Frogs and Cats, or, Access and Privilege

I have never heard anything like those frogs. I was crunching along the gravel walkway from Historic Jamestowne back to the bus after the final reception of the Omohundro Institute conference in June. As I walked through the woods, the James River at my back, the calls of frogs and insects hammered at the air, drowning out the chatter of other attendees and the crunch of my own footsteps.

An hour before, I had gazed down into the archaeological dig of a kitchen site, in which researchers had discovered what they argue are cannibalized human remains in 2012. All the hairs on my neck stood up.

I was standing in the place where it happened—not just the suffering of Jamestown’s ill-prepared colonists but their violent conquest of land that belonged to the Powhatan Confederacy. The tingling in my neck, the bellowing of the frogs—these sensations drove home to me how alien, how incomprehensible, this place would have been to European colonists upon their arrival in this new-to-them world. How little they would have understood this place or the people indigenous to it.

Experiences like this fuel the work that I do. Being a historian means trying to understand the lives of people who lived centuries ago. My graduate training drilled into me the necessity of confronting landscapes and objects from the past. Touching a particular artifact that your historical actors once touched, or standing on a particular piece of ground where your historical actors once stood, you learn things you can’t necessarily know any other way. I knew, intellectually, how foreign Virginia would have been to the colonists who invaded in the early seventeenth century. But I didn’t know it viscerally until I went to Jamestown. I grew up in the woods in Western Massachusetts—I had heard nighttime forests before, but never quite like this one. For someone arriving from early modern London or another English city, the soundscape of Virginia would have been positively hallucinatory.[1]

And yet I recognize that such hands-on encounters with the past are possible only because of very specific kinds of privilege. I am a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution in the United States. This institution provides me with funding to go places for research purposes: out-of-state conferences to stay up to date in my field, international research trips to far-flung archives. I am not an adjunct, a postdoc, a VAP, an independent scholar—the precariat for whom such travel is a financial burden, or a constant cycle of grant writing, or an impossibility. (To say nothing of the many other kinds of privilege—citizenship, race, gender expression, class—that allow me to move freely and without fear around the United States and beyond. I can’t take those privileges for granted, either.)

But actually, much of my research and writing takes place at home, at my desk, in my pajamas, fending off the attentions of a belligerently affectionate cat. I am deeply thankful for the vast and ever-growing digital archive, for the institutions like the John Carter Brown Library and the Wellcome Collection, to name a few, who have devoted significant resources towards digitizing their collections and making them openly accessible to all who have Internet access. Of course, many people in the precarious categories I mentioned earlier face significant challenges in accessing resources available only through large academic libraries, and I don’t want to minimize those burdens. But in this digital landscape it is possible to spend a lot of time in early America without leaving home.

Which leaves me wondering about my experience in Jamestown. Can we know a place only by walking on its earth? Surely I understood Jamestown in a new way, in my bones, upon seeing and hearing and feeling it for the first time. And yet these experiences are, frankly, elitist, beyond the reach of many scholars. These issues of access are bound up in many other massive structural issues facing higher education. I don’t want to tie this up in a tidy bow, except to say that we need to keep talking, and doing, and not assuming that moments like the one I had in Jamestown are readily available to all. And don’t we want early American scholars to be as vast as our field?

[1] For more on early American history of the senses, see Peter Charles Hoffer, Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004).

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