By Katie Lebert
As the first and only fellow to hold the position of Senior Scholar at Virginia Foundation for Humanities (VFH), historical anthropologist Jerome Handler demonstrates how an individual passion can create new spaces for viewing and interacting with the humanities.
Interested in African studies since his undergraduate and graduate days, Handler focused on documenting the Atlantic slave trade and slave life in the New World when he was doing his doctoral field research in the Caribbean island of Barbados. While living in a small community of sugar plantation workers and potters, all descended from enslaved Africans, he became interested in the island’s unique pottery industry. This led him to research the history of slavery in Barbados and the Atlantic slave trade, topics which he began to pursue seriously after he completed his doctorate. Barbados was England’s wealthiest American colony in the 1600s, and it was there that Europeans and Africans came together earlier and on a larger scale than in any other English colony. Thus, for a historical anthropologist, Barbados was a good place to explore wider issues, such as how captive Africans and their descendants retained, lost, or modified their cultural traditions under conditions of enslavement on sugar plantations in colonial societies.
Years later, while he was teaching an undergraduate anthropology course on the lives of enslaved African Americans, Handler set a goal of illustrating every lecture with images in order to make the lectures more tangible for his students. He began making slides of illustrations from library books; in all, this initial selection totaled approximately 150 images.
After retiring from university teaching, Handler came to VFH, bringing with him his collection of illustrated slides. He showed many of them in an advanced seminar on slavery for college teachers, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and co-taught with Joseph C. Miller, the T. Cary Johnson Jr. Professor, Emeritus, of History at the University of Virginia (U.Va.). He was encouraged to digitize his slide collection and was introduced to Michael Tuite, then director of U.Va.’s Digital Media Lab. With Tuite’s collaboration and funding from several external sources, the project evolved into a free, publicly accessible website that now receives more than 12,000 visits every month.
Underscoring the important role visual imagery plays in teaching, Maurie McInnis, U.Va. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of Art History, VFH Board member, and author of Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, says, “Images are an important way to help the public understand the brutalities of the Atlantic slave trade. Beginning with the publication of the Plan and Section of a Slave Ship showing the diagrammatic layout of the slaver Brookes in 1789, images remained a key weapon in the arsenal of anti-slavery activists who were hoping to increase support for abolitionism. For historians, such images provide vital information about the lived experience of enslavement.”
Still growing, Handler’s website, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, houses approximately 1,280 images and is widely used by both scholars and the general public. The New York State Education Department used some images for its online curriculum related to the Amistad Commission, charged in 2005 with researching how slavery is taught in New York schools; a photo researcher for the PBS current affairs documentary series Frontline used the site while researching a piece on Haiti; a resident of Buckingham County found an image that helped her piece together her own family history; and a producer from the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (the only non-commercial public service broadcaster of Turkey) requested images for a documentary on Ottoman slavery. And new requests from other outlets keep coming in.
While Handler is no longer actively teaching, his position as Senior Scholar at VFH provides another way for him to stay connected with colleagues and students at U.Va. and at other universities in this country and abroad.
“I appreciate interacting with graduate students working on their dissertations,” he said, “and I occasionally hire research assistants. I enjoy mentoring them. We work together and that’s fun. But it’s all on my time now. It’s not an obligation or a job.”
In reflecting upon his experiences here at VFH, Handler adds that this space has given him the freedom to research, educate, and even critically contribute to other studies. It has given him a place to pursue his interests and furthered his goal of making the humanities more accessible.
- How The Slave Trade Built America – Maurie McGinnis, NY Times
- The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record
- Slavery: The Rise of American Capitalism – With Good Reason Radio
- Abolition of Slavery in Virginia – Encyclopedia Virginia