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Beyond the Big House, with Jerome Bias

A Q&A with the furniture maker, culture educator.


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It's been over 150 years since the 13th Amendment to abolish "slavery and involuntary servitude" in the United States was passed, but the fight to affirm the humanity of enslaved people in U.S. history is alive and well among historians, museum tour guides and textbook manufacturers.

Count North Carolina furniture maker Jerome Bias among the many whose work helps us understand that the struggle and suffering endured by enslaved people in America didn't constitute the whole of their existence, and that the traditions enslaved people brought with them from Africa informed much of what we've come to think of as Southern culture today.

Bias comes to Arkansas for Preserve Arkansas's "Behind the Big House," a series of live demonstrations and lectures at the Historic Arkansas Museum March 23-24 that looks beyond the grand historic homes and plantations to the experiences of the enslaved people who maintained them.

Can you talk a little bit about your work at the Stagville State Historic Site [in Durham, N.C.]?

I was on the board at Historic Stagville. I was the treasurer, and I took on the challenge of how to increase the number of African-American visitors to our site.

And that was in response to some evidence that African Americans were being missed?

Statistically, for museums, especially for plantations and historic sites, you'll find that African Americans make up a very small percentage of the local visitorship.

I hesitate to ask you to conjecture on why that is. On the other hand, I suspect you've spent some time thinking about why that is.

From our polling that we took in our visitorships, the response was, "Why do I want to come hear about suffering?" People were generally ashamed of the suffering and the experience that their ancestors had, and that's the only vision or perception that they have of the enslaved population. What they aren't seeing is that they were whole human beings.

Was there a moment that called you to this line of work?

Yes. I was shopping for a bed at Furnitureland South, a huge mall of a store. And I came across a bed that was made by a rather nice furniture company. And I was with my fiance at the time, my spouse-to-be — for the moment, at least. And we looked at it and looked at the little card and it was described as being made by Thomas Day, a free black cabinetmaker from Caswell County, N.C., and that he was the largest cabinetmaker in the state, and he was making furniture between 1820 and 1860, and that he made furniture for the governor, and that this was a copy of a bed that he made for the state attorney general. And I was just blown away. 'Cause I didn't know that black folks did anything besides pick cotton and work in the kitchen. 'Cause that's what I had been told.

So I fell in love with this bed. And it cost $11,000.

Oh, my God.

That's what I was sayin.' And I was in school at the time, so I said, "You know, if we did this kind of stuff, I'm game to try it." I'd never made anything before in my life. So I endeavored to make a king-size, four-poster bed with a canopy. And that's what my wife got for her wedding day present.

Do you still have it?

Yeah. I have the bed. I don't have the wife.

As you've studied these traditions, whether it was furniture or food, has there been anything that surprised you?

Well, there are two things. The latest thing that surprised me was when I just did a weeklong expedition at Montpelier [President James Madison's home in Virginia]. We were digging through the slave quarters there, and I was really blown away by how individual these people were. They were buying their own dishes, and I would've expected plain white dishes, but by digging up the enslaved areas and the areas where the Madisons were dumping their trash, you could see that these were two different sets of dishes. These were not the Madisons' dishes, and the Madisons were not buying these dishes for them. There were dishes of all kinds of colors — and they weren't the cheapest things in the stores, either. And I was blown away that even though they were in crappy situations, they were finding a way to celebrate life and enjoy life.

The other thing was by doing this slave-dwelling project, we spent the night together as African-American interpreters under the conditions that our ancestors did. We get up in the morning, and we're in the heat cooking a meal, and it was interesting to watch the personalities come out, and it's interesting to realize that these were not people who got up in the morning, worked all day, sunup to sundown, went home, got to bed, and got up and did the same thing all over again. They were not automatons. They were human beings.

We were in one place and it was 102 degrees at night, with mosquitoes that were eating us up left and right. And humidity that was god-awful horrible. And the next morning it was 98 degrees, and the mosquitoes went away, thank God. But we didn't sleep all night, and when we went to cook ... well, green pea soup did not get spit out of peoples' faces, but heads did spin, attitudes did get thrown and it was just ugly. I was embarrassed at first that this is what we did, that we performed like this, because these folks are professionals. But I realized that our goal was to recreate the experiences of our enslaved ancestors, and this is what happens when you get people who sit up all night tellin' bad jokes 'cause it's too hot and sticky to sleep and they have to get up and go to work the next day. Someone's gonna bite someone's head off.

You're going to be cooking down here in Arkansas — specifically, things that would have been typical of the diets of enslaved peoples. Can you talk a little bit about what your plans are?

The menu is not hard and fast yet, but what I'm looking at is doing one or two dishes that — oh, also when we talk about the food of African Americans, we use the word "soul food," and it's often separated from "Southern food," and there is no difference.

Right, like "soul food" is just a code word for describing who's making it?

Uh-huh. I've talked to some people who think "soul food" means it's from Louisiana. Then you have white folks who say, "Oh, we're just cooking Southern food," and it's like, "No, this is food that has been heavily influenced by Africans brought to this country." So what I'm gonna do is cook a number of items that are either from cookbooks written by African Americans in the 19th century, or are coming over from Africa. So, I'm gonna do two dishes. One is gonna be a sweet potato pone. A version made in Kenya and a version that's been made in my family since the 1800s. The other dish that I'm looking at is on the basis of where we get our collard greens from. Africans eat greens, and they were eating greens in whatever shape or form they could get their hands on because they didn't want to starve. So, one thing they would eat would be sweet potato leaves. Sweet potatoes aren't in season, so when I get down there, we'll get some collard greens and do it that way, or some spinach if spinach is in yet. I'm using whatever's the local thing you guys have this season. More than likely, it's gonna be a Liberian collard greens recipe.

When we speak about these individuals now, we often say "enslaved people" instead of saying "slaves." Does the language matter? Does it impact the way we see these people?

For me, yes. So, we're gonna be at the Brownlee kitchen. If I go into that space and just talk about statistics, whether they're black or white, it's pretty dry and no one really cares. Now, if I go into that space and start talking about personality — what someone's like, what they didn't like, whether she was a grumpy old lady, whether she came here and didn't want to participate in being in the South and wanted to go back home to her mama — that's a much more interesting story. So I find that the terminology of "the enslaved person" is useful. It's much more cumbersome, yes, but it makes me slow down and use my words and better describe the person and the situation. It acknowledges that dual status; that, at the time, legally and the way this human being was treated, [it] was as an item. But this was also a person.

Jerome Bias' talk, "Hearth, Kettle, Spoon, and Larder: How the Tasks and Tools of an Enslaved Cook Give us a Window into Who She Was as a Person," is part of the Saturday lineup for "Behind the Big House," March 23-24 at the Historic Arkansas Museum. See preservearkansas.org for a full schedule and a link to register to attend.


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