Review of The Oak of Jerusalem, a StoryMap of Great Dismal Swamp, created by Christy Hyman
The Oak of Jerusalem
Christy Hyman, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
J.T. Roane, Arizona State University
In creating my StoryMap, The Oak of Jerusalem: Flight, Refuge, and Reconnaissance in the Great Dismal Swamp Region, I wanted to highlight Moses Grandy’s experience as an enslaved person forced to work in the Great Dismal Swamp, while providing the context for how and why it came to be that enslaved people were brought there. I chose to place Grandy’s experiences at the forefront, but also integrated the hegemonic actors involved in the buying, selling, and renting of enslaved chattel for work in the Great Dismal Swamp, as well as the preconditions those actors created for extraction of the natural environment within the swamp. This meant including a description in the StoryMap of how agents of hegemony dispossessed American Indians who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp for thousands of years before colonial encroachment of their ancestral lands.
As I read Moses Grandy’s words on the computer screen, I began to imagine movement within the deep morass of the Great Dismal Swamp, and by identifying the numerous place names in the narrative of his life I was able to ascribe meaning to those places that would be lost had I not consulted Grandy’s text. The environment of the swamp greatly influenced how I interacted with his story as well as how I saw the landscape. I begin to understand the swamp differently through Grandy’s narrative of enslavement. This recognition that was helped by my readings of the text forced me to confront what Marisa Fuentes calls a sensorial history of slavery (Fuentes 2018). While in the swamp, the affective resonances wrought by the violence of slavery emanated through me as I took photos of its landscape.
The story is in one part snapshots of historical events related to slavery, and in another part a visual collage of moments — a time space motif that performs as a visual knot to tie together the narrative of Grandy’s fraught journey toward making freedom for himself and his children to the prevailing struggles for equality that persisted during the antebellum era for enslaved freedom seekers.
The objective was to reveal some significant truths about “freedom” — how it is complex, seemingly elusive, and obscured by social location and ethnicity. What we can learn from this assemblage of scenes, documents, and imagery is that a continued unresolved struggle remains in the lack of freedom that affects all Afro descendant people still today.
The creative aspect of building a StoryMap in ArcGIS Online is similar to designing an exhibit within a museum. Of special importance are the images needed to provide vistas into the story. Another important element is the writing of the story itself. This meant writing the “script” and selecting the images needed for the StoryMap before logging onto the platform. ArcGIS Online requires an Internet connection for building the StoryMap. To begin building a StoryMap, one can register a free public account, then upload and arrange images and write interpretive text. The platform provides templates for the StoryMaps, and for The Oak of Jerusalem, I chose “Cascade.” It is an immersive user experience that allows the viewer to interact through scrolling or clicking on links. The StoryMap is an online exhibit of sorts that represents the work of its creator.
I was able to begin this project through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Love Libraries Digital Scholarship Incubator Scholarship in October 2016. Since making the StoryMap available 2019, it has received ample attention from educators who teach 19th-century literature, slavery, and visual culture and has been utilized as a model for building thematic cascading StoryMaps related to history.
Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
The Great Dismal Swamp has received a significant amount of renewed attention in recent scholarship, including Kathryn Benjamin Golden’s important “Armed in the Great Swamp” (Golden 2021). This great swamp renaissance is in part due to the return within history and geography in particular to questions centering the maroon (Winston 2021; Marshall 2020; Moulton 2020; Wright 2019) as well as work centering the connections between marronage and Black ecologies (Hosbey and Roane 2021). The “great morass” or the swamp is an ecotone of fleeting land and indeterminate water separating Elizabeth City, NC and Norfolk, VA. It is particularly significant given its size, and the numbers of runaways that historians and archaeologists believe used it to escape bondage, making it akin in scale and significance to the bayous that served as refuges for maroons near New Orleans (Diouf 2014).
Christy Hyman’s the Oak of Jerusalem: Flight, Refuge, and Reconnaissance in the Great Dismal Swamp Region is a wonderful addition to this growing body of scholarship. It brings to light and centers the Great Dismal Swamp as a contested geography shaped by the competing temporal and spatial demands of the geologically untamed environment itself, the forces of enclosure represented by planters and speculative landed interests, and the fugitivity of Indigenous and enslaved communities. While powerful white men, including George Washington and other land speculators, hoped to use the forced labor of slaves to open it into a system of canals flanked by back-filled land that could be worked, bought, and sold at a profit, enslaved people, difficult terrain, and wildlife hindered these plans tremendously, reconstituting the indefiniteness of the land and water to create a fleeting site of living and freedom in the face of violent encroachment.
Hyman’s digital StoryMap includes a number of original swamp images shot by the author, historical maps, and a general historical overview of the contested nature of the environment. It hones in on the story of Moses Grandy, an enslaved man forced to work under grueling conditions to hand-dig canals through the swamp in the 19th century. Through Hyman’s use of Grandy’s narrative, we can hear, feel, smell, and even taste the toil of working in the swamp's putrid mud and stale water: “The negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud…” (qtd. in The Oak of Jerusalem). Despite the swamp serving as a site of drudgery, Grandy also recalled the ways that his sister used the thick woods and boggy land to elude captivity, taking to the swamp where “she lived in a den she made for herself” and where Grandy and other family members provided her with critical resources for her survival.
I look forward to using Hyman’s StoryMap in courses on the slave trade. Its accessibility, especially on variously sized digital devices, as well as its narrative and visual clarity, will make it a great addition in my unit on maroons and myriad other resistances to the slave trade. Her juxtaposition of the competing demands for the swamp will be especially generative. Along with the vivid imagery, the history provided by this resource will aid undergraduates, especially where I teach, in the Sonoran Desert far removed from such watery environs, in understanding the complex geographic terrain of flight and fugitivity in the swamp.
To further enhance the capacity of all the visuals and texts to work in concert, Hyman could consider providing images and maps at a larger scale. For example, the maps of the Swamp at the Pasquontank and Chesapeake Bay scales created and included by the author deserve their own full width, not only so that the readers get a better purchase on the region, but also to highlight the author’s serious work.
The Oak of Jerusalem is a fabulous contribution and teaching aid for the fields’ collective return to the Great Dismal Swamp as a site of insurgent social and ecological worldmaking.
Winston, Celeste. “Maroon Geographies.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 111.7 (2021): 2185-2199. DOI:10.1080/24694452.2021.1894087.
Hosbey, Justin and J.T. Roane. “A Totally Different Form of Living: On the Legacies of Displacement and Marronage as Black Ecologies.” Southern Cultures 27:1 (Spring 2021): 68-73.
Golden, Kathryn Benjamin. “‘Armed in the Great Swamp’: Fear, Maroon Insurrection, and the Insurgent Ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp.” Journal of African American History 106.1 (2021): 1-26. DOI:10.1086/712038.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. NY: New York University Press, 2014.
Wright, Willie Jamaal. “The Morphology of Marronage.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110.4 (2020): 1134-1149. DOI:10.1080/24694452.2019.1664890.
Moulton, Alex A. “Almost Home: Maroons between Slavery and Freedom in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone.” Caribbean Quarterly 66.2 (2020): 326-328, DOI:10.1080/00086495.2020.1763589.