Niya Bates, Chet’la Sebree, and Johanna Heide


Inviting Niya Bates and Chet’la Sebree to the Minor Cosmopolitan Assembly, my graduate cohort’s final conference in November 2022, was a full circle moment for me. 

I first met both in 2019, when I had just started my PhD, at a conference in Potsdam organized by my supervisor Nicole Waller and her colleagues Hannah Spahn and Verena Adamik. Three years, a pandemic, a child, a research stay at Monticello, and a (half-written) thesis later, as we sat in a light-filled room at Silent Green, Berlin, their collaborative talk “Art and the Archive” reminded me how fortunate I was to have met both in these early days of my research journey and how formative their work had become for me.

When I met Niya Bates in Potsdam in 2019, she was the Director of African American History and Getting Word Oral History Project in the International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS) at Monticello. She encouraged me not only to think about Sally Hemings within the framework of my project, but also to apply for the month-long ICJS fellowship program at Monticello. The same fellowship had also profoundly impacted poet and scholar Chet’la Sebree, as she recalled in their collaborative talk. Living and working at Monticello helped shape her debut poetry collection Mistress (2019) from which she read parts at the Potsdam conference, including the powerful persona poem Je suis Sally (and other poems that imagine a cross-generational conversation between Sally Hemings and a contemporary narrator that bears the author’s name).

Listening to Chet’la’s poetry and to Niya’s insights gained while working at Monticello (specifically on the immersive exhibition The Life of Sally Hemings) and hearing what it means to them to make and interpret worlds for contemporary audiences out of the world nineteenth century African Americans made for themselves in 2019, changed the trajectory of my PhD. Not only would I write a chapter on Sally Hemings but also take to heart what Niya’s and Chet’la’s work illustrates: that creative approaches can “go where the archive can’t” and “become a springboard rather than an enclosure.” (“Art and the Archive n.pag) Taking their attempts at creating otherwise encounters with history as inspiration, my PhD project shifted from what I had initially envisioned as a historical project based on original research in the “archive of slavery” to an interdisciplinary project; one in which I turn to different (creative) modes of engaging with historical subjects that probe and expand the limits of the archive.

When we met again in 2022 at Silent Green, Niya and Chet’la revisited their respective experiences with The Life of Sally Hemings, the Getting Word Oral History Archive, and the conceptual process of Mistress in a talk entitled “Art and the Archive” in which they chronicle how these approaches push against the limits of the archive and its one-sided portrayal of Sally Hemings. But they also draw on new projects and collaborations that came into being in the meantime and that further expand what the archive, research, and historical knowledge can entail. Niya, who is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton these days, for example shared how recent initiatives at Monticello like an exhibition showcasing Titus Kaphar’s and descendant Jabari Jefferson’s artworks, or, the redesign of Monticello’s Burial Ground for the Enslaved jointly led by architects, designers, and descendants illustrate how “[f]acilitating art of different scales […] from Monticello’s archives is an act of repair and healing for descendants, and an opportunity to leverage historical narratives to envision better futures.” (“Art and the Archive” n.pag)

Chet’la, who now is Assistant Professor of English at George Washington University and has published another book entitled Field Study (2021, from which she also read during the assembly’s poetry night), shared about her collaboration with photographer Shannon Woodloe that expands the conversation from Mistress by including another interlocuter and a new medium; A process that she sees as symbolic for and as one among many ways of “engaging in the ‘act of remembering’ through art, and [of] sustaining the ‘rituals of regard and recollection,’ as creative foremother bell hooks implores” (“Art and the Archive” n. pag).

As another year has passed and 2023 comes to a close, reading Niya’s and Chet’la’s contribution to this online catalogue that revisits central arguments and examples from their 2022 collaborative talk via text and image, I feel incredibly grateful and honored for our two in-person encounters and the many more encounters enabled via their respective work, on and off the page. 

Thank you, dear Niya and dear Chet’la, for coming all the way to Berlin in 2022 (and to Potsdam in 2019) and for sharing your insights during your talks, readings, and in your conversation with co-panelist Irene Hilden (who talked about her experience with working in the Berlin Sound archive) and with the audience at Silent Green. May our paths cross again.

– Johanna Heide

Art and the Archive

“We are born and have our being in a place of memory. We chart our lives by everything we remember from the mundane moment to the majestic. We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering. Memories offer us a world where there is no death, where we are sustained by rituals of regard and recollection” 

—bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place

Facilitating Art from The Archive 

by Niya Bates

Figure 1: “Roll of the Negroes 1783,” Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book

In August 2015, philosophy professor Desire H. Melton published an article in the Washington Post expressing her profound disappointment with the ways that Monticello, the home of the United States’ third president, whitewashed its presentation of slavery and its legacies. In it, she said that visitors “kept their distance” from her, a Black woman, “the way Monticello has kept its distance from its history.” For her, and many other visitors, Monticello’s staunch adherence to documentary and archival evidence left gaps in its representation of the history of enslaved people and their families. (Fig. 1)

Monticello responded to Melton’s article in part by hiring me to lead the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, the foundation’s research project that has been the repository for oral histories collected from descendants of the enslaved families who were responsible for building Monticello, maintaining its gardens and grounds, and making all aspects of life possible on Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation in central Virginia. Though the project was founded in 1993 and approaching its twenty-fifth year when I was hired, it remained an obscurity for most of the visiting public, and an archive lost in the footnotes of major historical studies of Jefferson, Monticello, and the founding era for scholars. At the beginning of my tenure at Monticello, I began to wonder if art could be a tool to breathe new life into the archives of slavery and freedom contained within the detailed and far-reaching descendant oral histories that make up Monticello’s Getting Word Project. Descendants retained information about their ancestors who had been enslaved at Monticello in the form of stories passed down through five and six generations of their families, alongside all of the things their ancestors have accomplished apart from Monticello, as they achieved their freedom and dispersed throughout the continental United States and beyond.

Figure 2: Cook’s Room at Monticello. Photo by Thomas Jefferson Foundation/ Eze Amos

(Fig. 2) Prior to working with the Getting Word Project at Monticello, I imagined public history to be replete with static museum spaces filled with recreations of period rooms that were reproduced using archival records to ensure their accuracy. Anthropologists Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small found in their review of slavery museums that museum interpretation that leans heavily on forensic truth often reproduces the shortcomings of the archive. Sites relying primarily on forensic truths in their representations of slavery and enslaved people, end up distorting the severity of the institution, downplaying complicity among white slaveholders and others who upheld the institution of slavery, elliding the pervasive violence against African descended people, and ignoring the lasting trauma of slavery. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman reflects on this archival problem by observing that it is not the historian-scholar’s job to “recover the lives of the enslaved or redeem the dead” but rather to labor “to paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible.” To do this, she embraces a methodology of critical fabulation that reckons with the precarity of slavery, explores alternative plots and narratives, and destabilizes the colonial & Eurocentric gaze of the archive to ask “what if” and to “imagine what cannot be verified” – she cautions, however, that her work is still limited by the voids and silences of the archive and “all of the stories we cannot know and that will never be recovered.”  Hartman and others who have since embraced her method, produce “recombinant narratives” which “loops the strands” of incommensurate accounts and weaves present, past, and future in retelling the stories about enslaved people and in narrates the time of slavery as our present. This is a method that lends itself well to artistic intervention.

In 1993, historians Cinder Stanton and Dianne Swann Wright founded the Getting Word African American Oral History Project and worked with genealogist Beverly Gray to locate descendants of Monticello’s enslaved families to find out if they retained any information about the plantation and their ancestors’ experiences in their oral histories. Originally intended as a supplemental archive to the documentary records the museum already possessed, Getting Word developed into a robust archive of Black life and freedom that extends well beyond the experiences of slavery at Monticello. Like Hartman’s critical fabulation, the Getting Word archive compresses time between 18th and 19th century Virginia and the present through generational narratives of freedom, resistance, pursuit of education and civil rights, and more. Through this archival partnership with descendants, Monticello has begun to engage with artists to facilitate and explore a broader range of topics about Black life and history on the plantation – things previously beyond the scope of documentary and forensic evidence.

In many ways, museum interpretation is an art form in and of itself, and from 2016 until June 2018, Monticello worked with Canadian-based design firm GSM Project to create an immersive exhibition about the Life of Sally Hemings – an enslaved woman whose life as human chattel and labor is relatively well-documented, but whose lived experiences – thoughts, aspirations, feelings, being – escaped recorded histories. The exhibition attempts to create points of resonance for visitors by drawing out her role as a mother, her experiences as an enslaved woman in Paris where she could’ve seized legal freedom were it not for the timing of her sojourn, and her position within Monticello’s large enslaved community. For all of the ways it was successful, the Life of Sally Hemings exhibitions was still plagued by the violent archival gaps that obscured her personhood, which is a fundamental limitation of how period interpretations are developed and presented at historic sites like Monticello. As poet Chet’la Sebree taught me during her research fellowship at Monticello in the International Center for Jefferson Studies shortly after I began leading Getting Word: art has to go where the archive can’t to do our enslaved ancestors’ stories justice. Mistress is what’s possible when the archive becomes a springboard rather than an enclosure. 

Similarly, Artist Titus Kaphar called attention to the facelessness and featurelessness of the enslaved men, women, and children listed in Jefferson’s plantation records in his 2018 artwork “Page 4 of Jefferson’s “Farm Book,” January 1774, Goliath, Hercules, Jupiter, Gill, Fanny, Ned, Sucky, Frankey, Gill, Nell, Bella, Charles, Jenny, Betty, June, Toby, Duna (sic), Cate, Hannah, Rachael, George, Ursula, George, Bagwell, Archy, Frank, Bett, Scilla, ?”. Kaphar returned in 2022 to join Monticello descendant and artist Jabari Jefferson to display their artworks as part of a celebration that marked the completion of a project to rehabilitate and upgrade the African American Burial Grounds at the center of Monticello’s visitor parking area. (fig. 3)

Figure 3: Jabari C. Jefferson with his art piece “A Moment of Silence” at Monticello (2022) Photo by Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In the early 2000s, Monticello formed an advisory committee of scholars of Black history and culture to decide the fate of Monticello’s only known (at the time) burial grounds for enslaved people. Using the archival information available to them and research, they decided on a minimally invasive interpretive approach that featured a split rail fence surrounding the burial ground and a reader rail with information about who might have been interred in the space since there are no inscriptions or identifiers on the field stones that Monticello’s enslaved community used to mark the graves of their dead. Although the early 2000s interpretation was historically accurate and respected how little Monticello knew about burial practices among enslaved people, it did not command a sense of dignity or respect when many visitors interacted with the space.

Between 2016 and 2023, Monticello sought out landscape architects and contemplative space designers to help redesign the burial ground site to restore it to a state of dignity, serenity, and rest. Peter Cook of HGA Architects and Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects helped lead an interactive design process with significant collaboration with living descendants. Descendants chose materials, set guidelines on appearance and accessibility, and were decision-makers for much of the artistic process. Descendents were as much artists as they were informants, enabling Monticello and the design team to take chances and design around major voids within the record. This is reflected in the Contemplative Site’s blank spaces, left intentionally so that newly recovered names can be added in the future. It’s reflected in the burial ground’s promise of future gatherings of descendants in the private, descendants-only spaces added near its entrance. And it’s reflected in Jabari C. Jefferson’s vision of the ceremonies that his Evans, Hughes, and Hemings ancestors may have held when people died in order to mark their transition from the living to the ancestral plane. Jefferson’s art incorporates soil from the burial ground and fabrics from west Africa. He reimagines ritualistic burial practices based on archival records, burial practices observed at other plantations, and contemporary Black funerary celebrations.

Fig 4: Flowers added into a blank space among the names of enslaved people cut through a corten steel memorial wall at Monticello’s Contemplative Site.

Although these are just some examples of the many ways that Monticello has invited artists to circumvent archival challenges that are germane to interpreting slavery, none of it would have been possible without the commitment and generosity of the descendants who participate in Getting Word. When I first started as director of the project, a descendant mailed me an artificial floral arrangement for my new office and included a poem that she wrote to share her family’s connection to Monticello with her grandchildren. Her poem captured the essence of what bell hooks describes as “rituals of regard and recollection” in Belonging: A Culture of Place. Returning to Monticello to remember her family and creating art gave this descendant a sense of ownership over her identity and her place within American history. Facilitating art of different scales – exhibitions, landscape installations, visual art projects, operas & theatrical performances, light shows, and more – from Monticello’s archives is an act of repair and healing for descendants, and an opportunity to leverage historical narratives to envision better futures. Art creates new chances to connect future generations with the history of their families in the places and spaces they inhabited.

Creating Art from the Archive

by Chet’la Sebree

Sadiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation—the fusing of research and narrative in response to the silences and gaps in the archive—is at the center of my practice as a writer. It is the principle mode through which I conceived of my debut poetry collection, Mistress. The collection features a contemporary speaker, who shares my name, and the imagined voice of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who gave birth to at least six of Thomas Jefferson’s children. The two are having a cross-generational conversation about the experiences of Black women living in the United States to explore how the treatment of Black women hasn’t changed dramatically in over two hundred and fifty years. In three sections, the women wrestle with the ways the world sees them, the intimate ways they see and understand themselves through interpersonal relationships, and their notions of survival. 

Figure 1: Cover of Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

Although I’m now able to summarize the project in this way, I went into it with little understanding for what I would create. I only knew I wanted to be in conversation with the historical figure Sally Hemings, which is to say I went into this project without any functional understanding of what I wanted to achieve. For me, this is a fundamental part of the act of writing: this act of discovery, which has transformative powers. Poet Ross Gay writes “I want there to be a profound shift, some actual shift in the process of writing the poem … And that, to me, is actually the measure of a successful poem.” 

When I started the project, I wanted to make space for the transformative powers of poetics; however, in the initial phases, I had a fairly limited conception of what I considered the archive. Largely, I understood it to be written primary and secondary sources. Since I understood Hemings didn’t have any personal papers to amount to an archive, I had to approximate her life through the documents and records that either referenced her or accounted for the world in which she lived at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. 

Through a fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, I was able to live on Jefferson-owned land for a month while I combed through the books and records housed at his presidential library. Through those archives, I was able to develop persona poems, which are poems written in a voice different from the poet’s. These persona poems, in my imagined voice of Sally Hemings, were developed solely from the archival material. In fact, I used the archive to write a cento-style poem—a patchwork piece where the lines, traditionally, are borrowed from other poets—called “Paper Epithets, December 1802.” In my version, however, I utilized quotations from nineteenth-century newspaper articles written by James T. Callendar, a journalist and editor with political aspirations, to build the collage. Callendar wrote articles that referenced Hemings and her proximity to Jefferson; all of his language appears in italics in the poem.

Figure 2: “Paper Epithets, December 1802” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

And while I like the braided work of imagining the voice of Hemings disrupting the discourse of Callendar’s archival one, I wrestled with the fact that white men primarily penned the source texts I was bringing in conversation with her legacy. I didn’t want her story to continue to live in the mouths of men.

Through the support of Niya Bates, the then director of African American history and the Getting Word African American Oral History Project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, I was able to expand my understanding of the archive, which led me to the Archeology Department. This is where I felt some of the detachment from her lived experiences I encountered in the primary and secondary sources begin to dissipate. As I held artifacts that had been excavated from areas in which enslaved people lived at Monticello—sewing shears, a skeleton key, pottery, toothbrushes, beads, a pipe, a carved horse for a child—I began to see her world more clearly. The tactility of history rendered her world anew and populated the poems with imagery unavailable to me in the written archives. 

This experience expanded my relationship not only to the archive but to research more generally. I understood that research could be experiential, that it didn’t hinge exclusively on the paper archive. What followed was sixteen months of living in Charlottesville, in which I experienced the region in all four seasons; wrote in the silence of Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom—a place where Hemings, but few others, likely spent time alone; and tried on a replica of an 18th century corset. In this way, I was attempting to render the mundanity of her world into the majestic.

Figure 3: “Je Suis Sally, August 2017” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

The breadth of the research led to a book with which I hope readers viscerally engage, as it, too, is now part of the archival conversation surrounding the Hemings legacy—housed among other texts at the Jefferson presidential library. However, even though the project has become part of the archive, part of the “act of remembering,” as hooks proffers, I wanted to push further beyond the page. 

Polyvocality, alongside critical fabulation, is integral to my practice, as I constantly strive to push against monolithic representations of Black womanhood. Since I have a predilection for polyvocality, I wanted to rend the project’s conversation from the narrow scope of the two speakers, so in 2019 I began collaborating with narrative photographer Shannon Woodloe to explore how the work would look through a different lens.

In 2019, when Mistress was published, the media clambered to acknowledge the 400 years since English settlers brought enslaved Africans to the coast of present-day Virginia. In response, Woodloe and I began developing an exhibition that would explore the continuum that is the legacy of slavery and how it extends far beyond the years a select few deem worthy of acknowledgement. In February 2020, our collaborative exhibition entitled 401—which featured photos conceptualized in conversation with Mistress—opened at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.

Figure 4 & 5: Candid photos from 401 photoshoot featuring model Alexandria Brown (left) and photographer Shannon Woodloe © 2020 Chet’la Sebree

While each of the fourteen photographs is inspired by a different poem in Mistress, Woodloe engages with a quotation that I used in the opening section of the book from Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. In it, Gordon-Reed writes that “the portrayal of black female sexuality as inherently degraded is a product of slavery and white supremacy, and it lives on as one of slavery’s chief legacies and one of white supremacy’s continuing projects.” In 401, Woodloe explores slavery’s effect on Black women and their understanding of their bodies, desire, and sexuality. Through her lens, Woodloe demonstrates the ways in which Black women are celebrated in their complexities as they contend with an “inherently degraded” legacy.

Figure 6: Photo from gallery opening reception for 401 at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington, DE © 2020 Chet’la Sebree

In this interdisciplinary exhibition, we not only use my work, which is inspired by the archive, but we continue to build the archive, to make the amplification of Black women’s experiences, art, and stories the continuing project. As I continue to envision future iterations of Mistress and further expansion of the 401 exhibition, I continue to think about how Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Phillips reminds us that “[t]he task … is not transcription, but transformation.” In this way, I am charting my life and the lives of other Black women, am engaging in the “act of remembering” through art, and am sustaining the “rituals of regard and recollection,” as creative foremother bell hooks implores me to do. 

List of Images: Art and the Archive

Facilitating Art From the Archive (Niya)

NBFig1 – “Roll of the Negroes 1783,” Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book

NBFig2 – Cook’s Room at Monticello. Photo by Thomas Jefferson Foundation

NBFig3 – Jabari C. Jefferson with his art piece “A Moment of Silence” at Monticello (2022) Photo by Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

NBFig4 – Flowers added into a blank space among the names of enslaved people cut through a corten steel memorial wall at Monticello’s Contemplative Site.

Creating Art from the Archive

CSFig 1: Cover of Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

CSFig 2:  “Paper Epithets, December 1802” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

CSFig 3: “Je Suis Sally, August 2017” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

CSFig 4: Candid photos from 401 photoshoot featuring model Alexandria Brown (left) and photographer Shannon Woodloe © 2020 Chet’la Sebree

CSFig 5:Candid photos from 401 photoshoot featuring model Alexandria Brown (left) and photographer Shannon Woodloe © 2020 Chet’la Sebree

CSFig 6: Photo from gallery opening reception for 401 at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington, DE © 2020 Chet’la Sebree

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