Intern's reflection on doing research at the Newberry

Intern reflects on researching Olaudah Equiano and the slave trade at the Newberry
Intern reflects on researching Olaudah Equiano and the slave trade at the Newberry

I always get a bit of a thrill using the Newberry’s special collections. The ritual associated with it—divesting yourself of pencils, entering the closed room, waiting for the delivery of your item nestled in a velvet pillow and accompanied by a snake to hold the pages flat—remind me I’m about to engage in ‘real research’ among real documents, even if that real research is looking through endless ledgers or the almost-incomprehensible scribble of a Victorian correspondent who did not pay quite enough attention to her handwriting instruction. Recently I have been searching for images of slavery from the 18th century for a Teacher as Scholars seminar on Olaudah Equiano offered on October 22 and 23, 2012. These are relatively uncommon—the 19th century archive is flooded with pro-slavery and abolitionist texts, illustrated respectively with cheery images of plantation life and dire scenes of beatings, overwork, and harrowing escapes. (You can take a look at some examples of these in the “Slavery, Civil War and ‘New Birth of Freedom’” collection.) The 18th century archive, though, is a bit trickier to navigate. So I was thrilled to receive on my desk the simply named “Description of a Slave Ship” (1789) and find it was the famous cross-section of the slave ship Brookes [I think] packed to an inhuman degree with human cargo. I had seen the image before, but encountering it printed on a broadside in stark black ink, intended to wring an emotional response from even the most casual viewer, was a different experience altogether.  Below the cross-section there is printed text, describing the precise dimensions of the boat and the infinitesimal range of motion allowed to the captives. The image of the slave-ship has become commonplace in history courses and in TV documentaries, almost to the extent that it loses its power to shock. But reencountering this broadside unexpectedly and up-close helped me see it anew as a powerful and immediate call for justice.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson

Teacher Programs summer intern and graduate student in History, Northwestern University

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