Aiming for the four 'principles': Successes and Challenges


Our aim to be reflexive and to reveal our 'taken for granteds' operates in a very overt way. The web site contains several 'mission'-type statements; these statements are up front, on the 'Home Page' of the site, and in several other places. We state, among other things, that we want to present alternate interpretations of the data alongside, not subsumed to, academic interpretations - that is, to present the scientific voice as an important voice, but not the only voice, in interpreting the past.

But stating this is not doing this, so we obviously needed to find ways for local people to add their own material to the site - family stories, pictures, genealogical information, alternate or additional explanations of the data, and so on. A major impediment to doing this, was that many key people in the community do not use computers. So we met with key people in these descendant communities (the 'elders') and did oral history interviews. These interviews were transcribed and portions of the transcripts were included on the web site, with links to other parts of the web site that were discussed during these off-line conversations. I and, usually, at least one other family member conducted the interviews. Frequently the family members were the ones asking most of the questions, and these interviews sometimes led to more inter-family discussion about history, genealogy, etc. Transcripts of the interviews were given to the family members involved and subsequent meetings were held to clarify information, approve the interview segments used for the web site, obtain pictures, and the like.

Another strategy we employed had to do with 'asking permission'. Much of the material we wanted to put on the web site was from public records - genealogical information, in particular, came from census records and public birth, death and marriage records. While we had the legal right to put this sort of material on the web site, we decided not to include genealogical information or pictures of any named individual without permission from at least some of the family descendants. This had two positive results. First, it assured descendants that we respected their privacy and their families' privacy, and reinforced our position as collaborators, rather than gatekeepers. Second, it opened avenues for additional information and conversation. It was during one of these 'asking permission' interviews, for example, that Clarence Holmes (a relative of the aforementioned George Holmes, an enslaved person at the plantation) told us about McWillie Martin's regret for participating in white supremacist activities in his youth. As he put it, Martin 'repented' before his death. This was information that Martin's descendants were, as far as we know, unaware of. So far, only one family has asked that their family name not be associated with the web site, and this was due to a private legal situation, not to the material we proposed to present or to their lack of support for the project.

Despite the success of these strategies, other challenges have also prevented us from being fully reflexive or multivocal. One important impediment was that much of the web site content comes from previously published scholarly articles and conference papers. These materials are important in themselves, not only because they are artefacts of a situated time, place, and mode of production, but also because they represent a legitimate voice - the scientific/scholarly voice. However, they do present certain problems when trying to apply them to a forum which aims to be open and reflexive.

Not only is the language usually too technical, certain essentialising words - words that tend to perpetuate traditional stereotypes about individual identity and relationships of identity to material culture - appear throughout these documents. Some collaborators pointed out, for example, that the word 'cabin' is problematic (unless there is evidence that the plantation's residents themselves used it, which there isn't) because it communicates a certain mental image to contemporary audiences - a certain ideological conception of what an enslaved person's house must be. The word 'slave' is even more difficult - as discussed above, the people who lived on this plantation may have been slaves, but they also had other roles, both inside and outside the plantation community (Brown 1995). The word 'slave' defines a person according to a condition which someone else has imposed upon him or her - the phrase 'enslaved person' was suggested as a possible replacement.

Even though we could have attempted to translate all previously published texts into more appropriate (some might say more 'politically correct') language, doing this would probably have been frustrating, given the fluid, dynamic nature of cultural debates about language, and that replacement language is frequently cumbersome and awkward (as 'enslaved person' is more awkward than 'slave') (LaRoche and Blakey 1997). However, taking advantage of the linking capabilities of hypertext, we decided to present the previously published materials 'as is'. We created hypertext links from 'problem' words to discussions about language, and about how words have the power to create and reinforce the categories and vocabularies that we use to describe and understand each other (Rorty 1989; Rorty 1991b). These links will, in future, be linked with on-line discussions (helping us to meet our aim of interactivity) in order to place the conversation about language itself firmly within a specific historical context. In this way we hope to turn a weakness into an interpretive strength, still providing a legitimate place for scientific/authoritative texts within the 'conversation' (Rorty 1989; Rorty 1991b). By discussing how our own taken-for-granteds are revealed in the words we use, we hope to encourage the site's visitors to question the words they use in everyday talk. This may also help people to see both science and history writing as situated and contingent, rather than as never-changing, authoritative 'Truth' with a capital 'T'. Obviously a considerable amount of new text still needed to be written, and in these new texts we attempted to use more appropriate language. These new texts were usually written by me and vetted by key collaborators before being included on the web site.

In order to reveal more about the archaeological 'taken for granteds', I also conducted interviews with Ken Brown and his research students. During these interviews we discussed what had informed their interpretations - the ethnographic and historical data they used, the artefact and artefact context data they had gathered, and the like. After being taped and transcribed, portions of these interviews (reviewed and edited by the archaeologists) were included on the web site. The interview segments now include links to the materials discussed during the interviews (diaries, ethnographic material, photos of artefacts, tables, historical records, etc.).

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Last updated: Wed Apr 28 1999