Off the Cuff: Tamika Nunley, Assistant Professor of History


Photo courtesy of Tamika Nunley

Tamika Nunley, assistant professor of History

Tyler Sloan, Editor in Chief

Tamika Nunley is an assistant professor of history who specializes in the Civil War era, specifically surrounding issues of race, gender and slavery. Nunley joined the faculty this fall after receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia earlier this year. She currently teaches a first-year seminar called Women Behaving Badly, which explores the reasons and results of women who transgressed societal norms in the 1800s. Nunley delivered a talk titled “Historicizing the Criminalization of Black Women,” where she presented her research as part of Kuumba Week at Afrikan Heritage House on Tuesday night. She shared her findings on the lives of two enslaved women, Agnes and Katie, in Virginia during the 19th century.

Editor’s Note: This interview discusses sexual assault.

You talked about the impediments to publishing your research in predominately white history journals. What have been the biggest challenges for you both in your actual research and publishing it?

The history profession is a relatively conservative profession if you look at it in relation to other disciplines like American studies, Africana studies, even English literature. So publishing can be difficult for people who study enslaved people, because there are oftentimes just shards of evidence. There aren’t these well thought-out archives, these sort of intentional archives with these letters and diaries that spell out this particular narrative. And that’s not to say that those diaries and letters tell the whole truth, but you have a lot more to work with than snippets of information about a particular slave or that sort of thing.

So I find myself often [reading] court records and official documents where documentation is necessary, and it’s in those records that I am able to look into stories. Then I will go to the news and see if the news is speaking to what’s happening legally, and then I’ll look at personal accounts to see if they had anything to say about what was happening. So it’s sort of like an investigative-reporter-type journey through a lot of different aspects of the archive. I think the issue that I run into is methodologically, do I have enough sources to make the kinds of claims that I want to make? And then, second, people will often question: Is this research objective?

There’s this idea that you can somehow be historically objective, which is very interesting because there’s nothing about the archive that is objective. Just because you have this really well thought-out letter or diary does not make it objective. It’s coming from a very particular place — it’s coming from a place that’s informed by the context of the 19th century and the ideas that prevailed during that time. I am less interested in this idea of objectivity and more interested in learning, what do my sources tell me and why don’t we engage in these particular concepts? Why are we unwilling to admit that there were many planters who could violently kill their slaves either on or off the plantation and it be okay?

Yes, there are instances where slaves who murdered their masters were deported south instead of getting the death penalty, but there’s still a prevailing habit and custom where even slaves automatically assume they are going to die because they did something really bad. And that’s the intention of slavery. That’s how the institution is maintained: by enforcing these mechanisms of suppressing insubordination and rebellion. And those mechanisms have very real implications even if there are a small number of cases where slaves aren’t immediately given the death penalty.

So I was more interested in understanding the historical roots of why we treat the bodies of Black people as these disposable entities and how we look for provocation rather than seeing that they are asserting an aspect of their humanity. And there are very real implications for that in ways that white people don’t experience in the 19th century. So there’s a disparity there and our record allows us to see that. So as much as it may appear that I want there to be injustice because of my ideological commitments to Black equality, I think that there’s also a subsequent ideological commitment to sanitize American history and put this notion that Americans were committed to justice more so than oppression at that time. You can call it ideological if you want to, I’m okay with that, because my sources allow me to make that claim. But it becomes hard when you disrupt the American narrative that says, “Oh, white locals were interested in notions of justice and that the law was malleable.” And it was malleable, but there’s something about an enslaved person’s understanding of their vulnerability that offers a window into the habit and custom of the jurisprudence that was executed during that time — that in many cases, and in most cases involving enslaved women who murdered their masters, they were going to experience the death penalty. And also to complicate this notion that being sold deep south was a better alternative is this very messy idea.

But when you think about the real experiences of these human beings, there are very real implications for all the punishments that were used to control and to discipline insubordination. So for me, I want to be able to communicate what my sources have to say in journals that are talking about histories that are highly regarded in the historical profession, and that is not always welcomed. We often have to overcompensate, so people who study enslaved women often have to have more than enough sources to be able to make any claim that may assert that they resisted or that the legal system worked against them. In order to make those kinds of claims, there’s an overcompensation that we do as historians in order to make it believable.

I was thinking a lot about having to approach history with a very objective perspective and how that’s the whole idea with journalism, too. But you talked about how The Baltimore Sun and The Alexandria Gazette covered the stories of Agnes and Katie and how they played into the dominant narrative of the time. I was wondering how you feel like the media plays into this narrative still and perpetuates the persecution of Black and Brown bodies, especially women?

Absolutely. I first encountered Agnes’ story through a project that I was working on. I used to work with the Historic Preservation Society, and I was helping to make decisions about how to curate this exhibit, which was for the jail in which she was held. How do we tell this story that’s so violent? People with their children are coming in to view the exhibit. And so I started looking at the news accounts of Agnes. And if I only looked at the newspapers, the only thing that I would take away was that Agnes was malicious, that Agnes was spectacularly violent and that it was very disturbing to the community that she killed her master.

But when I look at the legal record, and then we begin to understand who Gerard Mason was, then we begin to get the full story of what happened to Agnes. Agnes was dealing with a very violent and volatile man who sexually abused her on a regular basis since she was a little girl. This idea that we can sort of just rely on one source is really complicated because the news was interested in a particular narrative. They weren’t interested in finding out the answers. That was an omission, a stark omission, of who Gerard Mason was. So Gerard Mason ends up being victimized in the news, and then Agnes is villianized in the news, and we don’t even see Katie in the news. Katie’s story doesn’t even appear, doesn’t even warrant an editorial treatment.

And so in that way, I think that the news, the press is very comfortable with a particular kind of narrative about enslaved people. They don’t have the commitment that we [historians] have trying to learn about enslaved women. We’re like, “Well what else is there? What happened? What does the legal record show us?” Whereas the news was okay with saying that Agnes was particularly malicious, and it serves a purpose in the South because it reinforces this idea that this is why they’re enslaved, because they’re particularly debased and inferior and need to be controlled in this particular way.

At your talk on Tuesday night, an audience member spoke about how her education on slavery wasn’t shocking in the way that it needed to be. You’ve also spoken about changing the narrative around slavery, and I was wondering if you could share a little more about how you try to change it.

One thing that I try to do is to capture the human experience of enslavement, and what I mean by that is that I see them as humans despite the fact that the legal system sees them as chattel. I try to make those distinctions clear in the writing because often times the treatment of slavery becomes about the plantation economy, it becomes about the political discourses around slavery. And those are all very important bodies of scholarship that help us understand the 19th century, but what I also really value is the work of scholars who are trying to understand what was it like to be a slave? And when we begin to answer those questions, we really begin to understand the violence that was employed to maintain the institution of slavery, that there were specific mechanisms of violence. Violence in terms of both bloody beatings to rape but also the idea of force and being forced to do anything that the master wanted you to do.

Whether it was “Go fetch a glass of milk for me” or going to pick some cotton or “Have a baby with this person so we can have more slaves,” the force manifested in these multilayered ways. And when we begin to understand that, we begin to really understand the violent underpinnings of slavery and what it took to contain and inspire obedience and submission among hundreds of slaves to a small, white nuclear family. You cannot begin to answer those questions without encountering the details, the shocking details of what slavery was about. But if we tell the story of slavery as we do in our history books in high school — that people were laboring in the fields, that it was primarily in the South, which is also a myth because there was slavery in the North as well — with a very simplistic narrative that feels legible and manageable, then somehow it’s okay. So somehow we have this very sanitized version of slavery, but if you begin to look into the life of one enslaved person at a time, then you begin to see the multilayered degrees of violence that they experienced. And that’s a very different picture of slavery than what we’re normally used to.

Why are you interested in writing about the Civil War?

The Civil War attracts all these very interesting characters. You go to Barnes & Noble and you see the Civil War section, you would have thought the Civil War was all of American history. I never had an interest in the Civil War until I went to grad school and I began to see its impact on a broader audience. As an academic, when you publish a book, it tends to be for other academics who are interested in that field, and then your students who are taking your classes and maybe your mom and dad. But if you grasp onto those parts of history that really resonate with a larger audience — World War II is one of those as well that has produced a huge body of scholarship that really interests the public audience. Presidential literature is also very popular. But the Civil War has this hold on people’s idea about American history and what constitutes American history. It’s evident in people who are Civil War reenactors who faithfully go to reenact the battles. I have some reenactor friends who are very invested in that, some who fight with the Confederacy and some who fight with the Union. And if you even think about how we memorialize the Civil War, like if you go to certain places there are all these monuments and all of these plaques. And when we think about American public history, you can’t help but think about the Civil War and also the Revolutionary War. We see evidence of that.

I was interested in having an impact. I love Black history, I love women’s history and I could study any time period with regard to those specialties. But something about the Civil War to me, I felt like there was a grip on the Civil War that a lot of historians had on it, and I wanted to be able to be a part of producing research that is new to that field because the idea that you can say anything new about the Civil War is really comical because people have really exhausted the sources. But if you come with a different intellectual motivation for coming to that archive, such as studying enslaved women, criminals, you get a very different picture of what is happening in the Civil War. You see that they’re not absent, and their absence in the literature is not justified. You begin to tell a very rich story about America.

So I’m not only interested in disrupting Civil War history, but I’m also interested in disrupting our idea of who gets to be included in the American historical narrative. So I will probably remain in the Civil War era because it’s very rich and robust, and I have grown to love it and have grown to love reading more and more about it, but initially I had no intentions of studying the Civil War. I just thought it was very intriguing that it had such a broad reach and I wanted to look more into that.