How do we make sense of slavery? How can we represent its legacies? Historians try to do those things through the acts of writing and speaking. But how could the work of bearing witness to the part-hidden histories of enslavement, forced movement, suffering and renewal be transformed by other modes of performance? Mixing the words of a historian of slavery with other types of sound and movement, our ‘Sweet Tooth’ project explores new ways of confronting and feeling a past that continues to groan and shift, restlessly in our present.
Our project draws together a historian and a vocalist, along with a choreographer and other performers to work on ways of exploring the past and its residues for public audiences. It builds on a collaboration that began in the autumn of 2013. Elaine Mitchener contacted me about her new project, in which she wanted to explore the links between Britain and Jamaica through sound and dance. Initially, she was interested in finding out about the history of slavery, but through several meetings and conversations over the past two years a collaboration has emerged, drawing in the research I am currently doing on slaveholding Jamaican sugar planters at the end of the eighteenth century.
Working with Dam Van Huynh and Jason Yarde, Elaine presented some work related to the Sweet Tooth project at an event entitled ‘Archive Breathing’, curated by the sound artist and writer Professor David Toop and held at The Platform Theatre, Central St Martins, 4 April 2014. Elaine has since secured a prestigious residency with Aldeburgh Music, to run between 7 and 12 August 2016. This will involve Elaine, me, Dam Van Huynh, Jason Yarde, Sylvia Hallett and Mark Sanders. It will result in a public performance.
The ‘Sweet Tooth’ project connects to my research project on Simon Taylor, an especially wealthy Jamaican slaveholding sugar planter, whose letters are showcased on this site, as well as to my wider work on Jamaican and slavery during a period characterised by revolution, war and the eventual end to Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. So far the collaboration has helped me to think in new ways about the soundscapes of Caribbean plantation life and about the different ways in which slaveholders ‘performed’ their mastery over enslaved people – thinking not just about the more obvious ways in which masters strutted about and lived ostentatious lives, but also about the more subtle things. For instance, seemingly mundane activities, like the physical skill of writing, performed a vital role in sustaining the transatlantic machinery of plantation production and slavery as well as emphasising the divisions between slaveholders and enslaved people.
One of my main concerns as a historian of slavery is how researchers can help the widest possible audiences to understand this institution and its legacies. It is also apparent that traditional academic performances (even done via typical forms of popular ‘edutainment’: i.e. magazine articles or TV/radio documentaries) often fail to convey its deepest realities and effects. By contrast, Steve McQueen’s discomfiting and daring cinematography (those long, lingering, drawn out, persistent shots) in Twelve Years a Slave offered a historically informed artistic interpretation that transcended those limitations. Our aim with this project is to use other art forms—vocals, music and movement—to do similar types of work.
Our first public sharing of our work in progress will take place at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, on the evening of 29 June 2016.