America has long ignored the incalculable contributions of people of color, specifically Africans brought to this continent. So often our history books downplay the institution of enslavement and portray the enslaved people as simple-minded field hands, cogs in a machine who helped their masters put some food on the table. This version of history serves to maintain white people as dominant and benevolent actors who saved Africans and other people of color from themselves: their beliefs, their histories, and their own families. In so doing, Africans go from actor to acted-upon by white people, not having any type of history or personality from which to draw a more truthful narrative. While the people who were enslaved certainly were acted upon, given the very nature of their enslavement, the idea that they were not actors who resisted and shaped their own history could not be further from the truth.
What Black people did for this nation, beginning with what they did for the European invaders who stole this land from countless indigenous people, is frankly impossible to measure. The amount of innovation and economic prosperity that white America gained from the work of Black people is staggering, and it crosses multiple areas from agriculture and cooking to masonry and looming. Black people raised crops, livestock, houses, and white children. They invented ingenious methods of making their work more efficient. They resisted in ways most do not even consider, such as through “breaking tools and feigning illness” and even sometimes by “poisoning of animals and others.” They were their own people, plain and simple. Of course they were in a condition of enslavement and faced unspeakably horrible treatment, but that does not mean that they did not have a way to fight back and form their own stories.
Building A Nation is my attempt to highlight those stories. As I said above, the contributions of people of color to this nation, past and present, are incalculable. Even if I can’t get every part of the story, though, we have a lot more to uncover than we think, and bringing to light some truth is better than keeping in the dark all truth.
My main area of focus will be woodworking. I am a woodworker by trade, mainly building furniture and other smaller wooden objects like cutting boards and turned objects. I will look primarily at how enslaved people built this nation through woodworking. This can and does include the construction of buildings like the White House, Monticello, countless plantation homes, and churches. It also includes furniture and interior home elements such as stairwells, mouldings, and cabinetry. These people were incredibly gifted woodworkers who, like millions of others, had their work unpaid and unrecognized and their history erased and overwritten.
The focus on woodworking will not stop with the enslaved people of the past. As argued eloquently by Ava DuVerney in her documentary 13th, enslavement still exists today in the form of incarceration. Many of the people in prisons still are forced to work and “are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude” nor do they have a “constitutional right to compensation,” only being paid by the “‘grace of the state.'” Moreover, if they do get paid (some states do not pay at all), they only make an average of $0.86/hour for non-industry prison jobs. In my own state of Tennessee, specialty construction jobs for the Department of Corrections pay only $0.75/hour. If that absurdly low amount was not enough to disgust you, remember that this amount is before deductions, which can include court-assessed fines, court costs, and family support. Not only that, but in Massachusetts in particular, “any and all funds in an inmate’s personal or savings account” can be taken to satisfy these and nearly any other costs the Superintendent may deem necessary to pay. This is a system of enslavement in the present, and it must be addressed in this project, too.
How does woodworking fit into this project when considering people who are incarcerated? Carpentry, cabinetry, and other woodworking related tasks are among the jobs that people can have while they are incarcerated. This includes UNICOR’s office furniture shop in Allenwood FCI in Montgomery, Pennsylvania as well as in Tennessee through TRICOR. TRICOR operates across the state, and one particularly noteworthy place for this project is the Turney Center Industrial Complex where people do “cabinet making and mill work” in addition to other woodwork.
Building A Nation is a project that seeks to uncover these truths, from the woodworking that enslaved people of the past did to the woodworking that incarcerated people of the present do. It is immensely important to understand that the people enslaved in the past and the present are some of the most important actors in making America an economic and innovation powerhouse. These people, alongside a long history of people who immigrated here, are the folks, unrecognized and erased, who led America to a place of wealth and comfort that they themselves could not and cannot experience. It is my hope that you will journey with me as I try to uncover who really built and builds a nation.