Fall 2022’s Maitland History Museum exhibition, Fumecheliga, was co-curated by Exhibitions Manager Katie Benson and Dr. Neil Vaz. Dr. Vaz is a professor of Humanities/History at Seminole State College and specializes in the history of Maroon communities and the African Diaspora. In this exclusive interview, these co-curators discuss how Dr. Vaz became interested in his specific field of study and his process behind his research and approach for this exhibition.
- Can you explain your background and field of study and who you are?
I was raised in Central Florida in Casselberry, attended Casselberry elementary, Seminole middle school, Lyman high school, Seminole State College, then I transferred to Florida State University, and then I went to graduate school at Howard University and studied African History for the Masters program and African Diaspora for the PhD.
- What got you interested in this specific field?
I had a professor at Seminole State named Trent Tomengo. I took his African American Humanities class, then also reading a lot of the books that were related to his class made me really interested in this other side of history that I feel like I never got coming up in grade school… I wanted to know more about the African side of things. And then I had another professor named Dr. Stephen Caldwell Wright, and he was my English professor, he was also a Black man like Trent Tomengo. I was going to do a paper on Tupac and he was like “why are you writing about Tupac?”…This was back when Tupac had just died like 7 years earlier, and it wasn’t really like a “cool” thing for professors to be teaching about Tupac…so he goes back into his office and gives me a tape that had dust on it, and when I dusted it off it said “Malcom X: Message to the Grassroots” and so on my way home I put it in my tape player and I’m just listening to the speech…and I’ve seen the movie and read short books about Malcom X in the past but just hearing his actual voice and his speech especially…it’s my favorite speech ever. I just fell in love…and that was right around when I took Trent’s class a semester later and I just started falling in love with history and the African side of it. So, by the time I went to Howard and taking African History, I got more into the specifics of Africa, mostly west Africa. And then for the PhD program a lot of my classmates were doing diaspora, which is a very big program at Howard, which was studying the dispersal of Africans all over the world and that was really what I was truly interested in, and just really wanted to know… I’m glad I did the African [history] part as it really gave me a better understanding of the roots of everything so whenever I see something in the Diaspora that some people not be able to account for…I always have a better understanding of what some type of cultural practice might be or some type of symbolism or something like that…has its roots in Africa or something like that. So that is what I did. And then for my focus for my dissertation when I was working on the PhD was the African resistance in Maroon communities in Dominica and tiny little Caribbean island. (Maroons were a group of runaway people who escaped slavery and carved out a free space for themselves in spite of what the law was at the time.)
- You made a documentary on the Maroons which is on your YouTube Channel. Was that a part of your schoolwork, or a passion project that stemmed from your passion for African and Maroon history?
That was more of a passion project. Because I had been getting so interested in Maroon communities. [because] my dissertation was on Maroon communities and I started to connect the dots to other Maroon communities all over the place, that aren’t really discussed much. [History doesn’t] bring these communities to light, but tangibly so because their existence was contingent upon not being detected so a lot of people do not even know about Maroon communities still to this day. I thought it would be important to bring those to the forefront. Growing up in Florida I never learned anything about Maroon communities, or Black Seminoles or anything like that…and we barley ever touched on the Seminoles themselves…and almost every school I had gone to had [the mascot or name as] the Seminoles. I lived in Seminole County, went to South Seminole Middle School, we used to play Seminole High school in basketball and other sports, I went to Seminole Community College and then was a Florida State Seminole and had no idea. It wasn’t until I got to Howard in Washington, D.C. that I started learning all about this African resistance in Florida…I had to leave the state of Florida to learn about Florida. Now that I’m here and I’m just seeing these names everywhere of stuff I never paid attention to, and I was like “I’ve got to do something on this history.” I teach this to my students; so I was like I’m going to just take all this information I’ve learned along the way and I’m going to put it together and I’m also going to visit all these different sites. Because what I was also doing with my YouTube channel, I would go to Costa Rica, Honduras, and all these places, and I was like, why don’t I just stay right here in Florida where there is such a rich history and to document some of these things. I went to the different parts where I knew the Maroon communities, also known as Black Seminole communities existed.
- What Research and tools have you conducted and/or used for these passion projects?
Well first and foremost, when I was doing my dissertation, you learn to understand the importance of primary source evidence and all that… When I went to London… to the Kew gardens, which is the repository where they keep all the documents and you’re not allowed to take them with you, so you basically bring a camera or an iPad…so I used the tablet that my kids have and I took like 38,000 photos of all of those books…and so I transcribed a lot of that over the years into my computer written in plain print. I still have it all on my computer so I go back every now and then, and I’ll get those primary source information, and I’ll find things that I’ve never noticed years ago… So I take that information coupled with a lot of the books that my graduate professors had assigned us for readings, some of those I’d never been able to make it through…and now that I have more time on my hands I pretty much go that route, then I take that information and I Google as much as I [can] and see what else I can find out there.
- You’re currently working on more research within Maroon communities in the Caribbean. What resources did you use for your research on the Maroon communities you’ve been visiting?
For the Dominica for instance, there’s a lot of newspaper articles about what was happening on the ground there’s correspondence between the governor and the secretary of state there’s planters records, planters diaries, planters writing to the government complaining about the resistance, all this back and forth going on. And sometimes you have to read between the lines because obviously these people don’t really want to see them as humans, so the way they talk about these African people is as commodities or objects and sometimes they’ll reference certain things.
- Do most of these sources come from the communities themselves or are they outside sources?
If I’m studying the 18th, 19th century, the sources…of the planters and governors, it’s coming from them but when I go to some of these communities in the current times, some of them no longer exist anymore, in the form that they were. Like there’s no more Dominica Maroon community, there are the descendants of those people. But a lot of them don’t even know their history like that.
- Is there archaeological evidence of where these communities were?
Yeah. I used some secondary archaeological sources for my dissertation, but I’ve never been in the field. But the next time I go to Dominica, that was me and my brothers plan, to go through the woods of Dominica and see if we can find any traces of Nsibidi, which was a writing system that the Ibo had and I wanted to see if you can go in caves and find any evidence of these symbols but also a lot of historians never really talk about the writing aspect of these communities they think that well because they don’t know English, or Spanish, or French that they’re illiterate but some African societies had their own writing systems…and some knew Arabic, so they had their own systems of writing which has been ignored so that will be in the more distant future.
- Why did the Fumecheliga exhibition speak to you? What was your decision making behind accepting this co-curatorship?
Well for one, I always like to try new things, and since I never actually curated any museum exhibition or anything like that…I’ve done things kind of similar when I was a graduate student; they were going to put signage up in this particular park and they wanted me to come up with ideas and interview family members who had lived on this plot of land, but this was a little bit different. I honestly didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. At first I thought I was just going to give a talk, but then they were like “well you’ll be curating” and I was like “alright, yeah, I’ll try.” I’m glad I had you on the team, so I was just kind of following your lead. And it’s good to have on the resume and it’s also [a topic] that I have been talking so much about. This needs to be in public spaces more, and we need to see more of this, so If I’m passionate about it, and I also want to see it in public, then I can’t turn anything like this down. If I want to see this out in the public and I’m the guy that’s been doing the research then I feel like it was something that I had to do.
- What was your goal for your portion of the exhibition? What were your aims that you wanted to make sure was in your portion?
…I have an understanding that the Black Seminoles and their native allies worked together, but I wanted to make a clear distinction between the history of the Black Seminoles and where they came from and I also wanted to show that they weren’t just simply slaves, or servants or interpreters of the Native’s because that is the image that we often see when we learn about the Seminoles and I try to dispel that myth. You can see it in a lot of the primary source writing between generals, what they’re saying on the ground is what they really mean, because sometimes when it [was] published in the media [was] to calm down some of the hysteria behind the conflicts that were going on. They didn’t want people to freak out too much if they know there is a Haitian revolution type war going on just south of the border… I wanted to make sure that people understand that a lot of this has been kept from the public by design and some of the wording, how they refer to the black Maroons, or the black Seminoles, as servants or as interpreters was intentional and even the black Seminoles and the Natives themselves intentionally did that because they didn’t want the government to know that these were just free people roaming, if you were going to be black in America you were going to be a slave, that was the idea.
- What are your next steps?
Well I am, I hate saying this because I’ve been working on it forever, but I’m working on a book. It’s about the Maroons in Dominica and it’s based off my dissertation, but I’ve done more research and I wanted to add some things to it, and I have like two more chapters to write, I just have to sit down and do it. But one of the things that’s kind of holding me back is well for one, I have kids and they’re playing all these sports and I’m their coach so that takes up a lot of time. And number two is that I’ve been doing a lot of these little YouTube documentaries as well. I have one coming up on the Garifuna of Honduras, and they were basically a maroon community themselves, similar to the Seminoles the way that they had indigenous population mixed with African populations, they came together and fought against the French and the British in St. Vincent and then eventually after like 100 years of fighting, they were eventually deported to central American. Now you can find that population in Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, and Guatemala. I went there recently, there’s a whole entire community of Garifuna and they take pride in claiming that they were never slaves.