". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, July 29, 2011

Simon Schama Should Be Ashamed, & So Should the BBC

In his Independence era work, Rough Crossings, Schama repeats The Fiction of Man of Color Samuel Fraunces and His Daughter Phoebe Who Saved Washington From Assassination!" He makes up whole cloth a whole bunch of material about him and the events in New York that took off the slaves emancipated by the English for fighting and aiding the Loyalist side of the war. Whole farkin' cloth fantasy and imagination. There's not an iota of fact for any of it. Tellingly, none of this section has a single citation .... Nobody's called him on it. It's not even that the info is hard to find.

I worked for the Fraunces Tavern Museum, so I know this material. If Samuel Fraunces had been a man of color, if he had a daughter named Phoebe who saved General Washington from assassination, we would have capitalized it like nobody's business. But there is NO documentation for any of this, and all the documentation we do have, including the city's census records, tax records, property records say otherwise -- including the number of slaves and their gender owned by by Fraunces.

Is this what happens to historians who do television history?  You farm out the actual research to your grad students, and it doesn't matter to you and your bosses whether your facts are correct -- you prefer to print the legend rather than the facts because that makes for a better story?  This is acceptable for movies and fiction, perhaps *.  But Rough Crossings was not purported to be either -- though, tellingly again, it was written to be a a television series for the BBC (2005 & 2006) -- the BBC should also be ashamed. It was presenting history, not fiction.


* Preferring fantasy to facts in fiction or movies isn't acceptable either, as far as this historian's concerned. That's one of the major reasons the lies of the inglorious lost cause, including their favorite one, that the Civil War wasn't fought about slavery, continue to hang on.


Foxessa said...

The original instigator of this Samuel Fraunces fraud was a novelist who wrote for kids -- the books were called Juveniles by the trade publishers back in the day. Judith Berry Griffon wrote a little book she titled Phoebe the Spy. It's all fiction, but little girls everywhere who have no heroic role in the American Revolution, which still begins to be taught in the 4th grade generally, went wild for this book. Griffon went even further in her imagination and made "Black Sam," Phoebe's father, a man of color. Now Black Sam was really Samuel Fraunces' nickname, but that by no means meant he was black. He might possibly have been mulatto -- there is speculation that he came to the lower 13 colonies -- landing originally in Philly -- from the Caribbean -- but the French, the Spanish or the English Caribbean, where, there is no indication of that in the speculations. Nor is there any proof for it. There is proof of him in Philly where he made a nice rep for himself as a creator of pastries and so on. Then he bought the building and land on the corner of Pearl Street and opened the Fraunces Tavern. The censuses of NYC of his time give the names of his wife and children, including his daughters', but there is NO Phoebe among them. The census classifies him as white.

The Tavern did host much activity of clandestine nature during the era; Washington stayed there more than once, and it was in his establishment's Long Room that Washington threw his Farwell Dinner to his officers before heading back to Mt. Vernon after the Brits finally left. He did become Washington's steward -- NOT his cook, as Schama says, during his presidential years. He went to Philly then, with Washington, when the capital removed there. He sold the building to the U.S. government when we had our first election, and John Jay, Hamilton and Livingston had their offices there. Post the move of the U.S. government to Philadelphia the building went through many hard times -- at one point it was even a rope making establishment. Then the Sons of the Revolution bought it and that whole block, one of the few remaining bits that remains of pre-Revolutionary NYC, because the Brits burned it more than once, and fires were rampant during their occupation.

This is what you can find if you google Phoebe Fraunces, put up by the museum, which is a private institution, still owned by the Sons of the Revolution. (When I worked there the Sons were still resisting computers and the web.)

Alas, though, google brings up far more hits that start with "The True Story of Phoebe Fraunces ...." And that is absolutely the fault of the writer. She wrote an afterward to the book in which she implies in every way she can without actually saying the words THIS IS A TRUE STORY that this was a true story. Little girls have burst into tears when hearing us tell them otherwise, thrown tantrums screaming we were liars and they want their Phoebe, who we are presumably hiding from them in the coal scuttle -- not that they would have a clue as to what a coal scuttle is.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Ah, Charles M. Blow weighs in on this matter of fiction and revisionism in history, and the terrible harm it does to a society and a nature, this time provoked by the current flick, Captain America, and how it pretends segregation never existed in the WWII U.S. military. His grandfather was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers regiment -- that wasn't allowed to bear arms because, well, they were black.

There are many comments.

Love, C.