Thursday, January 19, 2017

On Cabbages and Kings: Or writing the Favorite Chapter

The time has come the walrus said to talk of many things. I’ve already talked about the introduction and the importance of your cover choices. Now it’s time to talk about the chapters. Some chapters will be a stately walk through your archival evidence to back up your historiographical claims. Unexciting but solid, establishing your scholarly credibility. You should not have too many of these or else the monograph will read too much like a dissertation defense and lack originality. Some chapters will flow beautifully and be a pleasure to write. Others will be hell to write and you will hate them. You will struggle with them and leave them till the end—like folding the odd socks last that accumulated after doing a week’s worth of laundry. The latter was referred to in my household for at least three years as That Damn Chapter.

As you review everything you’ve written that you’ve stored dutifully in a folder in your laptop—you scan the evidence and the arguments that inexorably lead to the writing of The Book. Great! But when you dig deeper into that file folder, you’ll find extraneous things. What about the 8 page double spaced paper that you wrote (for some panel?) at some annual conference? There were kernels of wisdom in there. What about the edited volume that you contributed an abstract to that fell through? Remember you are keeping to your goal of 600 words per day. The beautiful thing about repurposing what you wrote before is that those words count towards your daily goal! You need to look at your research question (pinned prominently on the wall above your computer) to see whether this conference paper/abstract and its argument and its evidence fit into the book. If not—out with it. As an archive rat, I know how hard it is to let go of evidence that is painstakingly gathered, annotated, transcribed.  My research question written in bold capital letters was: how did intimacy order slavery and how did slavery order intimacy? If I had evidence that did not speak to that question—I sucked it up and chucked it. TBH: I made another folder and dumped it in there under TBD. We are historians after all—for a beautiful rumination on our attachment to archival detritus, read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust.

My own path to the favorite chapter was a fortuitous casualty of the edited volume that fell through. I was invited to contribute a piece to a collection about social mobility among nonelite, multiracial families in Latin America. Two wonderful Brazilian historians of the family and of slavery—Elizabeth Kuznesof and Mariana Dantas extended the invitation. I vaguely promised something and then panicked when months later the first stage materialized, demanding production. Since so much time had lapsed between the initial invitation stage (that led to acceptance based on delirium rather than a firm grasp on reality) and the no-go, you might wonder why look at the abstract at all. It so happens that the sources I planned to use for the collection had a particular focus on children. I had assiduously been collecting baptismal records from all five of Lima’s parishes for years. By the time I sat down to write, I had baptismal records for the entire seventeenth century, which had miraculously survived. When I looked at the entries, it became clear that there were a number of what I call mixed status families. It is a term more familiar with immigration scholars than historians, but what I mean by it is to designate families in which some of the members were free and some were enslaved.

Baptismal records state the name of the child, the presence of godparents, previous in extremis baptisms, as well as the name, status, and owner of the mother. If the father is known or willing to acknowledge paternity, the father is listed as well. The baptismal record, though formulaic, is literally a tiny social history of the child and the networks into which she is embedded. Many diaspora scholars and family historians have skillfully mined these records, as well as colonial historians writing about race, illegitimacy and social mobility. But the baptismal record did not give me everything I needed to know about the arc of the child’s life. I noticed that many entries freed the child, but kept the mother enslaved. Baptismal manumission was a way to keep the services of the mother, with the prospect of better conditions for the child. However, I argued that baptismal manumission was akin to constructive re-enslavement.  Questions irrepressibly spring to my mind as I leafed through these documents: what was it like to watch your child raised by your owner? What was the impact of mixed status on the relationships between mother and child? Many of the owners “freeing” slave children were religious and childless women whose stated intention was to have someone to care for them in their old age. European women freeing children at the font appropriated the reproductive labor of their slaves even as they couched their intentions within the rhetoric of love, family, and child welfare.
Baptismal font, Iglesia del Salvador

Whether I convince readers is a question that only they can answer. But writing this chapter for me brought together so many arguments, themes and points as I moved through the life-stages of slavery. I think we should be open to these kinds of invitations to contribute to collections that many not be totally on point with our writing at the time, but can push us to look at our evidence in new and generative ways.

Next up: the Chapter from hell!