THURSDAY, JUNE 17, 2021
The Harvard professor's pecans: Can something be gained from Tiya Miles' new book?
Presumably, yes. Last Sunday, Slate published an interview in which Rebecca Onion and Professor Miles discussed the professor's new book. The headline which sits atop the piece says this, perhaps a bit strangely:
Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Simple Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.
Whoever wrote that headline advanced a somewhat peculiar claim—the claim that it's impossible to understand the horror of slavery.
Miles' book, All That She Carried, is built around an apparent historical artifact—a simple sack cloth on which an inscription was embroidered in 1921. According to the headline in Slate, that cotton sack can bring us closer to understanding that horror, though we'll never fully get there.
We're going to come right out and say that we find that sentiment appalling. We find it self-involved, self-reverential. We find it tremendously dumb.
A special problem surrounds Professor Miles' new book. The book is based upon an embroidered inscription on a cloth sack, but Miles wasn't able to establish the accuracy of the family story which led a woman named Ruth Middleton to create that inscription in 1921.
That said, the inscription describes an horrific incident, assuming the incident really took place.
Presumably, there's something that someone can gain from reading about the way Professor Miles "tries to imagine herself into the lives of the women she writes about." (We're quoting from the very favorable review which appeared in the New York Times.)
That said, every sane person has known, for some time, about "the horror of slavery." It's hard to choke down the disgust we feel when we're encouraged to indulge ourselves further in the pleasures of such ruminations—especially when we think about the many young people, living today, who Miles and Onion will never ask their readers to try to imagine about.
In truth, we find this whole project appalling, an act of tribal self-admiration and self-regard. This is why we say that:
For starters, we retched as Professor Miles wallowed in the pride of her craft. In truth, her craft, as practiced here, is utterly useless, except as the latest vehicle for tribal performance of virtue.
Does the professor even speak English at this point? Early in the interview, she tells us this about the sack whose provenance she can't vouch for:
MILES (6/13/21): The power of this object seems to emanate from it, whether a person is seeing it from a distance, on the page of a book or on a screen, or up close and personal in a museum exhibit. And I think the power is anchored in the materiality of it, the fact that it’s a concrete and tangible item, and then the emotionality of what’s expressed on the surface of the sack, through the embroidered story. So the experience of engagement for the viewer or reader is a double or triple whammy—there are all these different modes of connection with the thing itself.
The way I tried to convey this in the book was, you take a few steps back from the sack to talk about that space of emotion, that experience of feeling the kinds of things that we do often want to sidestep in historical investigation. I think that to have avoided emotionality in the research and interpretation of the sack would have been to set aside an important aspect of the meaning of the sack, to the women who packed it and gifted it and carried it, and also potentially for us today.
This was somewhat of a struggle for me as a scholar, because so many of us are trained to try to adopt an objective stance in relationship to our sources. And though of course I have attempted to work within the accepted and proven methodological parameters of my discipline, I had to really make space for myself to relate to this object in a different way, and also to write about that mode of relating in the book—to be transparent about it, to expose it, and to encourage readers, people who have seen the sack in person or who will see an exhibit with it in the future, to be open to the feelings. That’s where so much of the power lies, so much of the usefulness for us today.
It's all about the materiality of the sack, but also the emotionality of what's expressed on it. In writing the book, the professor wanted to take a few steps back "to talk about that space of emotion."
In fairness, she struggled with "the methodological parameters of [her] discipline," a discipline she transforms into a vehicle for tribal navel-gazing. She wants to let the reader be "open to the feelings" evoked by the sack, which is where we find "so much of the usefulness for us today."
That said, what is the usefulness of this project for us today? Does someone today still need to be convinced of the horror of slavery?
We're not sure who that person would be. But as the conversation continues, so does the professor's self-involved navel-gazing:
MILES: Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman, told us in her writing that we could not know what slavery was. We just do not have that capacity. She said this to her white, free Northern women readers back in the 19th century—but we, too, due to our moment in time and place, can’t know.
And so we are in this place of not knowing, which is difficult for the scholar. But I think in the end, without this information, I was pushed to narrate the history of these women and their sack differently, and I hope that this will bring the readers a bit closer to the experience. These women had to stretch, bend, experiment, and innovate just to stay alive, to maintain their ties to one another, to their daughters, their sons; they had to innovate to tell their stories. And it has been an incredible gift and a learning experience for me to do something like the same in the research and writing of this book.
According to the Harvard professor, "we're in this place of not knowing." We contemporary people "just do not have the capacity" to "know what slavery was."
In fact, everyone knows "what slavery was" in any way which still matters. That said, the women in question here "had to stretch, bend, experiment, and innovate just to stay alive."
Insanely, Miles says she had "to do something like the same in the research and writing of this book." This is the kind of insulting nonsense which emits from Our Town's navel gaze.
The professor hopes her book will bring her readers "a bit closer to the experience"—presumably, to the experience of the enslaved woman and enslaved girl in the unverified family story her book discusses. She doesn't say why she wants readers to attain that state—but at that point, the conversation begins to drift.
According to the family story which Miles can't confirm, the simple cotton sack once contained three handfuls of pecans. The pecans were a gift from a mother to a 9-year-old child—a final gift, given as the mother was being sold away from her daughter.
If that actually happened, it would be one of the millions of horrors which occurred during this historical era. But uh-oh! As Onion and Miles continue, attention spans seem to lag.
The horror everyone already knows about starts to fade from view. In its place, we're suddenly subjected to such self-involved piddle as this:
ONION: I loved your section on the pecans—I never know how to say it, but “pee-cahn” is what sounds right to me!—the “three handfulls” that Ruth reports Rose put into Ashley’s sack. You get into natural history, and botany, and write that you went so far as to plant a pecan tree, to observe its unfurling, to understand the objects in the sack from a bunch of different angles.
MILES: For that part of the story, all we have is the notation: “three handfulls of pecans.” That’s it! So what do we do with that? If we want to try to understand what pecans meant to Rose, and how she may have gotten ahold of them, what they could have meant to Ashley, and how they might have not only sustained her but symbolized her relationship to her mother, a relationship to Black culture, and so on … it was difficult to figure out how to access that when the record has only three words!
Sad! The professor wanted to imagine all sorts of things about the sacred dead. In Onion's rendering, she wanted to understand the objects in the sack from a bunch of different angles (assuming those objects existed).
She wanted to imagine what the pecans, if there really were pecans, could have meant to the 9-year-old girl, if there really was a 9-year-old girl. She even wanted to know how they might have symbolized the 9-year-old child's relationship to her mother and to black culture, assuming that any such symbolic meaning existed at all.
Like Hephaestus dreaming the imagery on Achilles' shield, the professor wanted to imagine many things. She wanted to get closer to the thing-in-itself! The grotesque conversation continues:
MILES (continuing directly): So the move I made was to try to get closer to the thing itself in the present day. So, of course, I have my pecan sapling. It’s still growing! It’s wonderful. I love it.
ONION: Oh, good, I was afraid to ask!
MILES: Yes, it’s going [sic]! I wanted to see what would happen if Ashley had chosen to—if she was able to—plant a pecan tree. And if she tried to grow it, what would it have looked like? My sapling is not the same as Ashley’s, if she ever had one, but being able to see the new leaves on a pecan sapling, to think about what kind of life that could have signified for Ashley—the kind of life that is embodied by a growing plant, the kind of life that is encapsulated in a source of food—that helped me think about telling that part of the story.
I also ate more pecans! I wanted to, through my own senses, connect to what was in the sack. For breakfast today, I had rice cakes with pecan butter and peanut butter. And you’ll see that in the book, I actually include pecan recipes. This is the kind of experimental, exploratory chain of thinking that unfolded: going from the stitched notation on the sack, to trying to grow a little sapling, to eating more pecans, to talking with you today about how "pecan" is pronounced.
There are quite a few "ifs" in that ridiculous passage. Along the way, we got to learn what the Professor had for breakfast. Also this:
Perhaps as her own parting gift, the professor includes pecan recipes in the book! When we asked them to explain this behavior, major top anthropologists simply hung their heads.
In this interview at Slate, the horror of slavery disappears as we wallow in the self-involvement of these denizens of Our Town. Under the circumstances, we'd describe that gruesome exchange as an example of Self-Involvement Porn.
It's hard to be sufficiently repulsed by this repulsive—and dumb—conversation. The dumbness lies in the idea that we should want to get as close as we can to fully understanding the horror of slavery. (Not that we could ever fully get there!)
The proposal is so dumb that even the author of the proposal can't seem to sustain it for long. As the boredom and the bad faith set in, we switch to other questions: how to pronounce the word pecan, what Miles eats for breakfast.
For ourselves, we don't think there's much to gain by encouraging modern readers to get closer to the experience of historical enslavement—to the thing-in-itself.
No one who reads the professor's book doesn't already know everything he or she needs to know about the horror of that lapsed institution. What we don't need to know about is what the professor eats for breakfast, or how much she loves the pecan tree she planted, weirdly thinking it would somehow bring her closer to the alleged experience of the child whose mother was sold away.
Million died in the horror of a different slavery—the horror of the gulag. Yevtushenko may have suggested that those people "cannot be brought back."
If the Rose and Ashley of Miles' book actually existed, they haven't asked to be brought back. Nor is it obvious, at this point, what purpose will be served by trying to "imagine" them, even as we plant our own pecan trees in our own lush, ivied yards.
We moderns know as much as we need to know about what happened back then. As we noted on Tuesday, documented historical incidents have long since existed, in droves.
But as we read the self-involved conversation beneath that self-referential headline, we thought of people living today—the many people Professor Miles and the gang at Slate won't help us imagine.
The tease about the pecan recipes appeared in Slate last Sunday. One day earlier, some of those other people were disappeared on the front page of the New York Time.
One day later, some of those people were disappeared in an essay in Slate.
Tomorrow, we'll tell you who those disappeared people are. For today, we'll only say this:
Our tribe is deeply self-impressed and—the anthropologists say—just extremely performative. We deeply involved in finding ways to display our own moral greatness, even as we look away from the actual living children who actually do need our help..
Tomorrow: Invisible 9-year-olds of the modern era