Reimagining African American History Through Prosthetic Memory and Family Archives
Julie HouseFor my Ancestors
Public historians help us connect past events with our present experiences by giving historical events significance and meaning. Therefore, public historians' interpretations of family histories can have importance for audiences. Indeed, family oral histories and artifacts can be useful primary source materials that can allow for a more comprehensive examination of historical accounts, sites, material cultures, and historical figures. In the case of Harrisonburg, Virginia, the historical accounts of its African American citizenry right after Emancipation open a door for a better understanding of that city’s role during Reconstruction; but they can also be a source for uncovering African American ingenuity and determination. In the broadest sense, African American historical accounts can bridge the gap between what has been told about Reconstruction and what has been muted or set aside.
You may be hidden for now
You may be lost forever
I am saddened too because
I may not find you
You may be lost forever
But today I have hope
That I will find you
Public history, as a professional discipline that is grounded in history, encompasses a range of audiences, historical subjects, and methods of presentation, and although it is not an academic process, public historians’ research is nevertheless utilized by museums. Recently, the International Council of Museums redefined museums as non-profit institutions “in the service of society” that exhibit the "tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study and enjoyment.” Certainly, museums are places of learning, therefore presenting heritage can be an educational component of a museum. Heritage entails the preservation of material culture, so retaining and presenting family artifacts and histories—such as my family’s—within a museum setting or digital exhibition would be appropriate. Another compelling reason for my finding my family’s history and presenting their story has to do with prosthetic memory.
Prosthetic Memory and Mass MediaProsthetic memory is personal memory, but at the same time it can be created and derived from mass culture. Hence, prosthetic memory is “not the [sole] possession of a single individual, let alone a particular family or ethnic group"; instead, when used by mass culture, it can “conjure up a more public past” that produces what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities.” Consequently, people who have never met can form fabricated connections that are grounded in monumental imaginings. As such, individuals can share “collective” memories that an imagined community wants to memorialize. And since a monument belongs to every member of an imagined community, people can make emotional connections which may lead to a shared sense of social responsibility for a memory bound up in a monument. Yet, despite the positivity prosthetic memory can evoke, it can also work the other way. Instead of people feeling empathy and compassion about a monumental memory, they can become weary and indifferent to its symbolic meaning(s) on account of their being inundated or overly stimulated by prosthetic memory that is transmitted to them by mass culture.
Hollywood is a significant producer of mass culture and therefore a communicator of prosthetic memory through its use of film and television content. But in order for that content to be successful at the box office or for advertisers, the industry’s products tend to be sensationalized. Moreover, audiences who have been bombarded by Hollywood’s production techniques—used to create the glitzy images and narratives about the institution of slavery, for example—can become attitudinally callous, tone deaf, or even indignant.
Cinematic narratives that focus on or reference slavery, having become prosthetic monuments to that institutuion, have been around for over a hundred years. The silent film For Massa’s Sake was shown in theaters in 1911; the film tells the story of Uncle Joe and his family being freed from slavery by their slaveowner before he dies. However, Harry, the deceased planter’s son, gets into trouble from gambling. So, Uncle Joe sells his family back into slavery to a cruel slave master in order to save Harry from harm. In the meantime, Harry goes West and makes a fortune. He eventually returns to the South to rescue Uncle Joe and his family. The movie is distressing because in Virginia, manumitted African Americans faced expulsion from the state once freed; desiring to stay close to family, some individuals sought to re-enslave themselves and even their children. Hollywood’s release of the film is an early prototype of how African Americans would be depicted in films for quite some time: as unempowered, hapless sambos whose only existence is to serve white people. Just about every decade after the release of that silent film, Hollywood has released a film reinforcing the prosthetic memory of slavery: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927); Gone With The Wind (1933); The Fox of Harrow (1947); Band of Angels (1957); Slaves (1969); Drum (1976); Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey (1984); Amistad (1997); and 12 Years A Slave (2013). The obsession with slavery is not limited to movie studios. Just last year, Ranker, a film-ranking website, posted a list of “Well-Made Movies About Slavery.” One has to ask, why is mass culture so enamored with slavery? What is the purpose of constantly engaging the tragic history of African American enslavement?
While slavery reigns in mass-produced films and television content, alternative Reconstruction narratives about African Americans that are empowering and enriching have not—except for the diabolical film The Birth of a Nation (1915)—have not been given adequate attention. This is a disservice, since stories about free men and women are more advantageous not only for African Americans, but also for all Americans. A free person can exercise their natural rights and is able to live up to their full potential, whereas a slave is a docile, weak, and uninspiring creature. Contrary to this slavish existence are examples of African Americans exercising their free will during Reconstruction, which would provide contemporary audiences with images of confident African Americans that are uplifting. Definitely, such depictions would be antithetical to the damaging prosthetic memory of slavery.
Colorblindness is another issue that demeans or excludes because it refutes differences between racial communities for the purpose of marginalizing them. It is easy, for example, to argue that African Americans are disadvantaged by living in segregated communities when poor whites oftentimes live in segregated communities as well. Whites are usually able to move forward from their humble beginnings, while African Americans are often treading water. Indeed, in some people’s eyes African Americans seem to be progressing better than ever before, but a brokenness still exists in Black communities because of the long-running practices of whites protecting controlling interests. Without a doubt, racial disparities over the years have created an atmosphere in which African Americans are often contained in crumbling neighborhood infrastructures that drain their communities of vitality and economic security. My family, like numerous African American families in the United States, lived in segregated communities during Reconstruction, but they managed to forge a decent life for themselves and their children. Families were able to stay intact even though those same families may have been disrupted by slavery. They had access to jobs, no matter how lowly they may have been, and education for themselves and their children. Nonetheless, and to a greater extent, the difference between whites and African Americans has always been that one group had more options than the other in terms of financial wellbeing and education.
Renditions of history through prosthetic memory matter to how minorities’ stories are presented to Americans. Are there gaps or untruths or certain marginalizing histories favored over positive histories? Unveiling minority heritages, such as my family’s, is a start toward helping Americans rebut prosthetic memories that may have had a negative impact on people of color.
Finding My FamilySeveral years ago, I started researching my family history. Growing up, my grandmother on my mother’s side shared very few details about our family in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She had told me names of relatives, that my great-grandmother had an accent, that her husband was a porter, and that they lived well. But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about my family because their histories are a part of who I am. Our past is our present. We all carry in our bodies pieces of our forefathers and mothers, of those who have gone before us. The longer we live, the more distant and ancient our past appears. But our past is not that far away; we just have to examine our heritage in order to be aware of its nearness.
I expected my journey to be revelatory, but I wondered: would I like what I discovered? Whenever we think about finding our families, there is the feeling of trepidation when it comes to the unknown. Questions arise as to whether we have unsavory relatives on our ancestral trees, or whether we really are of noble birth. Usually, it’s the idea that a relative might have been an adulterer, a criminal, an arsonist, or whatever our overactive minds can imagine, that scares us. Despite this uneasiness, something drives us onward toward finding out who we are. We tell ourselves no matter what happens or what we find out about our ancestors, we can handle the news. So, good or bad, I wanted to know those who have gone before me. I took the first steps in finding my ancestors.
In the late 1980s, I tried to locate information about them. Before Ancestry.com came along, a family historian would have had to make a trip to a local library to look up Census information on microfiche; that’s exactly what I did. Dealing with a microfiche machine was not the easiest thing back then, plus the experience of trying to make heads or tails of Census information was daunting. I had heard about the Mormons’ fascination with genealogy, so I decided to visit a local Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, just east of Westwood Boulevard on the west side of Los Angeles. I thought maybe I would stumble upon something useful, but no such luck. When I ultimately gained access to Ancestry.com, I still did not have enough information to achieve a meaningful result.
Eventually, I had to reach out to the few senior relatives still living and a family historian. Unfortunately, they were just as stuck as I was about our family history. They had information, but they were uncertain about particular facts and were not able to say whether their knowledge about individuals or events was indeed factual, or just family lore. In the 1990s, I worked on a heritage project for a large church in Pasadena, California. It was a long and tedious endeavor that took me to gravesites, libraries where I spent hours on microfiche machines reading old newspapers, dusty church records as far away as San Diego, and archives in Tucson and Prescott, Arizona. Along the way, I discovered historical societies, and how essential these mostly small institutions are to the historical profession because they play a vital role in the preservation of historical records both for scholars and the general public. As collectors of histories, stories, and artifacts, local historical societies usually have robust collections of information on local denizens and organizations within a city. So I got in touch with historical societies in Virginia. Also, as a historian, I was reminded of how important it is to keep an open mind to possibilities, to continually ask probing questions, and to remember that when looking at an artifact or primary source, there may be more to consider.
A couple of television programs dealing with finding one’s family started airing in the mid-2000s. Who Do You Think You Are? (2010-present) and Finding Your Roots With Henry Gates, Jr. (2012-present) have been particularly interesting to watch. Seeing celebrity guests at times flinching or elated when they heard something insightful about their heritage encouraged me to continue on my journey of finding information about my own history.
In 2013, I began earnestly looking for my family. My research efforts led me to my dear cousin, Ruth. We had been conversing with each other for some time when one day she mentioned she had a letter she thought I might like. It was a letter written by my Aunt Linda to her cousin Ruby Newman Temple. In her letter, Linda mentions my mother, Anita, and some of my siblings. I was stunned; I had found my family. Ruth is my second cousin, once removed. Her great-great-grandmother, Harriet Dallard, was my great-great-grandmother Amanda’s older sister. On January 25, 2020, I made a trip to Virginia.
I got a chance to meet Ruth for the first time when I was researching historical house museums. The Dallard-Newman House, the historic house my family built, is being turned into a house museum. I also got a chance to visit the Riverbank Plantation where my great-great-grandfather William had been enslaved, and the historic church my family had built as well. Both the house and church are on the Virginian and national registries.
My visit to Harrisonburg reinforced the importance, in my mind, of the need for uncovering one’s personal history. We must not leave the interpretation of our family histories up to others. I can appreciate my cousin Ruth's words in her book, Keeping Up With Yesterday: “Our message to those who follow is: let us not allow others to trample on our heritage, but let us step with deliberation and care toward truth and perpetuation. It is up to African Americans to discover their histories and make them known for the benefit of themselves, their families, and our nation.
For certain, my family’s early history, uncovered through artifacts, provides alternative memories beyond unhelpful prosthetic memory. By learning more about my family in Virginia during Reconstruction, I acquired memories and images that have had a positive impact on my present and act as a shield against negative prosthetic memories manufactured by media, institutions, and organizations that continually marginalize my very existence.
Ancestral Artifacts and HistoryArtifacts serve as a visual representation of my family’s ingenuity. Three artifacts in particular represent my family’s early history of moving toward upper mobility, but they also demonstrate the strength in their story: a photograph of my great-great-grandparents, a birth certificate of my great-aunt, and a photograph of my grandmother when she was fourteen.
Photograph of William and Amanda Johnson of NewtownThe bronze-colored image of William (1844-1914) and Amanda (1847-1910) was most likely taken between 1870 and 1872, five to seven years after Emancipation. In the photograph, William is sitting while Amanda stands next to him with her hand placed gently on his shoulder. Amanda is wearing a bustled dress, and it appears William is wearing a sack suit. Sack suits were leisure-wear for men, who wore these three-piece suits to church or other informal functions. The photograph of my great-great-grandparents is significant because their clothing is evidence that they had achieved some level of prosperity in a short period of time.
The Johnsons, along with the Dallards— that is, Harriet and her husband, Ambrose—established the African American community in Harrisonburg, each taking on leadership roles. Newtown became a thriving center for African Americans after Emancipation.
William and Amanda had several children. Their fifth son was my great-grandfather, Julius William Johnson.
William and Amanda were productive individuals. William worked in construction and at the local tannery. He worked as a teamster and farmer, he owned his dray business, and he took care of the city’s refuse. Amanda and her sister were known as the “Shawl Sisters,” possibly because of their excellent work at quilting, crocheting, and knitting. My great-great-grandparents owned land, and William assisted in the building of their home and those of other relatives. He and the Dallard twins had done the renovation work at the Riverbank Plantation. They were skilled stair builders. Their work can be seen in the Dallard-Newman House.
Birth Certificate of Anna Mae JohnsonThree sons of William and Amanda—Thomas, Julius, and Willie—were Pullman Porters. I knew my great-grandfather Julius worked as a porter: Census data and old telephone directories reported his profession as such. However, it was not until I uncovered a copy of my great-aunt Anna Mae Johnson’s birth certificate that I was able to fully confirm his occupation. I was elated when I read “Pullman Bar Porter.” Pullman Porters are a vital part of civil rights history. These men suffered indignities and long work hours, yet they represent progress for African Americans. For one, Pullman Porters had to have at least a grammar school education. They were well-dressed and traveled extensively, so they were exposed to large cities and interacted with every socioeconomic group. Most importantly, the fiscal advantages gained from working for the Pullman Company provided them with resources to advance their families financially. Regrettably, the Pullman Company paid its porters nominal wages, so those men relied heavily on tips, which created a problem both for them and for travelers. Therefore, it was not truly an ideal work situation.
Photograph of Mabel JohnsonMabel (1901-1981) grew up during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), when interest in the public good was important. There was widespread concern with government corruption, civil rights, the women’s vote, safe workplaces, drugs and alcohol, poverty, racism, violence, and education. Like her father, my grandmother Mabel was fortunate enough to receive an education, so she was able to read, write, and she had basic math skills.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1909. Immigration grew so that by 1910, 15% of the population was foreign-born. In 1913, Grand Central Station opened in New York, and thousands of women held a Suffrage parade in Washington DC. Fashion innovations were introduced by designer Paul Poiret—the hobble dress, the minaret skirt, and harem pants—and became fashion crazes.
By 1914, when Mabel posed for this photograph, she may have been fourteen or fifteen. She is standing in front of her home, wearing the latest fashion, either a skirt or harem pants with a tunic skirt layered over it, and a waistcoat. Her hair is short and accessorized with a ribbon. Her clothing and hairstyle are similar to what is featured in the 1914 and 1915 issues of Vogue. Swayed by styles found in the pages of fashion magazines, young ladies wore extremely tight skirts or skirts with layers, and even pants with a skirt layered over them. Hairstyles appear to have been inspired by European debutantes and the Countess Nadia Torby, a young aristocrat. Girls wore their hair cut around their ears, with satin ribbons or some other hair ornament or hat. As a young person emulating fashion choices popular at the time, Mabel reveals that her family was middle-class by the early twentieth century. My great-grandfather’s job as a Pullman Porter opened up the world to his family. I can only imagine the stories he told them, and the tangible goods he may have brought home. He traveled as far west as Tonopah, Nevada, seeing far beyond Virginia, therefore sharing what he experienced expanded his family’s vision of a world outside of Harrisonburg.
Artifacts disclose only a portion of our heritage, but our DNA can be quite revealing. African Americans like myself, who have ventured to find out about our ancestry, have reconciled ourselves to the fact that we are a racial hybrid, whether we embrace our hybridity or not. If we have deep roots in this country, there is a very high probability that we are a hybrid; it is just a matter of percentages. None of us can escape our ethnic makeup, and for this reason many American families’ histories, including my own, span ethnic and cultural lines. I have DNA in common with about 11,000 people. Of those, 1,169 individuals are close relatives (4th cousins or closer). My family’s story intersects with quite a few Americans and individuals outside of America. Like many African Americans with traces of our nation’s complex beginnings in our DNA, my family offers a distinctive history. My Virginia family includes individuals who arrived in the colony as early as 1608. My family is very much a part of our national narrative, so mine and other African Americans’ stories should not be overlooked. Our stories are significant not only because of slavery but also because we are connected to pioneering white families and their stories.
ConclusionAfrican American family histories indeed promote dignity and pride. Moreover, these optimistic and hopeful stories push aside the negativity that African Americans have grown up with. Audiences who encounter artifacts of our family histories can interact with positive prosthetic memories through exhibitions, multimedia presentations, films, television shows, and books that can have a profound influence on improving perceptions of a community that has suffered so much. We all need to be made aware of African American achievements during a period like Reconstruction; consequently, my family’s history can be a catalyst for change. We also need arts spaces, and art and content professionals, committed to telling stories that fight against inaccurate prosthetic memories that harm ethnic minority groups. Those of us who take on this important work are the bold cultural leaders of today and tomorrow.
Back to Top
- "Looking Back," poem by Julie House.↵
- Chersin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction To Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 2, 5.↵
- Alex Marshall, “What Is A Museum? A Dispute Erupts Over A New Definition,” The New York Times, August 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/06/arts/what-is-a-museum.html.↵
- Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic memory: the ethics and politics of memory in an age of mass culture,” Memory and Popular Film, ed. Paul Grainge (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2003), 148-49, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt155jfm0.↵
- Landsberg, 149.↵
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 1983), 6.↵
- Ranker Film, “Well-Made Movies About Slavery,” Ranker, accessed December 8, 2020, https://www.ranker.com/list/well-made-movies-about-slavery/ranker-film.↵
- George Lipsitz, “The Sounds of Silence: How Race Neutrality Preserves White Supremacy,” Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines, eds. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), 24.↵
- Lipsitz, 24.↵
- Debbie Ann Doyle, “The Future of the Discipline: The Future of Local Historical Societies,” Perspectives on History, accessed November 20, 2020, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2012/the-future-of-local-historical-societies.↵
- Ruth M. Toliver, Keeping Up With Yesterday (Ruth M. Toliver, 2009), 1.↵
- Catherine A. Paul, “The Progressive Era,” VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University, accessed February 7, 2020, http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/progressive-era.↵
- Ben Atkins, “Progressive Era,” The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Wiley Online Library, January 22, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118517383.wbeccj336.↵
- Kathryn Hennessy and Anna Fischel, Fashion: the Definitive History of Costume and Style (New York: DK Publishing, 2012), 243-45.↵