An Exercise in Looking: when I was reading Tony Martin’s latest book Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present (2012), I was intrigued that on p. 145 he had included a photo of one of the same gravestones I had also included on p. 102 in my most recent book Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism. Here is my photo of the stone:
Here is also a closeup of the inscription that I did not include in the book:
I am curious about Professor Martin’s and my dual inclusion of images of this stone in part because they were taken on the same day and at roughly the same time (we were on the same trip to Jodensavanne at the Association of Caribbean Historians Conference in Suriname). I am also intrigued because the way we present the stone in each of our respective books suggests we understand the significance of the stone quite differently. That is, our interpretations of, presentations of, and interest in the stone reflect what Hazel Markus calls ‘the importance of cognitive set in perceiving a stimulus.”
In my book, I parse the stone as an example of how stones in the “Creole cemetery” across from the Jewish cemetery in Jodensavanne reveal a “mixing of African, Jewish and Christian burial traditions” (Leibman 101). My original caption is “Figure 25. Grave-marker of Louisa Lobles (1931), Creole Cemetery in Jodensavanne, Suriname. Photograph by the author, 2008.” It appears in chapter three of my book “Black Jews” in which I talk about how “slavery in general and women of color in particular often challenged the boundaries of the Jewish family” (Leibman 84). As with most of my photos of gravestones, no one is present in the photo. Indeed, when I photograph material culture, I often forcefully evict people from my photographs to get a “clean” and unimpeded photo of the grave (or house, etc.). I do have a photograph of myself dusting a gravestone in the nearby Jewish cemetery in Jodensavanne that was taken by Karl Watson the same day, but it is not one I included in the book–in part because it is hardly flattering, and in part– as I noted–I have a tendency to want to keep contemporary people at a distance from my artifacts. (I am not trying to suggest this is a strength or weakness, just a tendency.)
In contrast, Professor Martin’s photograph is much more evocative, as it shows him pensively staring at the grave with other graves around it and the forest in the background. His caption reads, “African cemetery, Jew’s Savannah, Suriname, photographed in 2008.” It appears in Chapter 7 “The Big Fight Back: Suriname” that mainly deals with the Maroon Wars. I haven’t included his photo here because of copyright restrictions, but I strongly encourage people to look at his book.
I am curious about the two views of the stone (Professor Martin’s and mine), in part because I think they are a good example of what Hazel Markus talks about it in an interview in the video Studying People in Context about how “Subtle nuances of meaning can have major impact one’s perspective.”
I would suggest that providing students with our two respective chapters and having them compare these two uses of the gravestone would be a good way for students to think about the limitations on having objects “speak” to us unfiltered by the humans listening to them.