In October 2012, three students from around the country were named the winners of National Endowment for the Humanities' Emancipation Nation Student Contest to submit a piece of original creative writing that reinterpreted or responded to historic documents contained in two NEH-supported online databases: The Freedmen and Southern Society Project and Visualizing Emancipation. NEH spoke with these three young writers about the inspiration behind their winning entries.
Drew Barker, 31, writer, teacher, and dramaturg, has been awarded first place in the National Endowment for the Humanities Emancipation Nation Student Contest for his one-act play, Freedom’s Fortress.
Freedom’s Fortress tells the story of Fort Monroe off the coast of Hampton, Virginia, as a Union- Army-held refuge for former slaves during the Civil War. The freedmen and women were called contrabands--goods, war materiel-- that could be seized from belligerents during wartime. The fort was made a National Monument in 2011.
Drawn from testimony by the Superintendent of Contrabands before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission in 1863 and from the author’s imaginative reconstruction of the scene, the play uses records kept in the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project archive and draws on his own considerable reading in the humanities.
Barker was born in North Dakota, where his father was an Air Force officer in the Strategic Air Command, and at one time, the holder of one of the two keys that were required to activate missiles during a nuclear attack. He grew up in Montana, California, Tennessee and North Carolina. A theater and education graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he taught high school English and theater for four years and worked as an artistic associate at the Triad Stage in Greensboro.
He and his wife, Kelsey Hunt, are both candidates for Master’s Degrees at the University of Maryland, he in Theatre and Performance Studies, and she in Costume Design.
Your play, Freedom’s Fortress, takes place at Fort Monroe, one of the country’s newest National Monuments. Had you seen the fort?
I had never heard of Fort Monroe. I was scrolling through the dozens of Civil War letters and reports in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland looking for something that I could see playing out in my head. I was completely taken by the candor and travesty recorded in the Testimony of the Superintendent of Contrabands before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission—and it was already in dialog form.
What was it about this particular historical document that attracted you?
The line that stood out to me the most was, “They are getting their eyes open.” Runaways were coming into the fort, going back to get their families, but sometimes being sold back to their masters for $20 or $50—by Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. This is something crazy that happened, but I never heard about it. On the other hand, the superintendent testified that “colored men will help colored men,” and I wondered about how that could become something mythic.
Where did you get the idea that Fort Monroe was haunted?
The land that Fort Monroe occupies has been inhabited in one form or another for centuries. It’s a piece of land that has seen some horrendous history. I heard Amiri Baraka read poetry at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina years ago and I’ve always remembered the line he read, “at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there's a railroad made of human bones.” In my play the contraband, James, testifies that he has experienced something similar— but it’s more immediate and personal.
In Freedom’s Fortress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis tells former slaves that the war doesn’t have anything to do with them. Where does this come from?
Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early were brazen after the war, cooking up the idea of the “Lost Cause,” writing about it and acting as advisors on other books that popularized it. If you are in charge of one of the worst mistakes in American history—wouldn’t you want to be in charge of your own PR campaign?
What’s up with the big dead bird, stinking, that is hanging around Jefferson Davis’ neck, chains rattling, as the former president is talking to himself?
That’s my rough-hewn allusion to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the mariner kills the albatross that led his ship out of the Antarctic and is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck. After the war, Jefferson Davis was actually imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe. His relentless denial of the cause of the war makes him talk to himself.
You spent much the early part of your life in the northwest where your Dad was in the Air Force. What did you make of the Civil War?
I didn’t focus on it. When we moved to North Carolina, where much of my family resides, I saw all the Confederate flags and I thought, “why are they celebrating a loss?” I am taking a course in the Civil War now taught by Dr. Leslie Rowland, and I’m always reading plays and books that show the uglier side of American history. Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle there is no progress,” and I think we have to see that struggle in order to know our own progress.
Kelly Vicars, 21, was named runner-up for her poem “Butter.” Vicars is a senior at Stanford University pursuing a major in anthropology and a minor in creative writing. Originally from Colorado, Vicars is an avid painter and traveler. She participated in a Stanford study abroad program in Paris, and has traveled independently in Costa Rica, England, and Brazil. Her main interest, however, is writing. “I hope to become a writer, in some way, in my career,” she says. Although she has done creative writing throughout college, Vicars has only recently started writing poetry. “I think that, for certain things, poetry is the best avenue of conveying complex emotions.”
Her poem “Butter” responds to a record contained in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project of a complaint filed in 1865 by Cornelia Whitley against her employer, Allen Dickerson, stating that she had not been paid for two years of picking cotton, sewing, knitting, and peeling fruit. Vicars takes as her starting point Cornelia’s testimony “that in consequence of attending to her sick child she was late at her churning this morning and was abused for the same” and imagines Cornelia’s thoughts as she churns butter.
What was the inspiration for “Butter”?
When I read about the contest, I started looking at the Freedman and Southern Society Project archives and was looking at a document that was a register of cases brought to a superintendent court in Virginia, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. I was really moved by what was said in these complaints brought before the court, which was that former slaveholders were refusing to acknowledge that slaves had been freed. One of the cases, the one I was inspired by, was a complaint by a woman who had been beaten for arriving late “at her churning” for attending to her child who was sick.
What struck you about that particular record?
The blurbs in the record are small but there are so many of them. It seemed like so many people were experiencing this problem of still living under this dark cloud even after the Proclamation had been passed. It just seemed to represent a larger social problem.
Why did you decide to focus on the churning of the butter?
I was looking for a different vehicle to talk about what had to have been the terrible continuing grievances of these former slaves who were now freed, but not really freed. And butter seemed to be a good avenue through which to talk about it. I realized that after doing a little bit of research into how butter was made. Churning butter is a laborious process, obviously, but what happens chemically is that the cream begins as a fat-in-water emulsion and then through the process of churning it becomes a water-in-fat emulsion. So it changes states entirely, but only after all this beating.
So the churning of the butter seemed symbolic of the repeated strain of being repressed—and the process of being freed itself. While the Emancipation Proclamation was passed from one day to the next, I think being freed was a much longer and more tiring process.
The records don’t give much information about Cornelia Whitley. How did you imagine her and her life?
Her complaint and those surrounding it made it clear that these were former slaves who working for new employers and maybe even their past slaveholders under this new umbrella of freedom, which wasn’t really being honored. So I just envisioned her as a former slave. It talks about her child, so she was a mother. One of the most striking things in that blurb about her is the fact that her child is sick, and she can hear her child crying from the next room as she’s churning, which seemed pretty terrible.
There’s a break in mood near the end of your poem, where the speaker declares that she is a “breaker of vessels.” What would you say her feeling is coming out of this moment of reflection?
I think the ultimate sentiment is of resolve and that it’s not simply that she has been freed or that she had been injured by these repeated wrongs, but that she is choosing to be a changer of things and has brought this complaint before the court. And even though she may not benefit from any real changes in her lifetime, she is part of the process, and she is strengthened by that.
Avery Victoria Irons, 33, law school graduate, youth justice advocate, Harry S. Truman National Scholar and veteran of the National Guard, received honorable mention in the Emancipation Nation Student Contest for her letter, "Stephen to Lucy."
Drawing on a three line official military report written outside Kempsville, Virginia, on September 15, 1863, Irons created a letter from brother to sister about the death of their presumed half brother, Thomas James.
Written in a tone of anguish and self-reproach, the letter unfolds by the deft addition of detail about family relationships. “Stephen to Lucy” is informed not only by Irons’ reading of Civil War and Southern history, but also by her work in New York, as the Director of Youth Justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund and as Acting Director of the Correctional Association of New York, Juvenile Justice Project. “In juvenile justice work, you learn to see nuance. Things are not black or white. No one is wholly good or bad. In writing this I wanted to show that there are multiple layers to every story. Working in juvenile justice, some of the things that young people do helped me create the world of the letter.”
Irons was born in Decatur, Illinois, a factory town of about 80,000 that was once home to Abraham Lincoln. Her father, an electrician, and mother, who worked for Firestone Tire and Caterpillar, both went back to school when she was a teenager to further their education.
Irons joined the Illinois National Guard as a senior in high school, and after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in political science, she was called up to serve in Germany as a 23-year-old sergeant. She graduated in 2006 from Columbia University School of Law as a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow, and passed the New York State bar examination. After five years in New York, she decided to “take a little detour to find out about my creative side.” She is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
You are a law school graduate and a veteran, you directed the Youth Justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund in New York and you are the recipient of honors in both law school and as a political science undergraduate. What made you decide to study creative writing?
I really enjoyed the policy advocacy, but it became a battle every day of my life. I tried to stop burnout, to handle it healthily. I decided to take a little detour to find out about my creative side.
Why did you choose to write your contest entry about a three line military report that is impersonal and inconclusive?
Going through the University of Maryland’s Freedman and Southern Society Project database I was taken by the very idea of fugitive slaves, contraband, remaining in the South to assist the Union. I wondered about the “negro guide”-- a subtext of the report, an almost flippantly treated person. Maybe he is not far from where he lived when he was a slave, since he is a guide.
You are military veteran, did this affect your choice?
Yes. Recently in the military it is very much about nobody left behind. Was the guide captured? Did he die in the woods? I am interested in the interconnectedness we all have. What if the guide recognized the people who caught him? What if they are related?
How did you proceed?
I thought, “What if he is caught by his brother who recognizes him?” Stories manifest themselves. I start with an idea. I start typing. Sometimes you go nowhere. Through the writing process, you find out where the story is going.
Your letter portrays a father allowing a son to be killed; and a brother doing nothing to prevent his sibling from being shot. The only interaction is in their eyes. How did you pick the words?
I remember tinkering with the word apologize, I definitely tinkered with the language. I sent it off, I didn’t expect anything to happen. I was feeling a little sheepish. I didn’t show it to anybody.
What does “Stephen” think about his father after all this happens?
There have been internal family conflicts with Stephen for a long time, between all the children of the family. The father has shown weakness before. It has been building. The father hesitates. Stephen does nothing. It takes away his righteousness.
How has your experience in youth justice work informed your writing?
I would like people to take away an understanding of the complexities of human relationships, our interconnectedness. The way we are all taught in school, this is not discussed. We are placed in cultural or racial or generational silos. If we start to acknowledge what we all share, we can find more common ground.