The University of Massachusetts Amherst

In Conversation with Charmaine A. Nelson, Keynote Speaker for the 2023 Black Heritage Month Celebration

Image of Charmaine Nelson with text reading: Commonwealth Honors College Presents: Slavery, Mobility, and the Creolized Counter-Knowledge of Resistance, Charmaine A. Nelson, UMass Amherst, Provost Professor of Art History, Department of History of Art & Architecture, Feb. 22, Annual Black Heritage Month Celebration  CHC Events Hall 5:00 p.m. Reception to Follow, This event is supported by the Williamson Lecture Funds
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From researching enslaved Black people in Canada to emphasizing the importance of understanding creolization, Charmaine A. Nelson’s highly anticipated Black Heritage Month Lecture dives deep into Black history and the parts of it that are often misunderstood. Her lecture is titled "Slavery, Mobility, and the Creolized Counter-Knowledge of Resistance". So, what is the lecture about? What can the audience expect? All your questions answered, right here.

Why did you choose this topic for this year’s lecture?

Creolization is this fundamental concept in the heart of transatlantic slavery that you must get a grip on to understand any population. It's about Black people and white people coming into contact and how the cultures,  societies, and politics of both groups were fundamentally transformed. 

Charmaine Nelson, provost professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts with green, yellow, and red graphics

On the other hand, Creole was a term used in the Anglo-Caribbean to mean anybody born in the Americas. It was not a racial term but a way to compare, for instance, white or black people born in Europe or Africa respectively, to those born in the Americas.

For white people, creolization was always a choice. For instance, a white person looking at enslaved people could choose to adopt the African dress practice of headwrapping that they saw enslaved Africans maintaining. But for the Black enslaved person — creolization always happened under duress. Stop speaking your language. I'm changing your name. Stop dancing. Don't play your drums anymore. Creolization for the enslaved was  about the limits of African cultural retention under the the brutality of slavery. 

What can the audience expect from your lecture?

They're going to learn a lot about Canadian slavery, because I'm sure a lot of them have never heard of such a thing. Before starting at UMass Amherst in 2022, I had established the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, in Halifax, Canada, because Canada has a 200-year history of transatlantic slavery under the British and the French that most Canadians have no clue about. It's not that they don't know the details — they don't even know that it happened. That's the level of ignorance in Canada. It’s the same for many Americans in relation to their ignorance about slavery in the American North. That is why I brought my institute here to UMass, renamed it Slavery North, and expanded it to also encompass research on slavery in the American North.

For many people in the audience who have not had the opportunity to study transatlantic slavery at all, I think they'll find it interesting how I'm doing the research — the types of archival documents that I am analyzing to make my arguments. For instance, talking about correspondence, or a bill of sale, or a fugitive slave advertisement.

I hope they tune into how even the nature of how I do this research is different from other professors' research on free people, or especially free white people. When researching white enslavers, I may have someone's whole diary, or business ledgers, or correspondence. But for enslaved people this is not the case because they were materially deprived, terrorized, physically brutalized, strategically prohibited from becoming literate, and subjected to systemic surveillance. The enslaved were also overworked and therefore typically had no leisure time. Given all of this, they were deprived the means to leave traces of their own lives. I hope students will pick up on what it takes to do the research on enslaved people in terms of archival practice.

Charmaine Nelson, provost professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts with green, yellow, and red graphics

Archives are not objective; they're created by individuals with power. And these individuals were creating and then preserving documents, and objects, and artifacts that were themselves created through bias and designed to justify the colonial logic that underpinned slavery.

What is one thing you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

I want everyone to understand that enslaved people were always resisting. There's a lot of evidence — across all different regions of the Americas, that enslaved people were resisting all the time and in different ways.

One of the most public ways was running away. And that's often what I'm studying, because I'm researching fugitive slave advertisements. These were ads printed by enslavers to hunt and re-enslave people who resisted through flight. In my lecture's title, I use the words counter knowledge and what I'm talking about is how these ads show us evidence of how our ancestors were resisting all the time in various ways. The ads I'm going to look at show evidence of the fact that enslaved people were watching their enslavers. And the enslavers actually printed evidence of this in their ads.

So in one case, a woman named Cloe was accused of getting out of her Quebec enslaver's house through a garrett window. A garrett is an attic above an upper floor of a house, so she escaped through a garrett window "by the help of a ladder". Cloe obviously had a plan. She had to put the ladder there, or use a rope ladder, and get of the house when her enslaver wasn't watching or wasn’t home. And the enslaver also claimed that she escaped on the river with a man who was awaiting her in a canoe. This tells us that she planned this arrangement with the man prior to the night of her escape.

Charmaine Nelson, provost professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts with green, yellow, and red graphics

So, you see, the enslaved were resisting all the time and often in clandestine ways, because they couldn't demonstrate outwardly what they were doing because they would be beaten, or whipped, or tied up, or sent to another region away from their loved ones for doing it. 

Therefore, these practices are often difficult for us to recuperate because the enslaved were literally hiding from their enslavers to continue to practice, for instance, their music and spiritual cultures. Like let's go hide over there and practice our drumming. So often, it was secretive resistance.

I want the audience to understand that finding this information entails looking for it and asking the types of questions that center the enslaved, their lives, and experiences. This is not necessarily obvious work when the archive that we have inherited is fundamentally colonial and violent not just in terms of how it accumulated documents about the enslaved, but the nature of these documents and why they were created in the first place.