduce abuses--or abusers. You will note that I did not challenge your attack on a professor who apparently encourages scholarship based on myths, I simply questioned your comparison, based on the possibility that the private sector would be no worse.

2. Compared to your earlier statement "No Tenure/No Problem" is hyperbolic. It suggests that you really believe that eliminating tenure would be an improvement. Do you?

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2007

Sure. I am often at a loss to decide, however, whether rightwing critics of academe, tenured professors who abuse their tenure, or those who reflexively defend the latter are the worst enemies of tenure. Nothing said in its favor absolves the outrage of a fraud like Ward Churchill continuing to draw $100,000+ a year from the taxpayers and tuitionpayers of Colorado simply because it would be more expensive to fire him. No tenure/no problem.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/1/2007


I'm untenured. I've been an adjunct the entire time I've been on this blog. My wife, thankfully, is tenured. Between the two perspectives I have seen much both to inspire and to depress in university life and in the way the professions within it function.

The institution of the University is human. One bit of wisdom that I have received from Christianity is that all human institutions inevitably are imperfect. It is right to work hard to make them better, but I don't want the striving for perfection to undercut what is good.

One of the things that is good is the partial insulation from having to shape one's search for truth to fit the willingness of the audience to pay. And that partial insulation is closely bound to tenure. Maybe the two can be separated, but I do not know how, not in this political culture.

In short, I would love a raise and somewhat greater permanence that a shift away from tenure might provide me personally, but--even if the change did not effect my wife--not at the expense of breaking down that insulation.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2007

In re your observations about tenure, Oscar, I think you ought to keep in mind that it is a gatekeeper, operated by those who have it. That means that it drives out those that don't have it. Moreover, the very thing that you praise about it -- that it means that tenured faculty don't have to worry about the job market each year -- looks very different to untenured faculty. I'd hate to tell you what percentage of the tenured faculty I've taught with would have a prayer of finding another job, if they were untenured. You may see that as a strength of the system. I'm not sure that I do.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2007

The link to H-Slavery's prior discussion is about as helpful a source as I know. The book that first perpetrated this fraud, _Hidden in Plain Sight_, just begs to be debunked. There simply is no evidence in favor of the thesis. That's one reason you and the UNLV student are having trouble finding it. There is no substantiating evidence in the "underground railroad" literature. Unless you are gullible about the argument that there are no references because to publish references would blow an important means of posting signs, you'll recognize this as a pure and simple fraud -- and the only interesting thing about it is our need to believe it. But _think_ about it -- piecing a quilt together is a long and tedious business. I watched my grandmother do it. Word of mouth, if anything, would have been a whole lot more effective and safer means of communication than hanging out a quilt, whose secret signs all slaves on an "underground railroad" are assumed to understand by instinct.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/1/2007

Finally found the more substantive portions of the thread that you linked to at H-Net. That's what I get for navigating on New Year's morning.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/1/2007

Hi Ralph. Happy New Year!

I realized your juxtaposing the quilt story and the concern with the sale of Carter's Grove was primarily to focus attention on professorial missteps. Still it's a misleading comparison that understates the very real and proper concerns that people have over Carter's Grove.

Universities are large institutions that house individuals with diverse skills and motives. Most do their jobs pretty well because, in part, they have some protection from having to market the content of their work to the highest bidder just to make a living. These same protections do allow some flakes to prosper. It is right and proper to point those flakes out in order to minimize to the extent possible that inevitable weakness of university organization.

I've been to Carter's Grove. Good history there requires considerable archaeological work and physical restoration. This is very expensive. Without the protection of a non-profit institution--protections very similar to what universities provide professors--then even a well-meaning for-profit purchaser is going to be tempted constantly to shortchange the history, both by not subsidizing further research and by "Disneying" the experience of tourists there.

I suspect that Williamsburg, for its own credibility, will try to insure that any purchaser will do better than that. But when making a sale like this, they are entering the for-profit world, and the same temptations will apply to them.

PS Concerning the veracity of the quilt claims, I'm not finding much through the H-Net link that proves or disproves anything--though one key link seems to have failed this morning. Leigh Fellner's discussion, though certainly damning to the thesis, seems focused on only one piece of "evidence" supporting the quilt as code. Perhaps that's the only piece of evidence out there, perhaps not.

I've just begun googling to find more, and it's been frustrating. What I have found so far--on either side--has been long on conclusions and short on facts.

Can you suggest some good sources on this?