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AfriGeneas Writers Forum

Report on the Southern Sources Symposium

Report on the Southern Sources Symposium, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 18-19 March 2005.

First, I must say that the food was outstanding – heavy hors d’oeuvres at a reception Friday evening that easily served as my supper; coffee, bagels and sweet rolls at the Saturday morning break, a barbecue and fried chicken luncheon with all the trimmings, and more hors d’oeuvres Saturday night at a second reception. I was not surprised that the event had been funded in part by an anonymous donor – certainly my $35 registration fee couldn’t have covered it all!

I was equally happy to find another Afrigeneas friend, VNyormoi, in attendance.

Although the publicity for the symposium promised that atendees would hear top scholars discuss what sources they felt researchers would "likely find most useful in the decades ahead," some speakers wandered far afield; nevertheless there was much good food for thought in most of the presentations! The topics were arranged to cover major periods of Southern history chronologically, starting with the “Antebellum” and ending with the “The South since 1954.” I will summarize what I gleaned from each the speakers, in order of their appearance:


Edward E. Baptist: “The Unconquerable Archive”

The ethics of history require us to “treat the dead honestly and justly.” Often the voices in archives surprise us: “The dead say things we don’t expect.” Three kinds of documents we have not heard enough from:
(1) Documents about migration – the movements of people across the South,
(2) Documents about buying and selling slaves – we still do not fully understand the impact of these processes on communities, families and individuals,
(3) Slaves’ letters (example of the letter in the Virginia Boyd collection at UNC’s Southern History Collection (SHC).

Steven Stowe: “Story Upon Story”

Archival descriptions – the aids written by modern-day archivists – show the distance between us and antebellum people by presuming to emphasize what is important in each collection – which may be very different from what the long-dead authors of those documents thought was important in those documents. By telling us what is supposedly important in the documents while ignoring the seemingly unimportant, archival descriptions can hide from researchers many treasures of information.

Think about the long-dead writers of archival documents as authors. Be aware of the writer’s self-conscious or unconscious sense of authorship; an author is always thinking, “How does my sense of who will read what I write shape what I write?” This is the same question we as historians [or genealogists] should ask ourselves about our own writing.

Try to look at archival documents as stories: “We find different stories depending on what we are looking for.” When we think we are in tune with the meaning the writer was trying to convey, and “when the fact seem to be speaking for themselves, we have found the best story we can tell.”

Sydney Nathans: Comments

We need to pursue descendants’ accounts: for example, to listen to the stories told by descendants of slaves that have been passed down to them. Find a way to link to these voices “from outside the archive.”


Bertram Wyatt-Brown: “A Biographer’s Dilemma”

When we are writing biography about people who had some socially controversial aspects to their lifestyles, and when surviving family members want to control public knowledge of the family history to protect reputation or avoid embarrassment, one of the historian’s dilemmas is choosing how far to go to accommodate the living family without compromising the truth of the story.

Another dilemma occurs when we are gathering materials and interviewing family members – how much do we tell about what we already know and what we intend to write, for fear that family will refuse access to the information we seek. No matter how dreadful some family secret may seem at the time, sooner or later someone will publicly spill the beans (usually after we have already published our books); after the inevitable revelation, the same family members who before had guarded the secret so carefully will retrospectively find it not so horridly threatening after all!

(More to follow)

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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