Sunday, May 28, 2006

Simon Schama Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe
By Harvey Blume 

"I'M A TOTAL OUTSIDER to American history." That's how Simon Schama, the British born and educated historian, who has been teaching at Columbia University since 1993, described himself to me when the tour for his new book, "Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution," brought him to Boston. It's true that none of Schama's varied writings--on art (he was an art critic for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1998), art history, and British, French, and Dutch history--have homed in on America. But that seems to have worked to Schama's advantage.

In "Rough Crossings" he approaches the story of slavery during the Revolutionary War with fresh eyes, and restores to its proper place a significant aspect of the tale that has been omitted from standard accounts. In brief: Tens of thousands of slaves fled Southern plantations during the war, making their way to British lines and taking up arms against their old masters.

For them, Britain represented the possibility of abolition, whereas American independence signified the certainty of ongoing slavery. Britain encouraged blacks to think this way. For one thing, there were genuine abolitionists in London, and many slaves, for all that their masters tried to keep them ignorant, were aware of them. Furthermore, it gave Britain a polemical advantage to accuse American patriots, for all their talk of freedom, of being hypocrites, wedded to a barbaric institution.

Britain thought drawing slaves to its side would materially weaken and thus discourage the patriot cause. As it happens, the opposite occurred. Slave owners identified Britain with the slave rebellions already raging in the Caribbean, which prompted them to fight all the more wholeheartedly for American independence.

One of the virtues of Schama's book is that it portrays blacks as agents of their own history. Aware of slave rebellions further south, revolutionary activity around them, antislavery stirrings in London courts and Parliament, they tried to thread their own way toward freedom.

IDEAS: What was the source of your interest in what became "Rough Crossings"?

IDEAS:I've lived almost half my life here, and half there, and wanted to do some sort of Anglo-American work. I remember going to the memorial services for the British victims of 9/11--incredibly heartbreaking--in New York. There were the two flags, and the great and good on both sides, Rudolph Giuliani, Tony Blair. I thought: It's time to do an Anglo-American book, and don't do it in a way that is a piece of sentimental garbage.

I always thought if I do the Anglo-American book, it would be a book of arguments, where you find out, almost in the Jewish sense, what links you through argument rather than through vague exchange of compliments. So I thought, why not write about post-divorce custodial disputes: Who owns the bragging rights to freedom? And then I found that there was in fact a slave who had escaped, fought for Britain, and renamed himself British Freedom.

IDEAS: How well known was this material?

IDEAS:It's been known for a while, but there's a peculiar reluctance to integrate it into the central narrative of the founding of the nation.

IDEAS: What did you add?

IDEAS:Almost nothing.

IDEAS: You brought it into the mainstream?

IDEAS:Right. When I started writing about this, I went to people like my Columbia colleague Eric Foner, and asked: Is this is bringing coal to Newcastle? They said, absolutely not: Do it.

IDEAS: Why is this story not better known?

IDEAS:A lot of the problem had to do with how much had to ride on the ability of the African-American community to demonstrate it had fought patriotically in the Revolutionary War. Tragically, the other part of the story was simply erased. It was a loser's story. It didn't help anybody's cause. So it is remarkable to find people like Frederick Douglass being absolutely aware of that history.

IDEAS: One thing I learned from the book is that there was a sort of global black network of intelligence back before even a black historian like W.E.B. Dubois, in "Black Reconstruction," assumed it existed, and that the network was attuned to both London and the Caribbean.

IDEAS:You have to piece it together. It's absolutely electrifying when you do indeed find advertisements in the Virginia Gazette by slave owners--who have no reason to say this unless they think it's true--to the effect that their slaves have gone over to the British in the deluded belief that because of the Somerset case in London [a ruling against slavery in England] they were going to be free.

We're in a kind of Ralph Ellison invisible man world here, where blacks supposedly don't have heads and faces and ears and eyes. On the other hand, the most sensitive thinkers--like the Adamses--knew blacks were going to be thinking and talking and it might have consequences. It's John Adams who says the Negroes have a remarkable way of communicating intelligence, and that news flies from place to place.

IDEAS: Sometimes, in "Rough Crossings," it seems you're on a bit too intimate of terms with your characters. And you seem to know a bit too much about the weather in 1776, or how the waves looked on the Atlantic.

IDEAS:As far as weather goes, Henry Lawrence writes about weather to his brother John every single day.

IDEAS: Still, you do have a novelist's sort of intimacy with what goes on.

IDEAS:That's true. I do try imaginatively to offer a thickly vivid sense of what it was like. If you know my work, you know I'm not very good at distance.

I'm not comparing myself, God knows, to Tolstoy, but I was very struck by his calculated rejection of any introductory apparatus to "War and Peace." The book famously begins with a half sentence of dialogue, as if there's a window through which the reader could climb into actual events. I love the possibility of actually starting in medias res, which my discovery of the slave called British Freedom, with whom I begin the book, allowed me to do.

I've wanted to write something that was clearly a historical novel, but haven't had the time to do it yet. I have a story. Bad luck to tell you about it.

IDEAS: You're English, but may have changed for good the way Americans, black and white, tell the story of slavery.

IDEAS:It's a painful thing to take on board that in the deep defining moment when a nation comes into being, it comes into being with this birthmark on it.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. 

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