Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America

Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD, will speak at 2 PM on November 3 at the National Library of Medicine on “Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America.” Dr. Williams-Forson is guest curator of NLM’s newest exhibition of the same name and Associate Professor and Chair, Department of American Studies, University of Maryland College Park, College Park, MD. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Portrait of Psyche Williams-ForsonPsyche Williams-Forson: Though I grew up in Buffalo, New York, for part of my life, my formative years were spent in Farmville, Virginia. You may have heard of it, as the town was the venue for the sole debate between the 2016 Vice-Presidential candidates. In my everyday life I wear multiple hats—I am both an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. So, I am both administrator and scholar. A typical workday is spent working in both these arenas. Often, I find myself switching hats going from advising a student and discussing their research to preparing for a meeting. And, in the favorite part of my life I am the mom of a middle-schooler, who is the goalkeeper for a local soccer team.

CN: You’ve just finished work on a new exhibition here at the National Library of Medicine, what sparked your interest in curating Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America?

PW-F: When I was invited to curate an exhibition examining African American food cultures in early America I was absolutely ecstatic. While a great deal of information exists on this aspect of American and African American history, so much is still unknown. The opportunity to share what I have learned throughout my decades of research and to learn more, held great appeal.  Watching this project come together has given me immense pride and satisfaction as so many new morsels of history have been unveiled.

CN: The exhibition makes connections between food and power, what can we learn about history by studying how food is produced, prepared, and consumed?

PW-F: This is a good question. Food, as an object, has a lot to say. Not only do we learn about agriculture and seasons, cultural and social habits, labor, gender, and so on, but also food as a lens enables us to better understand its relationship to power and with power. When we pull a thread, as I have done with Fire and Freedom, there are so many directions we can go in telling the stories of the past and in navigating the thorny and very complex lives of those who came before us. We learn that relationships were not always hierarchical but also negotiated in subtle and overt ways to accomplish different ends. How food was and is produced and by whom, how it was and is prepared and by whom and for what reasons, as well as consumption patterns—who ate and who did not, at what time, using what implements, all can tell us so much about our lives and our ideologies, past and present.

CN: In your research for this project, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

PW-F: I was most drawn to the stories of Lucy and Nathan, George Washington’s enslaved cooks.  According to the research, this couple began their work at 4:00 AM and did not end their day until well into the evening. When I first read the snapshot of the cook’s day so many questions bubbled to the surface about their toil and their labor. These questions expanded when I visited Mt. Vernon with some other members of the curatorial team. Two experiences there really had an impact on me. By visiting the plantation with this exhibition in mind, I was suddenly struck by the proximity of the river to the landscape. What must it have felt like to long for freedom even as you are surrounded by water? What stories of escape filled the minds of the enslaved as they carried food from one part of the house to the other, perhaps often glimpsing freedom’s door but not having access to it? The second experience came when we were shown a set of objects that we might use (and do use) in the installation.  A large wooden bowl was placed before us and I was overcome with a set of emotions that I cannot explain. It was as if I could actually visualize Lucy kneading dough in that bowl. And again I thought about what her life must have been like (even as I think about the privileges of my own) wanting freedom and being surrounded by it, yet unable to realize it.

CN: This exhibition features collections from Mount Vernon, which just opened Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Also, the Smithsonian celebrated the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last month. Would you share your thoughts on doing public history in this environment?

PW-F: It is an electrifying time and an incredible honor to have this exhibition at the same time that we celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the new exhibition on the lives of the enslaved at Mt. Vernon. There are so many stories to be told and in this political climate and moment, I am thankful that place and voice are being given for this transmission of knowledge. When we stop learning we stop growing and evolving. I am so excited to be a part of helping people understand history and how it can help to inform our present. It is an awesome time, indeed, to be a part of the discussion.

CN: In your role as an educator, what kind of primary sources do you enjoy working with and sharing with your students?

PW-F: As an Associate Professor with a specialty in material culture and museum studies, I relish and appreciate archives. I am excited by primary source documents—traveler’s journals and diaries, early manuscripts, deeds, manuals, tax records, receipt books, cookbooks, recipes, and the like. Working with the collections, for example, at the National Library of Medicine was eye-opening. Finding references to the enslaved and their use of plants, herbs, and the like on slave ships made the story really come alive for me. I try to bring this excitement to the classroom encouraging students to delve into primary sources to allow the narrative to take shape and, hopefully, come alive for them as well.

Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.