Martha S. Jones is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan on the faculties in Afroamerican and African studies, history, and law. She is also a co-director of the university’s Program in Race, Law, and History. Author of the forthcoming Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America and a co-editor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), she is at work on a new book entitled “Riding the Atlantic World Circuit: Slavery and Law after the Haitian Revolution.” She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
The Cherokee Rose, the debut novel by historian Tiya Miles, caught me in the middle of a longstanding argument. I had pre-ordered the book from its publisher John F. Blair, and so it arrived unexpectedly, as if unsummoned. It was March, a busy moment in the term. Still, I stole time that Saturday, reading it nearly cover-to-cover in one sitting. I left the last chapter until the next day, just to savor the experience. Miles is my colleague at the University of Michigan, and that hints at why I’d let my email pile up just to read a work of fiction. Generally, I’m the sort that lets a stack of books accumulate for later summer reading. But there was more. As I said, I was trying to settle an argument and thought The Cherokee Rose might help.
Many of us know Miles for her award-winning works of history: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family (University of California Press, 2006), The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (also coming from UNC Press this fall). Miles’ insight into the intimate dynamics of slavery at the crossroads of Native American and African American experience has won her professional accolades and an eager readership. In this sense, while The Cherokee Rose is fiction, it is no sharp departure. Miles builds upon what she had already taught us, including her exploration of Georgia’s Chief Vann House, to provide a new vantage point from which to explain the past.
The Cherokee Rose tells two stories. The first is about our own time, seen through a fascinating if improbable trio of women—a Cherokee-Creek researcher, an African American debutante, and a mixed-race journalist. Each is drawn to the site of a nineteenth-century Cherokee plantation, remembered by the name of its owner, Chief James Hold. Miles follows each woman as she leaves her home and much that is familiar, drawn to Georgia and the promise of the former Indian mission school site. Each has her own expectations about what might be found there, based on the beliefs about family and community that undergird each’s identity. Once allied through a shared interest in the site’s history, these women are tested. We follow them as they encounter an unsettling host of characters, from locals who also revere the Hold plantation as a historical site to real estate speculators who see in its acreage an opportunity for profit. How will three women, with their romanticized views of the place, save it from erasure? To answer this, Miles tells a second story, this one about the lives of Indians, African Americans, and white missionaries who confronted one another in the same place two centuries earlier. Saving the site from destruction requires confronting the violence that has always been there. The modern-day women discover a diary, penned by a missionary to the Cherokees who chronicled the trials to which enslaved women were subjected on the Hold plantation. Through it, they and we learn how violence, particularly sexual violence, defined the places where Indians, African Americans, and whites lived, worked, and died. What they discover about the past arms Miles’ intrepid women with the insight and shared purpose they need to preserve the site. When the past becomes knowable and known in The Cherokee Rose, it makes possible a new future.
Today, the debate about when to distinguish history from fiction isn’t especially novel. Still, over the last decade historians of slavery have returned to this question with a twist: the biographical turn. Earlier questions that had been addressed through social and cultural historical methods are now being explored through biographies and family histories of slavery. Miles pioneered this approach in her first book, Ties That Bind. There, she experienced how fragmentary archives leave us grasping to interpret silence. We lament the elusive subjectivity or interiority of enslaved people themselves. The puzzle that The Cherokee Rose helps us think through is the one that arises when we try to write through that silence. Should we proceed by way of context, generalizations, analogy, careful speculation, or even the imaginative evidence that is fiction? From her earliest work, Miles has suggested how she finds fiction to be a source for explaining slavery’s past. In Ties That Bind, for example, her reliance upon Toni Morrison’s Beloved grew out of that novel’s “intuitive sense and articulation of the power of the unspoken.” In the face of silence, fiction might become a source that permits the historian to give voice and even to speak.
For a long time I disagreed with Miles on this last point. I have resisted filling in the blanks of my own history of an enslaved family, refugees from the Haitian Revolution making their way in several North American port cities. I’m exploring how enslaved people navigated different legal regimes and how they articulated their claims to freedom. I have been able to follow this group through five generations, from the 1780s to the 1880s, but the records are in shards: baptisms, deaths, sales, mortgages, freedom paper, travel permits, court filings, the census. I have not one bit of narrative evidence, except that which comes from the slave holders (and even that is slim.). Still, when I assemble these fragments, I see common threads emerge. I see choices that were made and paths not taken. I see signs of what constituted what we would term “family.” For me, the silences are artifacts that demand explanation rather than filling in. Voids in the historical record, and there are so many, need to be left undisturbed. The historian’s charge, as I see it, is to explain the lives of slaves through their very distance from the archive. This approach makes the instances in which enslaved people broke the silence all the more meaningful.
I presented these ideas as an argument of sorts during a spring 2012 William and Mary Quarterly—Early Modern Studies Institute Workshop on “Early American Biography” led by Annette Gordon-Reed, whose book The Hemingses of Monticello is a model for how to navigate these questions. I arrived there armed with an essay about the Haitian refugees that was bare bones, stripped of phrases such as “perhaps,” “it may have been,” or “it seems likely that.” I aimed to persuade the group how this approach, through its very starkness, had the power to convey the experience of enslavement for men and women who rarely commanded the power of pen, paper, or the archive. Some colleagues at the workshop urged me to carefully embellish, imagine, and otherwise push toward boundaries just this side of historical fiction, saying that my subject warranted ambitious analysis and a good story, even if the documentary record was limited. We concluded that, as Gordon-Reed later put it, when writing biography there is no way to avoid a measured degree of speculation, even when that might otherwise compromise a historian’s authoritative voice.
My book on Haitian refugees will, I think, remain devoted to the problem of the archive. We will learn some about how enslaved people left their mark there, how they forged a relationship to pen and paper. Because the capacity to produce words on paper is essential, especially when it comes to the law, I intend to resist the urge to fill in very much. But when I picked up The Cherokee Rose I found myself still looking for another answer to the questions we chewed on at the WMQ-EMSI workshop. Miles’ turn to fiction suggests that, in the face of silence, a historian might draw upon the speculative imagination of fiction. She has confronted the limits of what historical writing might accomplish and has shifted genres to fill in the blanks of the past. In fact, her portrayal of twenty-first-century characters reminds us that we write for a variety of audiences who come to history needing to understand the past and who have only modest regard for the limits of evidence. Miles’ rendering of the layered interiority of nineteenth-century figures reads so true that we believe her historian’s imagination and her capacity for informed speculation can produce insight and the sort of truths that advance our understanding of the past. Might The Cherokee Rose be evidence itself? Has Miles created an artifact upon which we might draw to know rather than simply imagine slavery? As with any good debate, only time will tell.