Part 2—The living upstaged by the dead: On the one hand, Professor Tiya Miles strikes us as unusually decent and smart.
Very much so, we'd be inclined to say again and again.
On December 10, we formed that judgment as we watched her 68 minute-long book event on C-Span. The event had been taped on October 8 in a book store in Detroit. C-Span's synopsis says this:
Professor Tiya Miles talked about her book The Dawn of Detroit, in which she examines the role that slavery played in the early history of Detroit.Say what? Slavery played a role in Detroit's early history?
Miles, a MacArthur genius award winner, is currently a professor at the University of Michigan. She's 47 years old, though we'll guess you'll think she's younger.
We'd say she has the heart of a younger soul, offering that as a compliment. Her publisher offers this fuller account of her book:
The Dawn of DetroitFor the full account, click here. If you watch the C-Span tape, we'll guess that Miles will strike you the way she struck us, as unusually decent and smart.
A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits
Most Americans believe that slavery was a creature of the South, and that Northern states and territories provided stops on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. In this paradigm-shifting book, celebrated historian Tiya Miles reveals that slavery was at the heart of the Midwest’s iconic city: Detroit.
In this richly researched and eye-opening book, Miles has pieced together the experience of the unfree—both native and African American—in the frontier outpost of colonial Detroit, a place wildly remote yet at the center of national and international conflict. Skillfully assembling fragments of a distant historical record, Miles introduces new historical figures and unearths struggles that remained hidden from view until now. The result is fascinating history, little explored and eloquently told, of the limits of freedom in early America...
Miles seems unusually decent and smart. On the other hand, we'd say she wrote a somewhat peculiar op-ed column in the New York Times last fall.
In her column, Professor Miles somewhat strangely seemed to claim—well, we'd have to say it isn't quite clear just what she was claiming that day. She did reveal a possibly surprising fact—the names of many former slaveholders are part of the modern-day maps of Detroit and the state of Michigan.
Familiar names on the Michigan map track back to early slaveowners. In Miles' column, this possibly surprising fact led to a somewhat peculiar suggestion or claim:
MILES (9/11/17): Detroit is just one example of the hidden historical maps that silently shape our sense of place and community. Place names, submerged below our immediate awareness, may make us feel that slavery and racial oppression have faded into the backdrops of cities, and our history. Yet they do their cultural and political work.In her column, Miles seems to say that people don't know that these familiar place names trace back to early slaveholders. Despite that ignorance, she seems to suggest that these names, which create some sort of "memory maps" or "moral maps," perform some sort of "cultural and political work" in spite of the fact that people don't know the history which underlies them.
The embedded racism of our streetscapes and landscapes is made perhaps more dangerous because we cannot see it upon a first glance. In Detroit and across the country, slaveholder names plastered about commemorate a social order in which elite white people exerted inexorable power over black and indigenous bodies and lives. Places named after slaveholders who sold people, raped people, chained people, beat people and orchestrated sexual pairings to further their financial ends slip off our tongues without pause or forethought. Yet these memory maps make up what the University of Michigan historian Matthew Countryman has called “moral maps” of the places that we inhabit together.
From someone who seems unusually bright, the claim seems unusually fuzzy. To the extent that the suggestion can be seem as a claim at all, it seems to tilt a bit toward the mystical.
We recalled this column when we watched Professor Miles on that C-Span tape, where she struck us as unusually decent and smart. We also found ourselves thinking, again and again, about the 48,000.
We were even perhaps somewhat peeved when we did.
Who the heck are the 48,000, and why were we almost peeved? You're asking excellent questions! First, though, consider that C-Span tape.
As we watched Professor Miles, we were struck by the fealty she paid to the enslaved blacks and Native Americans who apparently form an important part of the history of early Detroit. The fact that Detroiters know so little about these people is "disrespectful to our ancestors," she said around the 10-minute mark.
Around the 18-minute mark, she said the life stories of these forebears are "very distressing." For that reason, we need to look at their stories, she said.
By the 25-minute mark, Professor Miles seemed to be expressing a type of anguish—an anguish which may well be thoroughly appropriate to the subject matter, until such time as it possibly isn't.
"I have thought about this many a night," she now said, referring to "the deaths and the burials, of [enslaved Native American] infants, children, little babies, being born right here, in Detroit, to enslaved Native mothers, and dying, before they even had a chance at life."
It was perhaps at this point that we first thought about the 48,000. As we did, Professor Miles continued to speak, with some distress, about the honored dead.
Many of these stories "are very upsetting to discover," the professor said. Their stories are distressing for her and her graduate students to discover, she said. She said she could see that it was also distressing for her audience to hear these stories.
At the 32-minute mark, the professor said, once again, that it was distressing to discuss these stories. But we have to care about them, she said, as she finished her prepared remarks and threw the floor open to questions.
The first question concerned the emotional toll such historical work takes upon Professor Miles and her graduate students. In response, she remembered crying upon discovering one particular historical record.
"Why am I doing this?" she recalled asking at one point. She said she decided that she was exposing herself to "people's needs and their suffering."
Again and again, the professor described the emotional toll of compiling these stories—these stories about Detroit's insufficiently honored dead. Midway through her round of questions, at the 46-minute mark, she brought us up short with some numbers.
She was talking about a fairly small number of people, she now said in response to a question about the paucity of historical records concerning slavery in Detroit. We'll quote her statement exactly:
MILES (10/8/17): In Detroit [as opposed to in the South], the numbers were small. We're talking about 1300 people total, 2000 people total, in the early years. And so 85 enslaved people, 200 enslaved people, in the early years.On the occasion C-Span recorded, a contingent of good decent people spent an hour talking about 85, or perhaps 200, of their city's honored dead.
We thought again of the 48,000—that is to say, of the living. Should we be thinking about their suffering, their chances at life?
Tomorrow, we're going to ask.
Tomorrow: A cascade of horrible numbers