I love a good story and a great storyteller. This week, I had two encounters worth noting.
Tammy Denease knew her great-grandmother who was enslaved and lived to be 125. Wow! Mississippi, her home state, is a place that only recently actually outlawed slavery, and Tammy knew the mindset of slaves first hand.
Now in Connecticut, she tells the stories of incredible women from history, preserving the memory of their humanity, as well as who they were and what they accomplished. At the New Haven Museum, she performed the story of “Sara Margu: Child of the Amistad.” And what a story it is!.
Sara Margu was one of four children captured and put on the Amistad, which ironically means friendship in Spanish. The ship was a slave vessel. Sara’s name in her native Mendeland (now Sierre Leone) was Margu.
The Amistad story is probably more familiar now due to the Stephen Spielberg movie. It tells of the remarkable case of a slave revolt in 1839, with the captured people taking over the ship. Although they wanted to return to Africa, they couldn’t make that happen. The boat was captured in Long Island Sound by a US ship, and everyone on board was brought to shore in Connecticut.
The people declared themselves free, and the remaining crew and Spain labeled them property. In an internationally famous case, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mende people, declaring them free, becoming a major marker for abolition.
What Denease does so well is skirt the famous portions of the story for the personal, the human. She preserves the experience of Sara Margu by telling her very particular story–the horrors of the slave ship from a child’s perspective and her healing through education.
Sara Margu worked off debts her father accrued in Mende and was taken when she was already separated from her family. She tells how the horrors didn’t really stop when the captives arrived in Connecticut. Many were housed in New Haven, while figuring out next steps. She describes that people paid 25 cents to look at the Africans, as locals had never seen or heard anyone like them before.
She also recounted how Josiah Gibb wanted to help and cleverly learned how to say the numbers 1-10 in Mende, then walked through black communities saying the numbers out loud until he found someone who understood what he was saying. That man then became the translator for the interactions in New Haven.
Sara Marrgu was moved to Farmington where she lived with a family who had a deaf son and a kind woman named Sara (where she took that portion of her name). She communicated naturally with the son and began to learn English.
With the trial, she understood that the central issue was, “Am I a person or am I property.” It was election year, and President Martin Van Buren said, property. The Queen of Spain said, property. But the US Supreme Court disagreed by a remarkable 6-1.
The Mende people could go home, but they had no money or sailing skills to get them there. So they did the American thing and went on a speaking tour, telling of their “adventure” on the Amistad. Sara Margu also singly demonstrated that Africans were intelligent by reading from the Book of Psalms. Sigh.
But however demeaning, the tour was a success. Sara Margu and the others raised enough to return home, and although they were not allowed to eat with white members on board, the travel was much more comfortable. The missionaries who accompanied the Mende hoped they would help the whites start a school and convert the Mende. One responded by ripping off his clothes upon return to show his tribal markings. But Sara Margu helped as she could.
The missionaries then paid for her to return to the US, to study at Oberlin, a college that accepted blacks. Sara Margu was 14 years old. It was 1844. Although it wasn’t all peaches and cream, despite the liberal stance, she did learn and became the first black to graduate.
She returned to Africa and felt the outsiderness of not fitting in anywhere easily. Still, she worked in the school, embracing Christianity along with her Muslim upbringing. She married and had a child. Not everyone who survived the Amistad to return had such a good life, and Denease relayed those stories, too.
For her, the world of the Amistad is more than a powerful legal case. And one thing I really loved is that she doesn’t ever tell about the death of her historical figures. Sara Margu can live on in our minds and hearts.
Carol Highsmith sees her work as preserving memory, too. She has collaborated with the Library of Congress for 35 years, photographing America. To the tune of 30,000 photos so far. She is 70 and expects to continue for the next 15 years.
She just finished documenting Connecticut and told that story at the Connecticut Historical Society. And she does consider her work documentary. She is thinking about researchers in 500 or 1000 years wanting to understand the culture of the United States.
Diminutive in stature, but huge in confidence, bon amie, and story telling through photography, Highsmith is truly a national treasure.
She mixes and matches images because that’s how she sees America. In her presentation, she might have an image of Lincoln’s coat he wore when he was shot next to Yellowstone and an image of the Mona Lisa on a barn. She calls them all iconic. And because nothing stays the same, she repeated, “that’s why we need to record ourselves.”
The entire archive of her work is downloadable and free via the Library of Congress. You can have so much fun browsing it, looking for your state or favorite place. Go for it.
Carol Highsmith, Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin