"Ably untangled": Wall Street Journal book review

The Wall Street Journal’s Book Review included five paragraphs on Girl in Black and White in a review of three books on slavery and photography, “The Shadow and Substance of Slavery” published on March 30. Illustrating the article was a half-page reproduction of Mary’s image. I got the paper to have the experience of seeing Mary’s image in newsprint, something that was not possible in her childhood.

I’m going to savor this one line: “Mary Williams’s story is a long and intricate one [truth!], ably untangled by Ms. [Um, Dr.] Morgan-Owens.

I wish the reviewer/editors hadn’t used the word “Negroid” to describe Oscar though. Ew.


"New and Noteworthy" The New York Times

The New York Times included Girl in Black and White in their “New and Noteworthy” section, winning the “most masterful 33-word summary” contest that I didn’t know I needed.

GIRL IN BLACK AND WHITE: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement, by Jessie Morgan-Owens. (Norton, $27.95.) In 1855, the abolitionist Charles Sumner presented horrified crowds with a 7-year-old former slave who to all appearances was white. This book tells her story, while probing issues of colorism and racial politics.


"Groundbreaking" ! Maurice Berger for The New York Times Lens Blog: Race Stories

Maurice Berger of the New York Times Lens blog, “Race Stories,” covered Mary’s story today, with a smooth and compelling summary that links Mary’s story to issues in present day media. The article was picked up by the Arts and US pages of the New York Times.

“In retrospect, Mary’s story and the photograph that turned her into an abolitionist icon, speak to a long tradition of white Americans relating to racial heroes who look like them, no matter how tangential to the story of African-American protagonists. Even today, some Hollywood films about racism and segregation — “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” or “Green Book,” for example — focus on white saviors rather than the black Americans at the forefront of the struggle.”

Screenshot 2019-03-07 13.55.59.png

This was the second time that Mary appears in the New York Times, and in a strange coincidence, the dates of her arrival there are the same: March 7, 1855 and March 7, 2019.


Here is an excerpt from Chapter 12 “A White Slave from Virginia” of Girl in Black and White:

“On March 7, 1855, Elizabeth and her three children, Oscar, Mary, and Adelaide Rebecca, along with Prue and Evelina, headed north. According to the New-York Daily Times, the newly manumitted family “created quite a sensation in Washington, and were provided with a passage in the first-class cars in their journey to this City.” Train cars were segregated—blacks were permitted to ride only in a small section of the smoking car. To be provided with “a passage in the first-class cars” is a meaningful detail in this context. The women traveled as white, while Oscar accompanied them in the role of servant or rode segregated in the smoking car. They traveled in the company of Charles Henry Brainard, the thirty-eight-year-old lithographic publisher and publicist from Boston. His book Brainard’s Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans—primarily drawn from portraits of men who worked in Washington—was in production, and he had to deliver the daguerreotypes to his engraver, Leo Grozlier. It may have been for this reason that Brainard was en route from Washington to Boston in early March 1855. Or perhaps he traveled with Elizabeth as a personal favor to his senator….

When meeting Mary, New Yorkers responded in ways not unlike their gawking at the curious exhibits at Barnum’s museum, at such celebrities as Tom Thumb or the “Feejee mermaid.” Strangers examined her for traces of the African race: in her skin, in the arrangement and size of her facial features, in the shape of her head, in the curl of her hair, and in the whites of her eyes. Her examination began at the offices of the New-York Daily Times, located at 138 Nassau Street.

A White Slave from Virginia. - View Article - NYTimes.jpg

This journalist had one fact of Mary’s enslavement incorrect. Judge Neale did not own her father. He reports a “general sentiment” of “astonishment,” and in that feeling, his colleagues at the New-York Daily Times, “fully concur.” The word “astonishment” suggests an overpowering of his senses, as if in surprise or in reaction to the sudden presence of something unaccountable and unaccounted for. Astonishment is a temporary disturbance in our categories of experience, rattling our assumptions of what is “us” and “not us.”

The Times is further surprised that Mary was ever “held” as a slave. This shift in language, that Mary was “held” in slavery, subtly communicated a hope that she had not been born into slavery. The novel Ida May provides him with the fantasy of a white child who had been kidnapped into slavery, and thus was “held” wrongfully as a slave. The journalist was redirecting readers’ focus away from the taboo of sexual slavery. “Prominent individuals of the city” might prefer to believe Mary was the victim of kidnapping and wrongful enslavement rather than the product of nonconsensual sex between white masters and the enslaved women Letty, Prue, and Elizabeth. “

Book Tour Dates Announced

See the Events page for more information.

March 12 * New Orleans, LA *Propeller: A Force For Social Innovation, 6:30 pm
March 13 * New Orleans, LA *Blood Jet The Dragonfly, 7:30 pm
March 17 * Washington, DC *Politics & Prose, 3 pm
March 18 * Washington, DC *National Archives, noon
March 19 * Baltimore, MD * BHSEC Baltimore, 1:30pm
March 19 * Baltimore, MD *Enoch Pratt Free Library, 7 pm
March 20 * Brooklyn, NY *Greenlight Bookstore, 7 pm (with Alexis Coe)
March 21 * Concord, MA * Concord Museum, 7 pm
March 22 * Boston, MA * Boston Athenaeum, noon
March 25 * Atlanta, GA *Atlanta History Center, 7 pm (ticketed event)

April 7 * New Orleans, LA * Pirates Alley Faulkner Society, Cabildo, 2:00 pm (with Kalamu Ya Salaam)

THE Tiong Bahru SERIES

Ms. Song Monk Geok

Ms. Song Monk Geok

For two years, from 2009 to 2011, we lived in a rented flat in the historic enclave of Tiong Bahru in Singapore, during a period that saw intense gentrification and change. As expats, we were both a symptom and a catalyst of that change, and we tried to document the experience in portraiture. We photographed 67 people in 24 homes in 2011 and 2012. 

We've submitted an artist's statement about this project to the collection: Contemporary Arts as Political Practice in Singapore, edited by our dear friends, Tiong Bahru neighbors, and NTU colleagues Wernmei Yong Ade and Lim ChingLee.  I want to share this project, as it somewhat succintly summarizes our ideas about lived experience, politics, and portraiture. You can download a copy here.

James and co-wrote the conclusion, the only truly dual-authored piece of prose we have published. I've excepted the last two pages under the 'Stories' tab, because of the resonances I hear in it between our voices.  

Broadview Edition of "Ida May"

I have just signed a book contract with Broadview Editions to produce an annotated reprint edition of the sentimental anti-slavery novel Ida May: a Story of Things Actual and Possible.   

EDIT: Submitted the Manuscript, at 173K words, on January 22 2016!

EDIT: Available for pre-order! Click on the link to the right, June 30, 2017

3 years 5 months from contract to hard copy, Not bad Broadview!