20140415 - Post-Conference Thoughts

A flurry of conferences recently has given me lots to think about.


A couple of weekends ago at the Houston BrANCH conference, I heard Brian Kelly from Belfast give a talk that resonated with my refugee slaveholders findings: “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and the New History of Emancipation: A Critical Assessment.”

Kelly essentially argued that we need to recover Du Bois’s original point, even in the “general strike” chapter of Black Reconstruction, that individual slaves “waited, looked, and listened,” and that their responses changed according to what they saw. In contrast to a picture of slaves’ wartime experiences as coherent, uniform, and always premeditated (which Kelly associates with hahn2003), Kelly stressed a story of differentiation, unevenness, and precariousness in which slaves often exhibited a “circumspect and deeply rational” attitude towards potential Union allies. Although no one now disputes that enslaved people played a key role in the end of slavery, Kelly says, that should make it possible to write a more complicated narrative of the “complex relationship between aspiration and possibility”—that is, a narrative more like the one that DuBois was actually calling for. In that narrative we almost need to get down to a case by case, region by region study of how slaves’ wartime experiences were differentiated.

Lone Star Unionism

After hearing that talk, I drove to San Marcos to participate the next day in the Lone Star Unionism and Dissent at Texas State. I had framed my paper primarily as one about the “opportunism” both of refugee slaveholders and of the state of Texas, which made the paper something of an outlier in the conference. But while at the workshop it occurred to me that the paper could be reframed so as to treat the stream of Refugeed Slaves who came into Texas as a wave of new dissenters or “Unionists” brought into the state.

For scholarship on Civil War Texas, this could be useful, as much of the work seems to be focused primarily on internal struggles between Confederates and local Unionists (Germans, etc.). This feeds into the idea, that Texas “lay well outside the circle of conflict” and that its conflicts were therefore solely internal.1 As I’ve written before, collective memory of the Civil War—even in the Juneteenth tradition—further reinforces this idea that internally, Texas remained more or less as it was before the war until virtually the end, especially for enslaved people. The popular memory of the war still depicts slavery as undisturbed by the war, as still as the inside of a snow globe until shaken up by the arrival of Union troops in June 1865.

I still think the story of refugeed slaves offers a way of challenging that narrative, and that it could raise important new questions if we were to include newly arrived slaves in the state as part of Texas’s “Unionist” population. But I need to tell this story in a way attentive to Kelly’s points, so that the “wave” of refugeed slaves doesn’t become an undifferentiated monolith—need to show that their experiences were multiple and that their attitudes were often circumspect, much like the wait-and-see and cautious attitudes of many white Unionists in the state.2


The weekend after that symposium, I flew to Atlanta for the OAH and presented my paper focusing on refugeed slaves. I was barely able to hint in the paper about what I hope will be one of this project’s most important contributions, which is to connect what was happening with refugeed and impressed slaves in the Western Confederacy with what was happening after the war (something I also talked about briefly in my Texas State paper in discussing the encouragement that the administration of Pendleton Murrah was giving to entrepreneurial industrialists during the war, and the experiences of A. J. Ward connecting with convict leasing).

Yael Sternhell, who commented on the panel, gave me a really good question for thinking with: What did Southern states learn from the Civil War?

That puts succinctly a series of questions I’ve been turning over in my head about how our views of things like Confederate Slave Impressment would change if we considered them not only as closing chapters of the war, or reasons for Confederate defeat, but also as opening chapters of the postwar period. For example, slave impressment represented an effort by the state to mobilize labor for public works, and in that sense shared something (but what?) in common with emerging uses of penitentiary labor.

I’ve also begun turning over some questions about how convict leasing after the war resembled (or did not resemble) the decisions made by Refugees to Texas to hire out slaves to locals, who assumed the cost of their care. In early convict leasing arrangements in which the contractor had to pay for the use of convicts while assuming the costs of their care, the state was essentially “hiring out” slaves from a position of financial desparation not unlike the position of refugees. Or something like that—need to think about this more, revisit mancini1996, and work on my Reading List about hiring out and convict leasing. (Finally started oshinsky1996 on the plane to Atlanta.)

All of this makes me think that I really need to think about next steps in three parts:

  1. Need to finish the paper for the Unionism anthology, but I think I will reformulate it as the place where I can talk most about the experiences and decisions of refugeed slaves, pulling pieces of the OAH paper into the new draft.
  2. A second article can focus more on what Southern states in the Western Confederacy learned from the phenomena of refugeeing and impressment that was common in Texas and Louisiana in particular, pulling the pieces relevant to this from the Unionism paper on opportunism into this draft.

Both points can be part of larger application for NEH grant to seed book-length project.

Is Blogging Scholarship?

Final recap thought from recent conferences concerns the discussion that took place in Atlanta about whether blogging is scholarship, which has been chronicled here, with links to other comments:

I really enjoyed the post-panel note by Mike O’Malley:

Don’t take my word for it. You can clearly see this conflicted self in the contrast, growing wider every year, between the text of any academic history and the acknowledgments. Open any book of footnoted academic history published in the last two decades, and the text will almost never use the word “I,” almost never mention anything personal, never describe intellectual struggle or uncertainty. The text will aim to erase the author altogether, so the argument emerges full grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. But the acknowledgements! The acknowledgments are a virtual carnival of the self, full of confessions of doubt, descriptions of struggle, metaphors of journey and passage and transformation; yearnings and regrets and intimacies: salutes to comrades professional and personal, the fallen and the still standing. The acknowledgements are colorful, personal and self indulgent: the text is personless and self banishing.

Something’s not right here! I mean, mentally not right. The division between the text and the acknowledgements is as wide or wider than the division between the way we are taught to write and the way we are taught to read. It is a sign of repressed desires and wishes. Really, from a distance it look like a mental illness.

Blogging maybe has the potential to reintegrate the fragmented academic personality. It makes the personal visible. It allows for struggle; it is the journey towards meaning. It allows for an authorial voice that speaks through itself, instead of through some disembodied imagined person. It’s embedded in community. And it doesn’t involve the violent forms of self-erasure that the acknowledgments keep proving we want to escape.

These lines get at some of the tensions that have motivated me to try this open notebook history experiment—a desire to track the “struggle” and the “journey” towards a finished piece of scholarship. But the fact that O’Malley’s points so resonated with me suggests, perhaps, that the idea of “blogging” as the solution to these problems may be framing the conversation too narrowly. There are many reasons for making scholarship more public, even in its messiest form, and many ways to do so, of which blogging is only one (very good) option. But a “blog” is, when it comes right down to it, essentially a medium of web publication, in the same bucket of things that contains a “wiki,” a “webpage,” or a “tumblr.” Any of these things can be used to publish scholarship of various kinds, but to say they are scholarship may be to confuse the platform with the content. Once we get past that conflation, we have to ask the bigger question that O’Mally is driving towards—not “Is blogging scholarship?,” but “What is scholarship?”

  1. Quote from ramsdell1910, p. 23.

  2. Point here similar to the call of glymph2008, 104, to tease out “the complexities and ambiguities” of decisions made by some slaves either “to stand side by side with an owner during the war or to stay put after the war.”