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46 posts categorized "Events"

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

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Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

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Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

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Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

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Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

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Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

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In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

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Starting a PhD can be a daunting undertaking; and getting to grips with the vast, often idiosyncratic workings of a major research Library with over 200m items can be even more daunting. This is why, for students who have recently embarked on doctoral study on any aspect of the Americas, we are putting on an Open Day on the British Libraries Americas collections and resources on Monday 18 March.

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PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

The day will involve a series of general introductions to the British Library, as well as more regionally focussed presentations on Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Latin America – essentially explaining in broad terms what we have and how to find it. There will also be opportunities to ask questions individually of the curators and research teams, and attendees can tell us their topics in advance so everyone can leave the Library that day having opened up some rather promising avenues of enquiry.

We’re also very excited and grateful to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues from other parts of the Library, who will be able to offer insights into some of the approaches and resources available through the Library (such as digital scholarship or manuscript studies) that students might not be so familiar with. There will also be first-hand insights from current PhD students who are working extensively on our collections, who can (hopefully!) confirm that the British Library is both a pleasant and fantastically useful place to spend at least some of your time over the next 3-4 years.

CDP students 2017

British Library CDP students, including Naomi Oppenheim and Jodie Collins, discuss their work

Finally, as well as introducing the collections, we give students the chance to get to know the Library spatially and architecturally – so we’re offering the chance, during the lunchbreak, for students to take ‘sound tours’ of the main St Pancras building.  Not only are these a wonderful opportunity to explore the main building but they will also showcase the breadth of material contained in the Library’s Sound Archive, a resource that is often over looked by researchers.  As part of last year’s excellent Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project invited volunteers to use the Library’s Sound Archive to curate tours which reflect on black British history within the physical space of the Library.  One of the tour guides has kindly agreed to lead our Americas Doctoral Students through this unique experience.

Windrush sound points

Listening points in the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition

These different sessions will all be accompanied by a great deal of tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches, and a lot of very enthusiastic staff who are really passionate about getting PhD students in to work on our Americas collections. The full programme for the day can be found here.  To find out more and to book visit the event page.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Eccles Centre via eccles-centre@bl.uk.

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

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On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

14 August 2017

Black Power: Reading, Roots, and Rhythm in the British Library

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Rowan Hartland is a 2017 Eccles Centre Visiting Postgraduate Fellow and a doctoral candidate at Northumbria University. He will participate in the Eccles Centre Summer Scholars seminar series on 14 August, with a paper titled 'Black Power Culture in the American South 1967-1975'.

I have just finished a successful research trip to the British Library supported by an Eccles Centre Fellowship. The project, Black Power Culture in the American South 1966-1975, examines Black Power organising and activism in the under-researched and often marginalised regions in the American South. Black Power culture, rather than politics in the South, is largely excluded from historiography despite its national and international legacies. I have been able to solidify my argument and conduct research from a range of databases, catalogues, microfilm collections, and magazines at the British Library. Here is a snippet from my week.

Monday 14 August (2)

Free Southern Theater publicity image, c. 1970.

 

My first point of reference were two bibliographical booklets; the invaluable resource created by Jean Petrovic from the Eccles centre, United States and Canadian holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library [2719.k.1795]; and the online resource also created by Petrovic, African American History and Life: 1877-1954 [m02/16735]. The latter resource did expand chronologically to include early 1960s works, which were useful for a framework for my Black Power study, and also provided a geographical index of published works- useful for my work on the South. The United States and Canadian Holdings resource led me to the Mississippi Free Press and Inside New Orleans newspapers (located in the ‘African American Newspaper Series 1827-1998’ section on the e-resources) which I delved into whilst on the computers in the Reading Rooms. For anyone working on African American history pre-1966 or post-1978, these collections will provide fruitful material; and I hope to utilize these in the future.

Second, the vast Tuskegee Institute News Clippings File [MFM.MA410] spanning the turn of the twentieth century to 1966 (reference book in the Newsroom). This microfilm collection provided a range of themes and locations for research- prolific in 1930s and 40s material, as well as Civil Rights material and introductory Black Power news reports. The themes, ranging from Race Relations and Organisations, to Juvenile Delinquency and Riots, cover the whole of the US and are rich in Southern material. I spent close to two days glancing through these slides and found dozens of articles portraying the roots and articulations of Black Power culture (N.B. ask the folks in the Newsroom- they are super helpful).

After engaging with sources on race riots, southern police brutality, armed defence, and Black Power ideology a lot earlier than 1966, I moved into some research of magazines and ephemera. Whilst trundling through the main catalogue can be both daunting and arduous, it can provide some gems (advice- do all the sifting before you come to the BL!). Using the online databases to build a framework of search terms, then using the multi-functional filters on the sidebars makes life a lot easier. One magazine, which has left me with more questions about Black Power in the South than answers, is Rhythm. Whilst the BL only retains one volume (I am sourcing more), it is a rich piece of history with spasms of visual delight. It tells the story of the commitment of ‘revolutionary Pan-Africanism’ in the South whilst looking eagerly towards a new Africa of the twenty-first century. It is truly the personification of the heights of Black Power Culture in the South- ‘Rhythm sees African people as having no moral or legal responsibility to the west except to oversee its destruction.’ There are many newspaper and magazine titles available for those interested in mainstream and Northern Civil rights and Black Power, to name a few- Negro Digest, The Crusader, and The Menard Times (an interesting collection of prison newspapers).

The ‘Archive of Americana’, ‘History and Life’ online databases, and ‘African American Newspaper Series’ have provided an abundance of material for my project, from Black Power’s violence and rioting, to singing, poetry, performance and art. I intend to further delve into magazines and newspapers including Life, Billboard, The Chicago Defender, and Amsterdam News on my next trip for more mainstream perceptions, in addition to well-planned catalogue trawling and possible examinations of the databases ‘Underground and Independent Comics Collection’ (online) and ‘HAPI’ (online). The first-hand accounts provided in the magazines, newspapers, and records are invaluable evidence of Black Power in the South. This initial research has provided foundations for my research in the US and further research at the BL, and has provided sources for my Summer Series talk at the BL in August. Finally, a special thank you to Mercedes Aguirre and those at the Eccles Centre. I would not be able to research so efficiently and proficiently without their support and wonderful insights.

Rowan Hartland

24 October 2016

Canada and slavery in literature

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Ahead of her talk for the British Library’s Feed the Mind lunchtime lecture series (31 October, 12.30-13.30), Collaborative PhD student Ellie Bird delves into the Americas collections to discuss her research into the complicated relationship between Canada and slavery. Tickets for Ellie’s talk can be purchased online, or at the box office.

As a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Sheffield, with a collaborative doctoral award with the British Library, I get to work closely with the Library’s collections in my research.

My PhD research looks at Canada and its relationship to slavery. There is a dominant national narrative for Canadians today that Canada was an anti-slavery haven for American slaves in the mid nineteenth century. This reflects a part of Canada’s history in that thousands of former American slaves escaped to Canada in the nineteenth century. However, the privileging of this history is also problematic as Canada has an earlier history of enslavement of individuals from Indian nations and of African origin slaves until at least the early nineteenth century. What literary works can we examine to find out more about Canada’s history of slavery and slaveholding? What collection items does the British Library have for exploring Canada’s relationship to American slavery?

Looking at Solomon Northup’s slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave [10881.b.38.] we get one version of Canada’s relationship to American slavery. The Canadian carpenter Bass engages in a verbal spar with plantation owner Epps about American slavery in which Bass argues that American slavery is ‘an iniquity and ought to be abolished’ (268). By Solomon’s own admission the Canadian plays a key role in helping him secure his liberty ‘Only for him, in all probability I should have ended my days in slavery.’

Canada plays an important role in the first conversation between Solomon and the Canadian carpenter Bass. This dialogue is significant because it is a turning point in the plot that ultimately results in Solomon securing his freedom. By the end of this conversation Solomon has revealed his true identity as a free man to Bass, and Bass has agreed to help him send letters to Saratoga to ask for his free papers. Solomon begins by questioning Bass about the country of his birth, and what follows is a dialogue through which Solomon demonstrates his knowledge of Canadian places, which makes Bass start to ask questions about how Solomon came to be at Epps’ plantation. When Solomon claims he has been to Canada Bass laughs ‘incredulously’ (270), and he anticipates that Solomon would not know of Canada: 'You wouldn't know if I should tell you', but Solomon lists the places he has been in Canada:

I have been there. I have been in Montreal and Kingston, and Queenston, and a great many places in Canada, and I have been in York State, too—in Buffalo, and Rochester, and Albany, and can tell you the names of the villages on the Erie canal and the Champlain canal.

Bass’s response to this, related by Solomon in the narrative, reflects that Solomon’s knowledge of Canada has ignited his interest in Solomon’s story:

 Bass turned round and gazed at me a long time without uttering a syllable.

"How came you here?" he inquired, at length,

[…]

"Well, how's this?" said he. "Who are you? You have been in Canada sure enough; I know all the places you mention. How did you happen to get here? Come, tell me all about it."

In this exchange, Solomon, who has already heard the Canadian Bass making arguments that American slavery is morally wrong, brings up the topic of Canada and this provides him a way to develop a rapport and trusting relationship with Bass as he asks him to help him to secure his liberty. The exchange functions as a way for Solomon to lead Bass to enquire after his story and to question his status as an enslaved man on the plantation. Following this opening, Bass believes Solomon’s account that he is a free man and offers to help him secure his freedom. Earlier in the narrative Solomon underscores the role that his time spent in Canada has had in helping him secure his freedom: noting that it has given him ‘a knowledge of localities which was also of service to me afterwards’ (23).

Is it surprising that Canada plays an important role in this pivotal exchange between Solomon and Bass? I would answer no; as even a quick scout at the US slave narratives in the Library’s collections attests, the geography of Canada is very much part of the African American slave narrative. Its use in the passage I examined above as a short hand for freedom (it encourages Bass to question Solomon’s history and how he has arrived at the plantation as a slave because of the strong association of Canada in this period with anti-slavery) reflects how Canada is presented in many slave narratives in this period:

Canada was so associated with freedom for American slaves within literature in this period that it was described as having no ‘footprint of a slave’ (51) in former slave Henry Bibb’s slave narrative first published in New York in 1849 [YC.2002.a.13700].

Slave narratives by American slaves were also written and circulated in Canada, although this has been overlooked in Canadian anthologies of its literature (Clarke, 2006, 14 and 7-9). In slave narratives in the 1850s Canada is often a part of the story as many former slaves reflect on their experiences of slavery and as free black men and women living in Canada. The British Library holds rare copies of several of these narratives, and examples are: The Life of Josiah Henson [10882.a.21.3.], A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Mic.F.232 [no. 64728], and Samuel Ringgold Ward’s Autobiography [10881.b.40.] These narratives all contain accounts of former slaves living as free men in Canada.

Other items in the Library collections present an earlier history of enslavement in Canada which problematises Bibb’s suggestion that Canada has no ‘footprint’ of a slave: The Quebec newspapers published in the eighteenth century contain many runaway slave notices. Two such newspapers are the Quebec Gazette and the Montreal Gazette [MFM.MC271B] and [MFM.MC270]. Slavery in Quebec existed under French colonial rule and later, after 1760, under the British. Indeed, the 47th article of the 1763 Treaty in which the French ceded Canada to the British stated that French Canadians could maintain their property rights in their black and indigenous slaves.

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The Quebec Gazette, 26 June, 1788, p.2

The runaway slave notices in the bilingual Quebec newspapers often appear in both English and French, and this makes them quite distinctive compared to those elsewhere in the Americas. During this period there was at least one enslaved man working at the Quebec Gazette, a man called Joe who was owned by the newspaper editor William Brown.

By Eleanor Lucy Bird

Notes

Clarke, George Elliott, ‘This is no hearsay: Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 43.1 (2005)

Cooper, Afua, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2007

Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012

Winks, Robin W., The Blacks in Canada: A History, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997

07 October 2016

Goodbye, and stay tuned for the Cold War symposium!

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The last three months of my PhD placement at the Eccles Centre here at the British Library have flown by. There is much I will miss about being here on a daily basis – and not just the very good, helpfully subsidised, staff canteen! Hopefully this blog post will shed some light on what I have been doing and prompt others to apply for the placement scheme in the future.

In all honesty, probably the greatest benefit of the placement has been working so closely with the Americas collections. Before coming to the British Library, I had what I thought was a good understanding of the collections. Having used them daily for three months, I now realise that I was only aware of a fraction of what exists. In particular, whilst I knew that there would be some useful American foreign policy documents available, it was only when I explored the Social Sciences Reading Room that I began to realise just how vast an archival collection was available. From Presidential papers through to specific primary collections on everything from Civil Rights to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there is a treasure trove of material for researchers and it’s all available without those costly flights to the United States!

Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans

 [General Reference Collection OPL 973.0076]    

Index to the GW Papers

                  [General Reference Collection OPL 973.03]

Aside from archival collections, there wasn’t one secondary text which I searched for that I couldn’t gain access to in under 48 hours. Finally, the digital collections which the Library has access to are unparalleled compared to any of the university libraries’ I have used. In particular, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and Readex Congressional Records are invaluable resources and well worth a trip to the Library to access.

The vastness of the collections led to the first project I undertook during the placement. Realising that, like me, most researchers only knew of a few of the Americas collections available, I compiled two guides to make the collections more accessible for future researchers. The first guide is on the political archival collections the Library holds, such as Presidential papers, whilst the second is a guide dedicated to the Congressional documents available. As well as telling readers how to access the collections, the guides provide examples of what materials can be found in each collection to illustrate the utility of said collection. Hopefully these guides will help fellow researchers take as much from the collections as I have.

A second project I have undertaken involved the organisation of an academic symposium. One of the Eccles Centre’s key roles is to promote the Americas collections to the academic community; often this is done through the hosting of specific events, which are sometimes linked to the Library’s public exhibitions. The British Library’s next major exhibition, which opens on 4 November, is titled ‘Maps of the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line.’ As the American-Soviet Cold War dominated the geography of the twentieth century, this offers an excellent opportunity to host an event focusing on the geography of the Cold War. The ‘Cold War Geographies’ symposium in January 2017 will bring together international academics to explore and assess how the Cold War changed boundaries, restructured terrain and redefined concepts of space and place.

Map

The placement at the British Library also exposed me to the practicalities of working in a large cultural institution. In particular, this occurred with a planned digital exhibition I was hoping to curate. The Library is going through some significant changes to improve its website and digital exhibitions. This meant that the three short months I was at the Library was not enough time to implement the project. The matter was also complicated by my desire to focus on twentieth century materials which brought in a whole raft of issues relating to copyright! Whilst the project did not materialise in the way I envisioned, I was able to gain access to excellent research material and develop a more practical understanding of the processes involved in curating an online exhibition within a large cultural institution

That said, I feel that the three month placement at the British Library has been an unqualified success. I have developed a far greater understanding of the collections, both for my own research and produced materials to assist others with their future research. Unexpected benefits also emerged in the form of using these blog pages to further disseminate my work, as well as taking part in Eccles Centre events which have greatly enhanced my academic networks. These new connections look likely to lead to positive future collaborations. Fortunately, the end of this placement is not the end of my affiliation with the Library. The symposium in January means that I will remain in contact for the foreseeable future, providing longer-term benefits of undertaking the placement.

From both a research and experience perspective, the PhD placement has been a highly rewarding and beneficial one. I hope that the outputs produced during this placement will be as beneficial to my fellow researchers.

Mark Eastwood