In Media Res

Dunn Roundtable CoverThe most interesting thing about Richard Dunn’s “intergenerational study” of slave life in Mount Airy and Mesopotamia plantations of Virginia and Jamaica is its incompleteness. As Dunn notes, A Tale of Two Plantations is a narrative without “a proper opening or a proper conclusion.”[1] His source base begins relatively arbitrarily with a pair of masters who sought to improve their record keeping and ends with the institution of slavery itself. This is tragic, of course, for our knowledge of the lives of the enslaved persons of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy are circumscribed by the ability of whites to track them.  In Jamaica, that proves troubling in freedom while in Virginia and Alabama, thanks to better census taking, the lives of the families of Mount Airy are much easier to recover. These sources, of course, mirror the experience of slavery itself.

The lives of Afro-Creoles only partially appear when they are of interest to whites. This is most often when their bodies or labor of enslaved people are necessary to the economic or social interests of their masters. When the lives of the enslaved or freedmen are less important they fade from view. Dunn’s comparison of Virginia/Alabama and Jamaica brings this clearly to our attention. One of the reasons the narrative of A Tale of Two Plantations lacks a “proper conclusion” is that tracking the lives of the former slaves of Mesopotamia becomes trickier after emancipation. With this great victory for freedom slavery, and thus former slaves, became less and less of a salient political issue. Since freed people’s lives became unimportant to white authorities in the British Empire, they become harder for the historian to track. In many ways the experience of the United States is the opposite. Since the fate of former slaves was a deeply political issue in Virginia and Alabama, along with the rest of the nation during Reconstruction, Dunn has a much easier time tracking their lives in freedom.

Jessica Parr, in her earlier post, explored some of the problems created by this historical situation and the sources it spawned. I’d like to briefly highlight the benefits open ended narrative. As I note above, that type of storytelling reflects its subject well.

This incompleteness hammers home for the reader the jagged and unstable nature of slavery–both economically, for masters, and socially for slaves. The economic needs of whites shaped not only how much of their lives we are able to recovery through the archives but their everyday experience as well. Their families faced the same sort of disruption as the archival evidence. The history of slavery does not have a clear end point–just like the stories of the enslaved families of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy. The legacy of slavery did not end in 1834 and 1865 and neither did the story of Dunn’s subjects.

By telling the story of A Tale of Two Plantations in media res, Dunn does his subject justice. The narrative reflects is subject in a way that owns the difficulties in sources that other narrative structures would trip over. This is one of the great strengths of A Tale of Two Plantations and one that many historians could learn from. This dissertation writer certain has.

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[1] Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 409.

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