Works in Progress - Winter 2020

Progress Report, Winter 2020

By Rebecca McCarthy | December 2, 2019
Illustration by Michael Burton/Saltmarsh Production LLC 2019
Illustration by Michael Burton/Saltmarsh Production LLC 2019

Fighting for Freedom

In the late 1700s, enslaved people in America tried to gain their freedom by a revolutionary means: suing for it in court. More than 500 “freedom suits” were filed in Washington, D.C., and Maryland from 1790 until the Civil War, and about half of them were successful.

“African-American families were laying claim to freedom, and they were using law to challenge slavery,” says William G. Thomas III, a history professor at the University of Nebraska who is at work on a book about those lawsuits, to be called Out of the Vineyard.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Thomas and his collaborators, Kwakiutl Dreher and Michael Burton, are creating an hour-long animated film, The Bell Affair, that tells the story of the Bell family’s fight for freedom. “We wanted to be able to show how enslaved families and free black people were at the center of political questions and the nation’s politics,” says Thomas, who cowrote the screenplay.

For decades, white people inherited, appraised, and sold members of the extended Bell family whether or not a family member had been living as a free person for years, or whether he or she was married or had children; there was always the threat of being separated from family and returned to slavery. The Bells continually challenged their enslavement in Maryland and Washington courts, with lawsuit after lawsuit. When they lost in the courts, the Bell descendants found other means to gain their freedom.

Daniel Bell, a free blacksmith, and his wife, Mary, had six children. Though she had lived free for 20 years, a court in 1835 ruled that Mary and her children had to once again become slaves, thanks to a lawsuit over a contested will. Daniel Bell decided to have them transported to free New Jersey on the schooner Pearl. Another 70 slaves joined them onboard. The rescue attempt failed, and they were returned to Washington to await transportation by rail to plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi. (Ultimately, Daniel was able to buy Mary’s freedom and that of two of their children.)

“The story of the Bells is a desperate case over multiple generations,” Thomas says. “Daniel and Mary Bell’s quest for freedom comes at an important moment for Washington, D.C., the nation, and these families.”

The New Beachcombers

Jace Tunnell was watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico in Port Aransas, Texas, when a patch of sand with noticeably whiter speckles caught his eye. On closer inspection, Tunnell, a marine biologist with the University of Texas, realized he was looking at nurdles, plastic microcells, the building blocks of everyday plastic products. Slightly larger than grains of sand, toxin-absorbing nurdles can appear as tasty treats to birds, fish, and sea turtles.

After alerting state environmental officials, Tunnell learned there had been a nurdle spill offshore. He shared photos and information on social media, trying to monitor how far the spill had spread. His inbox filled with messages and photos from around the Gulf of Mexico, with the highest concentration in Galveston Bay. Tunnell believes nurdle escape is not an isolated situation, but encompasses manufacturers in Louisiana and Texas, and along the Mississippi River.

“Nurdles are lost in on- and off-loading, and they end up in storm water,” he says. “Railroad cars or trucks can leak nurdles. It’s been happening for decades, but they’re building up so much, you can’t ignore them any longer.”

To gauge the magnitude of the problem, Tunnell asked for help from engineers at Texas A&M’s Corpus Christi campus. In October, the engineers launched an interactive website that lets anyone post information about nurdles, along with photos, then displays each post on a map of the country.

“There’s an industry-wide lack of regulation,” says Tunnell, who manages the website. “Once people see how widespread the problem is, we’re hoping things will change.”

Gallows Humor

Although Sigmund Freud is not known as a laugh fest, he did write a book called Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, in which he speculated on what jokes can do for us. Elizabeth Rottenberg, a psychoanalyst and a philosophy professor at DePaul University, is researching Freud and humor. According to her, the psychoanalyst thought “jokes involve the lifting of repression.” After proposing the existence of the superego in the early 1920s as part of his personality theory, Freud returned to his writings on humor and published an essay on jokes in 1927. One joke he included: A man being led to the gallows on a Monday remarks, “Well, the week’s beginning nicely.” Freud suggests that in the worst possible situation, the usually strict superego lightens up and comforts us with humor—a kindness, Rottenberg says, that spares us “the effects to which the situation would otherwise give rise.”

History of a House

Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, spent four years of her childhood in a state-sponsored almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, which opened its doors in 1854. Young Anne, who began losing her sight at age five, managed to get herself out of Tewksbury and into the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, but others weren’t so fortunate. Rather than provide a haven for the poor and vulnerable, Tewksbury became a place where children, immigrants, and mentally ill adults were neglected, starved, and mistreated. Aided by an NEH grant, the National Museum of American History’s Peter Manseau, who grew up in Tewksbury, will tell in a new book the story of the almshouse, from its beginnings as a charitable refuge to its end as a house of horrors.

Dirty Waters

When fertile soil is washed downstream by torrential rains or blown away by high winds, it leaves behind unproductive earth and creates polluted waterways. Because erosion can happen suddenly or over time, predicting it is difficult in an agricultural setting. Two University of Illinois assistant professors—Maria Chu and Jorge Guzman—hope to change that. With a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are creating a website for farmers to see how their activities, like tilling or not tilling, affect their regional watersheds. The biosystem engineers will use satellite data and numeric models for a pilot program on the Kaskaskia River watershed in southern Illinois and another watershed in Oklahoma.

Road Trip Reading

The New York–based literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy took its celebration of the written word on the road last summer, sending its bookmobile on a 4,000-mile trip to New Orleans and back. Beyond New York’s five boroughs, the truck visited 18 cities in 14 states, where staffers held writing workshops and other events and gave away 5,000 books. The programs reached children, people on the verge of homelessness, recovering addicts, and those affected by HIV/AIDS. SpeakEasy’s cofounder Amanda Foreman said she aims to “expand on our work to include book deserts in other parts of the country as well,” starting with the Southwest next summer. l

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