Although the focus of this book—enslavement in the North—is a new subject for me, the ways that I have approached it grew out of my own previous work. Much of my research and writing has focused on intense, difficult-to-resolve ethnic and racial conflicts, especially in situations of what I call cultural contestation. In these conflicts, questions of identity and identity denial are central, while the material interests at stake are often far less significant. Winning or losing in these conflicts revolves around group recognition, acknowledgment, and inclusion or exclusion. Examples of these conflicts are minority language disputes such as those in Spain and Canada and contention over the meaning and use of the Confederate battle flag in the United States. In these conflicts, the goal is not so much material gain as it is symbolic recognition of group worth and inclusion in a society's narratives, ritual expressions, and enactments, and its public and commemorative landscape.
An intense conflict of this sort, in fact, occurred only a few miles from my home. On the mall in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia there was controversy over how to mark and recount the story of the house in which George Washington lived between 1790 and 1797 while he was president and to which he brought nine enslaved Africans. When this story first became public in 2002, there was extensive local news coverage, and African American groups and professional historians mobilized to demand that the full story be told. But the devil is in the details, and differences developed over what the story was, how it should be told, and what it meant for the city and for the park created in the early Cold War years to celebrate freedom and liberty, not to deal with the country's sordid and complicated experience of slavery. How could competing goals be met?
I followed the story keenly for several years, and in 2010 I interviewed Michael Coard, the founder and leader of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), the most important civic group that mobilized to demand a meaningful memorial on the site. Upon learning that I was doing research for a book, he suggested that I attend ATAC's monthly meetings to learn about their efforts. I took him up on his offer, and for the past seven years I have gone to about half of ATAC's monthly meetings and a higher proportion of their rallies and special events. At first, I went as an observer wanting to learn more about their work and what was happening at the President's House/Slavery Memorial site after it officially opened in December 2010. As I continued to attend ATAC meetings and events, I felt more like a participant and supporter.
Their monthly meetings at Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia generally draw between thirty and seventy-five people. New members are at every meeting I have attended, and some people attend and speak more regularly than others. There is always a formal agenda, and speakers need to sign up ahead of time. The group is older, rather than younger, and men and women attend in more or less equal numbers. Their orientation is militant, Afrocentric, and nonviolent. I often wear ATAC buttons at meetings and on some occasions I have described myself to others as an ATAC member because I identified with ATAC's main goals and respected what they are trying to accomplish. Initially, I was concerned about how a white person who attended their meetings regularly would be viewed. What I discovered was that while some people were curious about why I was there, others were friendly and welcoming and seemed to view my regular presence as support.
I must thank the group for helping me learn about and understand not only their views but also the deep emotions about the past and current situation in the city and country. Attending ATAC meetings and events gave me a much richer understanding of these deep emotions that some African Americans feel regarding the lack of widespread recognition and acknowledgment of enslavement in the North and its connection to present-day lack of opportunity and bias at work and by police. I also learned the importance of the ancestors and the need to honor them in appropriate ways, such as in the libation ceremonies that open all their meetings and ceremonies. The ancestors are not references to people who are from their immediate families, but rather to the many enslaved people of African origin brought to North America since 1619 and their descendants. There are many allusions to the suffering they underwent, their struggles to survive, and the various forms of resistance to enslavement they demonstrated. What I often heard was anger that few people with power in society take their concerns seriously and that they continue to suffer the indignities of second-class citizenship. At the same time, they are committed to using all the tools available to them—the courts, elections, public protests, the media, and economic actions—to publicize their demands and to make it hard for those in authority to ignore them.
As my project developed into an interest in the North more generally, I traveled to a number of sites of slavery in the region and read about others in books and articles that I discuss in various places in this book. Rhode Island is particularly interesting because of the way the small state is now explaining its role in the purchase and sale of enslaved people and the importance of the profits from the slave trade for development in Providence, Bristol, Newport, and other towns. Another Northern site that now effectively recounts its slave past dating back to the middle of the seventeenth century is the small city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which in 2015 inaugurated a memorial marking an African Burying Ground, part of which was hidden for years under an old city street. I also went to the Confederate South—to Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina—to visit former plantations that once had large enslaved populations to learn how they recount their past today, what they tell visitors about the lives of the enslaved people who lived and toiled there, and how the narratives are similar to and different from those told in the North.
The process of putting the pieces together and connecting them was slow and challenging. This almost ten-year exploration took me to diverse places and meetings with many people who helped me refine these questions and my answers. I read widely since there was so much that I never knew about slavery, collective memory, or forgetting. I visited many sites connected to slavery, attended public meetings and conferences, and I interviewed most of the main actors engaged in the decisions about the project at the President's House/ Slavery Memorial site in Independence National Historical Park. I mention all this because readers of a book may presume that the author knew where the research was leading right from the start. That's not how it works much of the time, however, and I have found that the detours along the way often add insight to the eventual outcome.
This examination of collective forgetting and memory recovery draws on my experience as a political psychologist focused on the role of culture in framing political conflicts and their management. I am not a historian by training and I did little original historical research as such. I have relied on the work of others for their careful and insightful study of what many people have previously viewed as an insignificant topic. My hope is that this work will add to the growing awareness and understanding of slavery's role in American history in the North as well as the South and to more fully understand its legacy for the present and future.