The topic of slavery is always a sensitive and heavy topic of discussion. So, when attending the presentation, “Film Series: Conversations About Race and America,” I did not know what to expect. The event, hosted by Suffolk and presented by Dr. Robert Bellinger, a historian of black studies, began with a film, Beyond the Field: Slavery at Middleton Place produced by Tracey Todd.
In school, depending on our education system and teachers, we all experience the teachings of slavery differently. More often than not, it is glazed over, for various reasons. Beyond the Field discusses the relationships between the enslaved people on the plantation and the slave masters, with a focus on re-humanizing these African American enslaved people. The audience is invited into a conversation with the various people featured on the film and their experiences as descendants of the Middleton family, white and enslaved people, as well as the historians who specialize in black studies and slave culture. I will go more in-depth on the film as I juxtapose the film with the panel discussion that was held after the film with Dr. Robert Bellinger, associate professor and historian at Suffolk University; Tracey Todd, producer of the film; Jeff Neale, director of interpretations at Middleton Place; and Atyia Martin, Chief Resilience Officer in the Boston Mayor’s Office.
The dialogue and focus was on slavery and trying to capture the presence of the people who had been enslaved on the Middleton property. Middleton Place was established in Charlestowne [sic], South Carolina as early as 1678 and amassed to 63,000 acres over 19 different properties. During the span of about 187 years, the Middleton family owned over 3,500 enslaved people. Jeff Neale reminded us that slavery is not about slave and slave master, but about human beings and the relationships between people and the connections they had with one another. The term “slave” is nothing more than a label or tag, but that we must remember that behind that label was a person, who had feelings: “they laughed, they cried, they got mad, they celebrated.”
Being that I am a professional genealogist who specializes in African American ancestry and an aspiring historian with a focus on African American studies, I found this presentation highly valuable and insightful. During the panel discussion, I couldn’t help but ask a question. I was curious to know “how do you [the panelists] think that this film will be groundbreaking in family history? From the black perspective, how do you think that this film will aid in the process of understanding that as African Americans we have ancestors who enslaved our other ancestors? From the white perspective, how do you think that this film will aid in processing that they [white people] may have ancestors who owned slaves?” My question stemmed from my growing consciousness of this “coming to terms” mentality and the history imbedded in that notion that at some point we must revisit the true history of slavery to accept what happened and appreciate all of our ancestors because without them, we would not be here. The panelist pondered over the question. Dr. Bellinger, an African American, spoke on this. He too is a genealogist, and someone I know personally through our affiliations through genealogy organizations. He is a descendant of the Middletons via an enslaved person. For Dr. Bellinger, doing family history and attending the Middleton Family Reunions, allows him to continue to process the truth within his own family history because it allows for conversation and understanding. He notes that through his work, he had long ago come to terms with the reality of slavery, but that when you can insert yourself and your family in the narrative it makes it all the more real, and being able to have conversations, but also understand the roles played is essential. At the same time, some of the other panelists, reiterated that this film will hopefully open up the possibilities to truly talk about race in America and the impact that slavery had on our understanding and conversations of race.
The analysis behind the history of Middleton Place is what truly fascinated me. The journey from time period to time period, was filled with information from both perspectives: enslaved person and slave owner. Well-kept historical documents on the Middleton Place allowed for a narrative from the enslaved person perspective. Over 3,000 names could be found of enslaved people, some listed in family groupings, giving humanity to these names and seeing how families were torn apart because of the desire to have more money. The argument, was that enslaved people are people to and through research, Middleton Place has been resurrected as a memorial for the enslaved people in way that other slave plantations do not tell the same narrative in giving voice and life to these enslaved African Americans.
I have been to a slave plantation before, and I am now planning to go and tour Middleton Place to get my own feel. I was able to get a copy of the film from the director, and promised him that I would show it to all who are interested. I believe that I have also begun a new train of thought on a thesis topic for my history thesis. I learned so much, and just wish I could have shared this experience.