Secret Agent Historians, part deux: "Day Rider" attacks!

cliobIn our first installment, Squadratomagico wrote of her research inside a “secret agent”-like labyrinth of a modern archive.  In today’s installment, “Thrown Off the Plantation,” Clio Bluestocking writes of a menacing encounter with a self-appointed enforcer of her version of historical correctness near Wye House, a plantation on which Frederick Douglass was enslaved as a young child.  I don’t want to spoil the suspense of her tale, so you’re just going to have to click and read it yourself, but here’s a taste of what you might see:  “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in haunted places, it’s just that the living are the haints.”

Clio B. is a singular example of a pseudonymous scholar-blogger who writes about her subject and area of research expertise very explicitly.  She understands the powerful possibilities of publishing under a pseudonym:  her writing can be much more self-revealing and personal than those of us who are “out” history bloggers.  Her brilliant insights from her research on Frederick Douglass and his sister, public history, historical kitsch, and her observations about the collisions of the past and the present are fascinating, and sometimes deeply disturbing.

Have any of you readers ever been chased away or lectured by a local who was hostile to or angered by your interest in researching the past?  My own fields of research are so obscure that I’ve been warmly welcomed by the proprietors of local and private archives, who are excited and even touched that a professional historian is interested in their organization’s or community’s history.  I don’t have any tales of being run out of town like Clio B.’s, but, I’ll be interested to hear yours.

0 thoughts on “Secret Agent Historians, part deux: "Day Rider" attacks!

  1. Not that I know of. Then again, in European archives, what happens is that, at some point, documents that you never knew existed magically “appear,” suggesting that the archivists routinely hold back unless they decide you’re okay.


  2. I never have encountered hostility while researching, but I do know that my book is on a (fairly obscure) online list titled, “Books the Catholic Church Doesn’t Want you to Read.” I was just tickled to find this out!


  3. A “Golden Fleece” nomination from the editorial board of a local newspaper? A condemnatory resolution introduced at a state-level meeting of a national hereditary organization? A murky note from a taxpayer claiming that “the people don’t like it” in reference to a public history project–or maybe just to its announced budget? Pretty much just ‘skeeter bites or speed bumps, I’d say not really being run out of town. (As if we had a town back in those days!) In-archival experiences virtually all pleasant and usually helpful.


  4. As I mentioned in the comments at Clio Bluestocking’s place, the caption of one of the illustrations in my book was modified. I wasn’t allowed to say “X accompanied by a Black slave”, and had to say “X accompanied by a Black page”. So no public hostility, but a little push back from my interpretation. Of course, the text made it clear that this was a slave, not a page…


  5. People in my field are officially supposed to get security clearance to research anything, and this is frequently denied, even for topics that aren’t obviously sensitive to the governments in question.


  6. I wasn’t literally chased out of town, thank God, but I did have a woman in charge of a museum take a harsh tone with me and refuse to give me any assistance. It was a teeny-tiny local museum about African-American history and she did not appreciate that a white girl (i.e. me) was asking questions about the area. I deferred to her as much as was humanly possible, since I did not want to offend her, but the experience was just unpleasant. Part of the problem also lay in the fact that I had stated my institutional affiliation and she apparently disliked academics.


  7. Actually, this comes up a lot in intercultural contexts, with people from different countries assuming the Western researcher will be biased against them or have some insidious agenda. The experiences described here don’t seem that different, and all simply resent an aspect of our positionality with relation to those who perceive as a threat our aspirations to claim authority over a given body of knowledge.


  8. Once, in a public library of all places, a fellow patron came up and asked what I was working on. This is not so strange, as the local history room is usually also the genealogy room, and genealogists feel free to interrupt and ask questions because they hope you’ll have info on one of their “lines.”

    I explained I was looking at an enslaved family, which drew the question, “Why would you do THAT?”(I’m pretty clearly not black.) I replied that the research was part of my job. “What job is THAT?” “I write books about history.”

    “You’re a PROFESSOR!” came the accusation, which I did not deny. The patron then launched into a loud diatribe about how I was wasting taxpayer money on slaves. (Remember, we are in a library. Everyone looked. No one said, Shhhhhh.)

    I considered explaining that I had a research grant funded by a private donor, so no taxpayers were harmed in this undertaking. But I guessed it wouldn’t matter. I kept my head down and tried to pretend I was still concentrating on the book in front of me. He ranted on for several minutes, then left. No one said a word to me.


  9. Thanks for all of your stories. As Brian wrote, there’s a lot of suspicion or resentment of “our positionality with relation to those who perceive as a threat our aspirations to claim authority over a given body of knowledge.”

    Mamie, you withstood that assault with more grace than I would have mustered! What a tool, and probably a tool suffering from status anxiety when he saw you in the library on real business. At the very least, I would have said, “thanks so much for your opinions, but remember, YOU asked ME what I am doing. I didn’t ask for your considered opinions on the worthiness of my topic.” I also might have asked him where he worked so that I could show up at his job and abuse him while trying to work.

    I wonder if that guy was a resident crank whom everyone was studiously ignoring because it’s easier than talking to him or trying to reason with him? Imagine the poor librarians and archivists who have to deal with him! (Although his assault on your legitimate topic really demanded an intervention from someone in a position of authority at the library.)


  10. Great riposte. Another tack would have been to get the guy’s name, tell him that by a total coincidence you just learned the previous month that three of his “lines” left boxes of documentation at the courthouse two counties to the east/west, but that you also understood the place would be closing a week later for six months of renovation.

    He would have been out the door that very minute! 🙂


  11. I haven’t been chased out of an archive (yet!), but as a historian whose current project focuses on Protestant fundamentalism, I know I have gained access to material because I can convincingly speak like a conservative evangelical. I try not to be dishonest, but I will use code words/phrases that put people at ease.


  12. I agree with Brian Ulrich, but it’s not only positionality and ownership of knowledge, but also the politics of memory surrounding particular topics that can inform the responses we get. It sounds to me like that’s largely what was going on in Clio Bluestocking’s post.

    At various points in my research, which has taken me from tiny local archives to big national institutions, I have been verbally dressed down by: genealogists who find my professional interest in their deeply-politically-incorrect-by-today’s-standards ancestors to be a personal attack, since most professional historians today focus on the evils done to the former neighbors mistreated by said ancestors; by historians of the mistreated neighbors who find my interest in their mistreaters to be a personal attack, since nobody could possibly be interested in them except out of political sympathy; by archivists in the archives of the now deeply-embarrassed government of the mistreaters, who would like the whole terrible and now-embarrassing business to GO AWAY VERY QUIETLY; by local archivists who like to believe that their particular corner of the world was not involved in the mistreatment in question, and therefore can’t see any use in my digging through their papers for evidence of their involvement; and (in hilarious faux-whispers) by older, male researchers who find “those young American women” to be flighty, unserious and above all, “constantly TALKING” about matters that don’t concern them.

    Because the history of this particular case of mistreatment is still very much a live issue for both sets of former neighbors and because most historians of their shared past see the writing of history as a political act (rescuing the various parties from the condescension of posterity and all that), all of these individuals equate research interest with political identification.


  13. Historiann–Yes, I have thought more than once about what I should have said to that crazy-a$$. (Ah, the spirit of the staircase, or elevator, in this case.) But as it unfolded, I was pretty much stunned out of my capacity for speech. What you call grace was more like fear. Later, I took some comfort in recalling that this particular reading room shared an entrance with some federal offices, and everyone had to enter through a metal detector.

    I do think he may have been the resident crank and that you are right about everyone else’s response.

    Ellie is right that local people are very invested in the idea that slums/slavery/sexism/name-your-oppression were not so bad in their neighborhood. I always try to calibrate the local politics before I admit much about what I’m actually working on. It’s a difficult balance: local volunteers know the collections very well, and they can save you time if they want to. Or they can waste your time by trying to persuade you that you just don’t understand what their town was REALLY like.


  14. A word or two in defense of genealogists in the archives: they may be happy to hold forth about your research topic even when woefully misinformed, but they DO know the archive they’re perched in inside and out, and they know how to find needles in haystacks.

    Also, I casually asked a very nice archivist on my recent research foray into a new archive whether most of the (elderly) people in the archive were doing genealogical research, and she replied that that was 90% of the archive’s patrons. She further explained that it was a very typical hobby of retired people in that country, to whom it gave a routine for their days, a reason to get out of bed and get presentable, and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I think that’s kind of nice.

    But no: they should not yell at you.


  15. It my homecountry and also the country I am currently working on, Americans tracing their ancestors are BIG money and actually ensure the survival of the national archives. To such an extent, in fact, that archives are often set up pretty much only to accomodate them. So the national archive I was working in this week has card index files by name, but not by subject-and almost no catalogues. So I always have to order boxes and work through them, but geneologists can order specific records.

    I once wrote a social history of my local regiment and that required considerable ‘negotiation’ with the regimental representative- mainly as he was an elderly man who didn’t really ‘get’ what a social history was about. He has to be persuaded that people were interested in costume/ changing working conditions [aka health, food, pay]/ women with the army, and was obsessed that my extremely brief summaries of military engagements were exactly as he imagined- which also meant that I spent 10x as long re-writing the two wars he personally fought in, but he had almost no quibbles about the rest of the 300 year history of the regiment. I also had a two-page bio of a member of the regiment at the end of each chapter as an example of a ‘typical’ representative of the period discussed- and he wouldn’t let me use the one based on oral history of a WW2 vet as his version of where he was on various days didn’t match with the ‘official’ account [despite the fact this wasn’t even discussed in the 2 pages]- he was ‘lying’ so I couldn’t use him. Sigh.

    Then there are the various encounters I have had with the owners of private family archives…


  16. Thank you for the linky-love! What great comments here, too. Yes, I think the woman and I were in different, clearly adversarial positions in regard to the history of Wye House. At least she saw it as adversarial!


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