Stephanie M. H. Camp, 39
Associate Professor of History, University of Washington, September 2004 to present,
Core Faculty, Africa and Diaspora Studies, September 2003 to present,
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Women Studies, Fall 2000 to present,
Affiliate Faculty, Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, Fall 2002 to present.
Like virtually all historians, I have rehearsed repeatedly the intellectual forces that brought me to my first book, which was also my dissertation: the oversights in the historiography, the theoretical developments that informed my contribution to the field, the sources that deserved new analysis. What I have often wondered about, though, were the personal motivations for writing a dissertation and then a book on enslaved women's resistance. Did I, as a young, black woman, identify with black women who were enslaved more than a century ago? Did I, so often charged with being unnaturally defiant, need to cathect that identification on resistance, and not subjugation? As I mature into an experienced teacher who has seen many of my students compelled to identify with the variety of characters we study, I find myself having the courage to admit that the answer to these questions is"yes."
That this is a difficult admission needs no lengthy explanation. Professional historians know that"the past is another country," as our historicist forefathers (sic) wrote to explain their breaking away from the generally acontextual, moralistic narratives that preceded them. Identification is but a way of obfuscating difference, a romantic fantasy of a sameness that does not exist. I have come to believe this basic tenet of our profession as much as anyone. But not, perhaps, as much as some.
From my students I have learned to give identification some credit. While their feelings of association with slaves, slaveholders, poor white southerners, abolitionists and others are often confusing and painful, students' sense of connection with and investment in them is a powerful motivation for the hard work required to leap into the minds, lives and worlds of people who lived so far apart from us. For me, identification was precisely the spur that got me asking questions, even if I had to learn to dis-identify in order to hear properly the answers for what they were: the words of others.
Students' sense of the connection between themselves and this country's slave past is also right. That is,"the past is another country" is not exactly an accurate descriptor of the U.S.'s relationship to its slave past, or to any aspect of its past. The American economy, culture and politics were all shaped (some have argued they were made) by the institution of slavery. The same is true for the many past lives and lands consumed in the making of today's United States. Where is the line dividing the country of the past from this one? When students see, for example, their high school experiences in the educational institutions available to freedpeople in the late nineteenth century, are they narcissistically shoe-horning the whole world into their own? Perhaps a bit. But I have come to think that they are also appreciating the organic nature of the life of a country. That (somewhat ahistorically self-centered) sense of connection is one I now embrace as a potentially radical first step, as it was for me, towards re-envisioning the U.S. as constituted in and still living with the legacy of, its histories of exploitation and subjugation-and resistance.
By Stephanie M. H. Camp
In violation of slaveholders' orders and the state's laws, though, enslaved people left the quarters; again and again enslaved people ran away and created other kinds of spaces that gave them room and time for their families, for rest from work, and for amusement; on occasion, women moved forbidden objects into their quarters to worrisome effect. In short, enslaved people created a 'rival geography'-alternative ways of knowing and using southern space that conflicted with planters' ideals and demands." -- Stephanie M. H. Camp in"Closer to Freedom Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South"
About Stephanie M. H. Camp
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