When Slavery Came to Stay
by Joy BaileyOn April 19, AAM announced its Brooking Paper Award on Creativity. It was awarded to Phillip Seitz, former curator at Cliveden of the National Trust in Pennsylvania, a historic house owned by the Chew family—a major founding family of Pennsylvania— located in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. This excellent paper, When Slavery Came to Stay, is a must read. It begins by telling of the curator’s discovery of the episodes of resistance and courage staged by enslaved workers on plantations owned by the Chews in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The paper goes on to describe the institution’s concerted efforts to interact, through a public engagement process, with its—previously ignored, largely African American—surrounding community, to understand the best ways to share the findings from Seitz’ eight years of research. Stories of the lives of enslaved workers on the plantation just down the road from them.
Many of the results of the engagement are not new to us; be more inclusive and welcoming, use visual and other cues, offer food. But the effort, the process, and the level of humility that the staff at Cliveden had to adopt to engage with multiple layers of the African American community to discover the most effective means of expression to get its narratives out there, is rare.
The author does occasionally lapse into a paternalistic tone—is it really germane for us to know about the friendship this ”white American with a master’s degree” develops with a formerly incarcerated “African American with a sixth-grade education,” or the entreaty to “lay on some food” to attract African American audience. Those minor annoyances aside, the paper speaks to some universal needs that audiences have, namely:
- People need affirmation of the past— real evidence proving oral histories, lore, provides validation;
- People identify with stories of agency and survival—everybody likes to be a winner sometime, this is very important to remember in our efforts to help people accurately remember painful stories of the past;
- Make the connection between the horrors of the past and injustice that plagues today.
According to this paper, Cliveden is now a new place that engages with its community rather than attempting to avoid it. It is definitely on my list of places to visit. Now if only they can get some non-white board members, they’ll really be going places.
Read Phillip Seitz’s paper, When Slavery Came to Stay, here: http://www.aam-us.org/getinvolved/nominate/upload/brooking-winner.pdf
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