Why It’s Time for a New Rhetoric about Race

[This will probably be the last essay I post in this particular sequence, and it makes for an appropriate conclusion. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is an Asian-American, a graduate of the Citadel, and a veteran who served in Afghanistan and Kosovo. From this complex cultural position he is able to expose some of the folly of racial rhetoric in the United States generally, especially highlighting the inadequacy of the black-white binarism to which racial rhetoric is all too frequently reduced in Charleston and South Carolina. Along the way he makes some very intriguing comments about the contrast between the silences and omissions surrounding the history of slavery in this place, and the psychological recognition of the need to talk about trauma in order to deal with it in a healthy way.  SKL]

Why it’s Time for a New Rhetoric About Race

Disclaimer:  In this exam essay, I will reference some of the points that I have made in my final paper – I will try to make it as self-contained as possible, so either could be read first, but as I have written the final paper first, I am somewhat operating under the assumption that some things have already been said and/or elaborated on already.  Either way, I would think they should fit together better than as necessarily independent.  Also, this essay has been written less in an “academic” format, and more in a slightly “editorial” format, though I recognize that it is an academic work for academic purposes – it may waver a bit between both. 

In approaching this class, “Representations of Slavery,” I believe that, to a certain extent, I may have come from a slightly different perspective than many other students.  I was born in the United States, serve in the United States Army, and studied, in large part, U.S. History as an undergraduate History major.  With all that being said, it does not obfuscate the fact that I am, too, a first/second (depending on how you define these terms) generation immigrant – that is, my parents were born overseas, and both immigrated to the United States after the age of puberty.  Because of this, I have a certain amount of distance and remove from the subject of African slavery in the United States – in fact, in my parents’ native continent, modern sex slavery is a much more present issue than African slavery.  I am neither descended from slaves, nor do I have the so called “white guilt” for real or imagined participation of my ancestors in the institution of African slavery.  Not only that – my parents’ culture is that of the colonized/oppressed – therefore, to a certain extent, I lack, too, the “imperialistic” guilt of Europeans/westerners when viewing the third world.

Nevertheless, conversely to that – I am a participant in many “Western” institutions of “imperialism,” as some would call it – the American Army, with which I have completed “expeditionary”[1] missions, as a part of NATO, ensuring that “Western” influences prevail in otherwise ideologically perilous situations – so perhaps, then, if I have assumed and assimilated to the Western institutions of projection, perhaps the guilt should be equally assimilated.

Where this is relevant is that academically and intellectually, some of my greatest interests have always been in “Othering” and the ways in which “Othering” is accomplished and expressed – and moreover – unconsciously expressed – this I find the most interesting.  Perhaps it is because of my location as an “other,” I am “other” to the binaristic rhetoric of the United States and other nations’ perceptions of it (again, I point to my experiences with the Afghan National Police), I am not only of immigrant stock – but also a Northerner living in the South for over a decade; I am “other” both in the military and academic communities – somewhat unfairly assumed to be a “liberal book-learnin’ hippie” by my military colleagues, and a “conservative gun nut baby killer” by my academic colleagues – perhaps my interest in “othering” stems, subconsciously in my case too, from a long lifetime of attempted assimilation, making me acutely perceptive to the ways in which people or groups are constructed as “the other” in order to exclude them so that I could counter them wherever I encountered them – heady thought for a kindergartener, I suppose – but maybe not so much when put in terms of “why does everyone else think I’m different, and how do I show them I’m not?”

Regardless of “why,” my point is that I have had a lifelong interest with mechanisms of othering and exclusion, and learning to tease out the subtleties of them, and learning to read what was in the silences and omissions – it therefore came as no surprise for me to think about and be thinking about the various reverberations of slavery and the slave trade in Charleston that are visible even in 2014 when we encountered them in class – and their presence – to that end, I believe I could even add some things.  The class illuminated certain details and histories of events that I was aware of – but didn’t necessarily “expose” the subliminal racism of many elements, some celebrated, of daily life in Charleston.

Some things to add – the obvious one, of course – The Citadel: it might be interesting to make a bit of a study about why The Citadel and other similar military institutions of which the Ashley School for Boys is the only remaining were originally opened.  The Citadel opened in 1842 …  The idea of these military schools was, in part, to assuage the anxieties of the wealthy (but by this point, if I recall correctly from your lecture – outnumbered) whites in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina.  The architecture of The Citadel, specifically the Moroccan-inspired towers, parapets, and crenelations are all based on fortresses, like those off the coasts of West Africa, where slaves were held and “softened up” for their journeys and their lives of subjugation – and the specific architecture of The Citadel, is, if I recall correctly – based on the Charleston Slave House itself – a place where “incorrigible” slaves that would not behave on the auction block were taken to be beaten, abused, and tortured into compliance before being taken back for sale.  None of this is secret – but none of it is in any of The Citadel’s official histories.

The idea was – take poor white boys, maybe lower-middle class, and offer them an education and a title – “raise them up” – and give them the potential for entrance into the upper-class by giving them commissions, and they would be beholden to the wealthy that educated them.  Trained, then, as soldiers – they would lead and form the core of the South Carolina militias that could protect the wealthy whites from slave uprisings – I am typing this in The Citadel’s library at the moment, and I look around at the cadets studying for finals, some of them African American – and I wonder how many of them know this subaltern history?  I learned it as a cadet – curious to know “the truth” of the real history behind the institution – the “official story” simply sounded a little suspicious – these beholden boys would be housed and trained and educated in buildings built – consciously, to remind every slave in Charleston (the original Citadel, as I’m sure you know, was in Marion Square) of the terror of their experiences in similar buildings – so that the moment the militia walked out the gates – uproarious, rebellious slaves would be struck with terror at the thought.  It’s actually quite brilliant when you think about it – it works on almost every level – white lower class boys who feel beholden to their wealthy masters – subliminal suggestions of horror, terror, and torture – an easy way to raise a loyal and feared army.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that The Citadel still exists to educate white boys to be the militia of the elite against the blacks; for starters, a lot of wealthy South Carolinian families now send their boys to The Citadel – the institution has taken a slightly different meaning today.  Nevertheless – I used to work during my time as a cadet, for the school’s newspaper.  The Satire section was an interesting place,where one could write essentially anything one wanted and hide behind the guise of “satirizing.”  Apparently no one in charge had ever read Swift …

Anyway, the point of all this is that for one particular article I wrote an editorial – still in the mode of “satire.”  I chose to write on “the definition of The Citadel,” something that every incoming freshman was required to memorize and be able to recite on command, I’ve reproduced it here:

The Citadel is an institution of higher learning to mold our minds, morals, and bodies so      that we may be fit officers and better civilians of our country. More than that, however, it      is a fortress of duty, a sentinel of responsibility, a bastion of antiquity, a towering                 bulwark of rigid discipline, instilling within us high ideals, honor, uprightness, loyalty,             patriotism, obedience, initiative, leadership, professional knowledge, and pride in                 achievement.

I do not know when this definition was written.  Taking into account The Citadel’s actual history – I found, even as a cadet, this “definition” kind of troubling – it really does say it all, doesn’t it?  The parts that were most troubling to me were “a bastion of antiquity” and “obedience.”

All that to say this – but the background was necessary, I suppose – that this is where I was coming from reading narratives of slavery and the legacies of slavery, not just as a Charlestonian for the majority of my adult life, but also as a Citadel alumnus, aware of the history and tradition of the institution where I had received my degree, and an Institution in Charleston.

The slave story really is there, amid all the silences and omissions, isn’t it?  Reading the slave narratives and narratives of slavery, what it meant to me was the impression about silences and omissions – going back to Hermanian methodology of trauma recovery – it struck me, if this is so pervasive and so intertwined with our lives in Charleston – why aren’t we talking about it?  And not only that – and moreover – as the course progressed from more straightforward narratives to more post-structuralist works – what struck me was – and pardon my language, but “what is this ‘unspeakable’ bullshit?”  I suppose I need to digress some more into background here – as a consequence of military service, as a rule – I’ve been subjected to many lectures and lessons about PTSD – how to recognize it, how to deal with it, how, as a leader to address it – it has been a major component of my professional life.

In those contexts, one thing that has been made abundantly clear, however (and I would assume, though until doing research, I did not know the name “Judith Herman” – that much of the military’s counter-PTSD doctrine is derived from a Hermanian methodology) is the necessity of “talking about it,” even when you can’t make sense of it – even when you think you can’t – you need to talk about it.  What was troublesome to me, therefore, was the fact that the post-structuralist narratives were becoming more sparse, not less as we tried to get to a point of remembrance and mourning.  How are we to successfully remember and mourn as a collective, as a national identity – if we’re progressively becoming more silent on the topic, not less?  As a soldier, I had been trained, had I needed it, to talk about it as much as I could, even when it didn’t make sense, even when it sounded repetitive or clichéd or “should be unspoken.”  I don’t know that I have personally been as conscientious about that – I tend not to talk about it much; it’s for me, not for anyone else, but that’s neither here nor there.

What reading narratives of slavery “meant” to me was seeming to indicate that there was something wrong with the way we talked about it … for one, we weren’t talking about it enough – that much was obvious, and that much we’ve discussed in class over and over.  But something else was bothering me, something else was tickling me.  I wasn’t sure what it was, and I still wasn’t sure when I read Cion, and when I prepared my presentation with it – and when it seemed like the two books I had enjoyed the most in the class were the ones that seemed to, overall, be the least well received by the class.  It didn’t strike me until I heard the interview with Tess Taylor and Gayle Jessup White on the TakeAway, as I have spoken many times about and written about.  I was only half listening at first – it was a fifteen-minute interview sometime between 9:00am and 9:50am – what made me perk up, however, was the way Gayle White, in particular, was talking about being black.

She was talking all about her experience of being black, what it meant to be black.  The constant and daily anxieties about how you look to other people, how you act – her anxiety about her son, a senior at MIT, but also “6’ 1”, broad shouldered, with rich colored skin.”  She was talking all about how he was a “nice boy,” how he loved his mother and helped old people with their groceries – but how she was constantly worried about a “wicked person” stereotyping him as black and something bad happening to him.  Tess Taylor chimed in at some point, talking about how “she’s not afraid to tell people, ‘this is my perspective as a black person.’”

Now here were these two women – the only reason – the ONLY reason they were on the radio together is because they shared an ancestor – one, “white” European common ancestor – who just so happened to be Thomas Jefferson.  Yet, to hear them talk about being “white” and being “black,” it was almost as if they were talking about two people who had absolutely nothing in common – the way they talked – you’d never guess, if they hadn’t told you – that there was a common, if fairly well-known, white man in their blood.  The fact that they spoke like this, the fact that there was no protest of any kind anywhere, the fact that this was all, simply “accepted,” this is what struck me.  “White and black.”  So simple, so easy to understand – so binary, so opposite – so artificial.  Being neither white nor black, I hadn’t much thought about what it meant to be white or black, I knew, of course, on an intellectual level – binaries are almost always artificial, “white” and “black” both have little actual meaning, and are inaccurate as a matter of racial or ethnic distinction, no human being’s skin color is either white or black.

I’d been searching for an approach to a term paper – and there it was right there – “black” and “white” mean so many things to so many people, and we spend so much time trying to define what they are and what they mean to us, when we talk about the binary, we talk about the negative associations with “darkness” and “blackness,” we talk about Othello.  We talk about how the binary is dangerous because it inscribes negativity on “black people.”  But we rarely talk about, and rarely talked about in class – “what the hell is a black person, anyway?”  “African?”  “African-American?”  We recognize the negative effects of the binary construction, but when we do so – we continue to think and speak of it in terms of the binary.

What we need to do, is to get rid of the binary altogether.  Practically speaking – the 2012 U.S. Census data shows that 13.1% of Americans consider themselves “Black or African American only.”  Compare that to 77.9% of “White, only.”  Of the classification “Two, or more races”? Only 2.4%.  This kind of data is a goldmine to a politician.  While it of course varies according to location – 13.1% – that’s the kind of number that, if you’re good enough?  Is a write-off.  Using the “black/white only” binary – you can simply ignore the one in favor of the other.  That’s just one practical application.  Yet – of those blacks – are we really to believe, that of that 13.1%, none, who classify themselves as “only,” none of them have any white blood in them?  From their masters, from their handlers, not to mention intermarriage, etc.  Only 2.4% of mixed ethnicity?  Is that 2.4% where all of the “passing” stories come from?  Has the “tragic mulatto” been so tragic that only 2.4% of them have survived?  And that’s ignoring all of the other mixed ethnicities like my own children might presumably one day be – 2.4%.  That is where the binary has gotten us.  Imagine instead – then something like, say – 56% mixed European (“white” only), 1.3 % (say, based on Asians, or something) African only (recent immigrants), and 35% at least two or more races – it makes it a little bit harder to “write people off,” no?  That “miscegenated class,” rapidly overtaking the “onlys” – that cannot be countered, that cannot be “accounted for” or “written off,” that growing class of uncertainty because they can’t be easily classified into structures by the powerful – what might that do to our political reality – to speak of only one practical implication?

And all that would be required is a simple change in the way we think about race – you don’t HAVE to be black or white ONLY, and you don’t have to check that block on the Census.  We all know, not all of those “black only”s are full-blooded Africans – why must we, and why do they construct themselves as such?  The black/white binary is artificially inscribed by the oppressors to make it easy for them to oppress – why do we continue to use it and embrace it – those of us who purport to want to end oppression?

I am running out of time – so a final thought – yes – many “African Americans,” through the work of the “whites” have lost their “original” ethnic and racial identities – what do we do about those people?  I would submit we need to look again not just at our classification of “black,” but our classification of “native American.”  Why should not the children of slavery be considered native to America?  They were born of an American institution, and their ethnic heritage is a direct result of the land.  I don’t have enough time to go into what we might do to distinguish them from what we now already call Native-Americans – maybe nothing?  Maybe we’re all – those of us born here, born because of this place – and not fitting into the traditional binarization, maybe that is what it means to be an American – and moreover – native to this land – for without it, we would not exist.

One way or another – something is wrong with the way we talk about race – and we need to keep looking at it, and we need to keep talking about it – only that way, not through silence – but through remembering and mourning, can we ever hope to fix it.  That is what it means to study slave narratives to me, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2014.

 

4:01-7:02 PM

 

[1] One must admit, a curiously imperialistic expression for overseas actions.

To Steward a New Charlestonian Identity for My Daughters–Katherine Matthews

[{In this essay Katherine Matthews directly addresses the way in which the “Narratives of Slavery” course disturbed her sense of self as a white Charlestonian, raised, as she says, “in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.”  Her deeply thoughtful essay covers a lot of ground before ending by referring to the distinction between an antiracialist agenda and an antiracist one–the former encouraging amnesia, the latter requiring active engagement with history (here, the legacy of slavery). SKL]

Reflections on Dr. Lewis’s class “Narratives of Slavery”

I’m from Charleston. Not from one of the places around Charleston that try to lay claim to the Charlestonian identity. Not “from” Charleston in the sense that I moved here 30 years ago from “off.” I’m a native Charlestonian.  I grew up in downtown Charleston.  South of Broad. I could see Fort Sumter from the front porch of my childhood home.  This is my inner voice of five months ago, portraying my attitude as a  native Charlestonian. There is a certain sort of arrogance that native Charlestonians have that is tied directly to the city. Charleston is a special place: quietly charming, oozing southern hospitality and refinement. Native Charlestonians are members of an exclusive club with societies, traditions, and a way of life that is religiously preserved and fiercely protected from outsiders. I was raised in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.  My playmates shared their names with prominent streets and buildings. From birth it was instilled in me that being from Charleston was a unique asset that only a small group possessed.  I was always proud to be a Charlestonian. I’m not so sure anymore.

Somehow I made it through the entire public education system in South Carolina without fully recognizing Charleston’s role in the slave trade. I can, however, tell you about Civil War battles ad nauseam. The requisite field trip to Fort Sumter was cloaked in pride as the site where South Carolina started the War of Northern Aggression.  Where was the discussion on Charleston’s role as a slave port? Where was the shame? The brief spurts of activism in my youth were all centered on feminist ideals and how sexist Southern society could be. I remember protests about Citadel admission policies and a brief period of defiance where I refused to go to the Yacht Club with my dad because Club policy refused membership to women. It never occurred to me to protest the fact that the Yacht Club lacked even a single African-American member.

I grew up in a city that was built on slave labor. Charleston plantation owners could afford to build such grand houses because they were not paying the workers tending their crops. Historic preservation is critical to the character (and economy) of Charleston, but it is more than just pretty houses and quaint gardens. It is a vacuum where the reaches and implications of the slave trade can be explored. Unfortunately few take advantage of this.  Everyone wants to see the Aiken-Rhett family’s art gallery; not everyone wants to see their slave quarters.

When I decided to take a Graduate level English class, I wanted to find a topic that had not been overdone in lower-level English courses, and I wanted to think. As a mother of two young children and a full-time employee, my mind is often exhausted by the grind of everyday life. I missed being pushed to think critically and being exposed to topics outside of my comfort zone. I got all of that and more from this class.

I sat down the first week of class to read I Belong to South Carolina, and I was immediately engrossed in the narratives of slaves who lived and worked in my home state. That was the perfect text to kick off the course as it made slavery very real.  Reading these testimonies and recognizing the places the slaves lived in and escaped from drove home the fact that South Carolina was intimately involved in the repression of human beings.  The narrative that I remember most is “Recollections of a Runaway Slave” where he describes the “Sugar House” in downtown Charleston – a torture chamber for slaves for masters who didn’t want to do the dirty work themselves. I immediately researched the Sugar House and found that it was located in the same area as the “Old Jail.” This was the same “Old Jail” where I had attended numerous company Christmas parties without any idea of the legacy of that site. Reading the first-hand, local narratives really brought to life the pain and oppression that slaves endured at the hands of white South Carolinians. This was not the slavery of Gone with the Wind.

Along the same lines, the discussions and readings about the Zong massacre also made the reality of slavery very vivid and real. Everyone has seen the diagram of the Brookes slaver with bodies lined up almost on top of each other. Discovering the story of the Zong brought that picture to life–I could envision how dark the slave quarters must have been, and as the slaves’ eyes adjusted to not being able to see, their other senses must have been heightened, making the moaning of their fellow captives and the stench of death and disease even more unbearable. A crack of light perhaps promises fresh air, or a trip above deck, but in fact is the doorway to their death.  I couldn’t help trying to get close to what the victims of the Zong must have experienced. The idea that living human beings could be recklessly murdered without repercussion still causes me great distress, and the fact that this incident has not been widely publicized shocks me. After class that week, I had family in town including three nieces of high school and college age. None of my family, including those studying American history, had ever heard of the Zong. How can I change this?

In addition to bringing slavery out of the abstract and making it very real, this class has expanded my idea of slavery being a “black and white” issue. Books like Equiano’s narrative and even the much maligned Someone Knows My Name provide a global narrative of slavery that exists outside of the American South.  Recognizing that slavery is a global issue, not a regional one, is important as it is a tie that binds many cultures and countries together (not in a good way).  Coming to terms with slavery is not uniquely a “white Southern/black African-American” issue. It involves the larger group of colonial nations and even Africans who held slaves prior to the arrival of the Europeans.  The dialogue around slavery and the education about the lasting effects of the slave trade must include everyone.

Equiano’s narrative also demonstrates the longevity of the slave trade. I don’t know why I always boxed in the issue of slavery into the 5 years pre- and post-Civil War.  The slave trade existed more than a century before the Civil War, and it exists now more than a century after.  The long history of slavery is a scar that seems to be covered up. To understand the depths of the impact of slavery, we must realize the long history of humans owning other humans. This was no flash in the pan, and the effects are still felt in the exploitation of class, race, sex, and gender.

This class has also pushed me to revisit topics that I thought I already knew. I was surprised at first to see Beloved on the reading list. All of the other books in the class were so unique and unfamiliar, that reading something I already covered in high school English class seemed strange.  It’s odd that my memory of the storyline of Beloved consisted of matricide and ghosts. Nothing about slavery bubbled to the top. How could we have had a class discussion in AP English about Beloved without diving deep into the topic of slavery? We had a lot of heated debate over whether Beloved was a ghost or not, but I don’t recall anything more than a cursory discussion of slavery. Reading Beloved at the end of this course was disturbing; the accumulation of everything we had read and discussed as a class made reading Morrison’s classic novel uncomfortable and sad.

One of my favorite supplemental readings was the excerpt about Judge Waring from Caryl Philips’s Atlantic Sound. I fully recognize after reading Seddon’s article that my affinity for this reading is probably the result of my searching for a white hero somewhere in the bleakness of white characters in all of our other readings.  I will need to spend some more time thinking about what this implies about my white female perspective and how I can push myself even further to abandon what Appiah would call my “tightly scripted identity” (Seddon 47).  However, I again found it surprising that as a Charlestonian I would have never heard of this local hero.

In wrestling with my shame about the huge hole that slavery represented in my knowledge of history, I found both comfort and unease that I am not alone. I had not recognized until now how the history of slavery is covered so narrowly in American history (mostly around the Civil War) and had not realized the impact that this has on everyone. I found the discussion in Seddon’s article about antiracism and antiracialism very appropriate as I thought about why such a global issue is effectively swept under the rug. Seddon cites David Goldberg’s definitions of the two terms: “Antiracism requires historical memory, recalling the conditions of racial degradation and relating contemporary to historical and local to global conditions…antiracialism suggests forgetting, getting over, moving on, wiping away the terms of reference…rather than a recounting and redressing of the terms of humiliation and devaluation” (Seddon 40). Antiracialism is what I have experienced; antiracism is what we are striving for as members of this class.

How do I feel?  I am now very conflicted in my identity as a white Charlestonian. The pride I had in my Charleston heritage has tarnished, and I am ashamed by my city’s role in the horrible institution of slavery. I now realize that many of the traditions and institutions that I was brought up to admire link directly back to the oppression of other human beings.  It would have been much easier to remain in my safe bubble of elitism, but I am so thankful that I have been forced to be uncomfortable and really think about my role in historical and ongoing slavery. In almost every discussion we have had on the class readings, Dr. Lewis has asked the question “Is it OK for this author to write about that topic?” i.e., “Is it OK for a Canadian male to write in the voice of an African female?”  I have asked that question back to myself – is it OK for a southern, white, female to dive into a class on slavery and attempt to gain empathy with the plight of slaves, and I think the answer is a resounding “yes” and more people should be doing this.

Where do I go from here? I am sad that class has come to an end, but I am inspired by what taking this class has done for my awareness of such an important issue. I am motivated to continue to explore the complex web of the global slave trade through further reading but also through opportunities like speakers, movies, and cultural events where I can be part of a collective group exploring these issues.  I have a responsibility to my daughters to make sure they do not fall into the same trap that I did and to steward them to a new Charlestonian identity that is balanced and historically comprehensive. I will need some time to work through my dilemma of my Charleston identity, but I feel fortunate that I now recognize the need to reconsider it.

 

I Am a Black Woman, or Why Teaching May Be the New Slavery

[In this response, Ashley Rhett eloquently situates her own experience as a teacher in Charleston in 2014 in the longer context of the historical experience of black women in South Carolina and the US, and their representation in narratives of slavery. She explains how intensely, how intimately the texts speak to her, how difficult it is to separate herself from them: how they get under her skin. “Every black woman,” writes Ashley,  “is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic.” SKL]

I Am a Black Woman, or Why Teaching May Be the New Slavery

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher.

I opened the first day of Spring semester the same way I opened the first day of Fall: with poetry. I tell my students, “I love women and I love poetry. In fact, the only thing I love more than women is black women, so I’ve selected for us a book of poems by a beautiful black woman named Tracy K. Smith called Life on Mars. I don’t think there’s anything people can do that’s more intimate than share a book of poetry or a poem together. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share a poem a day with you.” And then I sit down. And then in my best poet voice, I read “The Weather In Space” aloud… twice. I love it, and I try to make them love it too. It seems to work.

Two days later, I am called into the principal’s office to face allegations of being a racist.

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. If I love myself and the skin I’m in, little white girls feel so intimidated by me that the school administration conducts an inquest into my classroom. Interview my students. Ask them about my racist remarks.

The head of my department tells our principal that she believes that I am a victim of reverse racism. “I don’t think so,” she shoots back, closing the subject forever.

The next day, I don’t read any poems. A little blonde girl smiles. A black girl asks me why not. Something in me, very small and very precious, struggles for breath. I try to explain to the class why a situation like this makes us all lose, but my words fall flat. No one is really listening. We all know, me most of all, that the darkness has already won.

Several weeks later in a parent teacher conference with the mother of the young girl who started the rumors, I am told, “She thinks that you don’t like her. That’s why she’s being so disrespectful to you in your class. Maybe if you just explained to her that you do like her, then the rest of the year will go better for both of you.”

Or maybe if you cared about your daughter’s character, you would explain to her that sometimes an apology is as close as anyone ever gets to escaping their guilt. Maybe if you told her that it is not my job to like her. Maybe if you explained to her that her attempt to destroy my reputation and my career successfully destroyed any possibility of rapport between us. Maybe. But I don’t say any of that. “Sure. I’d love to talk to her,” I say with a smile and reach across the table to shake hands with an enemy.

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. I am a slave. I’m amazed by how much I see myself in every narrator, how I could literally reach into the text to touch a face or tug a sleeve and feel my own garments move. But I know I’m not a Baby Suggs holy or a thick loved Sethe, perhaps not even a faithful Ella. My suffering is too small to have made me righteous, too gentle to make me desperate to protect what I love, and too brief to prove my mettle.

Today I’m told that a kid I’ve been teaching since he was thirteen years old looked at a group of kids and said, “What are you niggers looking at?” I can’t decide what bothers me more: that someone I love would say something so cruel, that those black kids chose not to kick his ass, or that damn misplaced preposition. There’s so much to be outraged about, even when we think the past is over and done. It never is. But oh that it would be!

In the midst of all these things, I find myself, a black woman, a public school teacher, and a slave in a class that is seeking to study the narratives of slavery. I’m tired and giddy with caffeine most nights. I’m always amazed by how little I know about this topic. If it’s not in my blood, its traces are on my skin. I struggle to spell names like Fanon. I try to separate myself from the content. I tell myself that taking it personally interferes with learning. Still at night, my book pressed against my chest, I dream of the sea and its dark impenetrable depths. I hear wood creaking and waves breaking. Mysteriously, I am able to see my reflection in the blackness of those waters.

What would you have me to say? My whole life I’ve just been saying what has been expected. This time I don’t know what that is. This time I don’t know if I want to oblige. My skin is penance enough. It’s 2014, and it’s still penance enough.

I’m sitting up late tonight, anxiety and fear coursing through my body like the currents of a river about to overflow her banks, breach her boundaries, wreak havoc on a peaceful land. Tomorrow our class is going to read Equiano. After that, Morrison. My students picked her, not me! Still, I must be a masochist. A part of me thinks that I’m doing the right thing for myself by keeping these dirty little stories from being told. Another part of me pushes back with the thought that it’s more significant that these stories are being lived. Every black woman is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic. If we let her out, we have to take her place. Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Either way, we want the big house to finally go up in smoke. We don’t have to be there to see it. We’ll settle for the stories. People are more comfortable with the ones white women tell, I think.

I tell my colleagues that the only thing that separates teaching from slavery is that teachers don’t have to be afraid of the people they serve. It’s a little lie I tell myself: that I am not afraid. But I know. I know that I’m the ghost of slavery present, concealing myself in hallways or behind desks, obscured by the eerie blue light of some projector, a wraith. The mirror of the present isn’t as haunting as the one that brings the past into view, but it is a ghost nonetheless.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

The Weather in Space

Is God being or pure force? The wind

Or what commands it? When our lives slow

And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls

In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm

Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing

After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—

Faces radiant with panic.

 

 

 

Charleston: The Land of Historical Exploitation–Kelly Doyle

[Kelly Doyle’s essay refers both to Susanna Ashton’s USC Press collection of South Carolina slave narratives I Belong to South Carolina and to Caryl Phillips’s essay “Home” that concludes Phillips’s The Atlantic Sound. IIt was a remarkable coincidence that the very semester we were reading these texts saw the unveiling both of a statue to Denmark Vesey, leader of a planned slave insurrection in Charleston in 1822, and of a statue to Judge Waties Waring. The landscape of Charleston’s “well-forgotten history” that Kelly describes now has a couple more items to combat our selective public amnesia. SKL]

5/2/2014 12:43:46 PM

Kelly Doyle

Charleston: The Land of Historical Exploitation

To prepare for this exam I decided to take a travel through time through what I thought were major markers in the history of slavery and racism in Charleston, very much in the vein of what Caryl Phillips accomplished in his piece entitled “Home” in The Atlantic Sound.  I hope to speak to the greater issue of Charleston’s forgotten history through the many ways in which it presents itself.

When most people think about Charleston, they think of the preserved beauty of the idyllic South. They envision vast plantations, stately homes, manicured lawns, and a history of class and culture: read Gone with the Wind.  It is this vision that directly aids in Charleston being the number one tourist destination in America, a surprising fact given the dark, but well forgotten history of this city. However, even those who consider themselves residents of Charleston, myself at the beginning of this course included, are surprisingly ignorant of the embedded racism and willful ignorance of these facts that surround them.

Being a Northerner transplanted to the South and not being familiar with living among places so connected to slavery, I therefore didn’t even know to be conscious of the history of slavery around me. This course opened my eyes to the hidden history and legacy of slavery in the world, and specifically Charleston, and both how prevalent this history is and how it has been silenced and taken out of the public consciousness. It seems as if the unconscious consensus is that slavery is something that needs to be silenced; if we talk about it, it will only take longer for its effects to disappear. I strongly disagree with this point; ignoring slavery will only increase our misunderstanding of each other and history and aid in our inability to connect with the past.

I oriented my time-travel through Charleston on the downtown peninsula: Broad Street, East Bay Street, The Battery, The Citadel’s campus, and the College of Charleston’s campus. My intent was to look at these significant historical places with a focus on slavery and racism and propel myself through that history to the present. I passed an overwhelming number of tourists with maps, horse-drawn carriages carrying eager tourists, and hurried locals. My tactic for this assignment was simply to watch my surroundings and see what inspiration came to me. It was an overwhelmingly depressing experience, as I imagined. Charleston seems to exist as a mere playground for the willful neglect of truth.

The Exchange Building on East Bay and Broad Streets afforded me the most shocking and absurd view of the evolution of the history of slavery in Charleston, and it is where I will focus my energy in relation to my walk through downtown. Last Saturday, April 26, 2014, when I set out to do this assessment of “historic” downtown Charleston, there was a young woman taking her bridal portraits on the steps of the Exchange Building.  She was happily posing in her white wedding gown and seemingly ignorant of the significance of this building for the history of Charleston and slavery in the South (the similarities to the film Sankofa were not lost on me). The open air market of the Exchange Building was where the selling of slaves occurred in Charleston. I wondered if this young woman even knew this fact or if it was just a stand-in for any beautiful Charleston building in which to house a grand affair. Did it matter what she knew? Either way, her ignorance highlights what our culture has been so successful in doing: forgetting the history of slavery. In looking at the website for the Exchange Building, I found what I already knew, that our official history is complicit in glossing over the history and legacy of slavery in Charleston. The description of this building completely ignores the truth and makes it benign to make tourists and residents alike feel more comfortable so they can remain blissfully ignorant of the facts. This forgetting widens the divide between white and black and is what keeps racism alive in our country. Charleston seems to actively encourage this through the shameless promotion of the town as a tourist attraction for economic gain. Downplaying Charleston’s history of slavery, the slave trade, and overt racism is what allows tourists to come to Charleston guilt-free and unaware of a reason to be guilty despite this historical exploitation. Why would the powers-that-be risk these wonderful gains for the unsavory truth? They wouldn’t and do not.

I think the answer to the question for this final, “what does it mean to read this material/these narratives of slavery here in Charleston, SC in 2014” can only be appropriately answered by another question:  why does Charleston willfully ignore its past, its true history? While I have taken away many things from this course, this is what I have taken away from these readings and lectures in relation to Charleston. As evidenced through my walk through downtown Charleston, the support of this history is apparent, but ignored for a plethora of reasons: economic, social, and tradition to name a few.

In the history of the slave trade, 40% of slaves that entered the United States came through the port of Charleston. An important fact for both the history of Charleston as well as for slavery in America, and yet it is one that many do not know.  Susanna Ashton’s collection of slave narratives, I Belong to South Carolina, helped put into context South Carolina’s involvement in the slave trade and slavery. These narratives mention and name specific places that are intangibly tied to South Carolina and the Lowcountry and because of this I think it was an excellent first read for the class. The slave narratives that I have read in the past have served to connect me to the atrocities and horrors of slavery. However, Ashton’s collection changed the way I think about Charleston and slave narratives. Rather than these narratives being a connection to an almost incomprehensible past in terms of place, time and the horrors described, they seem to be happening in real time because I can place myself in the context of the narrative. I can envision the places the narrator speaks of and almost transport myself through time to view South Carolina or the Lowcountry in the context of slavery in a way that I had never previously been able to do with other slave narratives or the history of South Carolina. Instead of being words on a page, the narratives were able to reach me in a different way because I could envision the history alongside the present within one particular place, South Carolina.  As a start, I think it would be beneficial for these narratives to be taught in South Carolina schools specifically to move away from the willful forgetting of South Carolina’s participation in slavery and racism.  While I think the slave narratives of Olaudah Equaino and Frederick Douglass are extremely important and should be read by students, putting these narratives in a specific context to orient South Carolina students to the world around them would serve as a way to improve the willful ignorance of South Carolina history. While none of these South Carolina narratives have made it into the mainstream canon, that in no way diminishes their importance and potential for bridging the considerable gap in understanding South Carolina’s and/or Charleston’s role in slavery.

While Ashton’s collection speaks to the past of South Carolina, Caryl Phillips’ piece, “Home,” speaks to the present of South Carolina. “Home” is about Phillips’ experience in Charleston trying to find information about Judge Waties Waring, and the silences that surround his history in Charleston. Phillips’ article speaks poignantly about Waring but also the culture of Charleston, that of loss and a forgotten past. As Phillips traces his story through Charleston, Broad Street, Sullivan’s Island, Magnolia Cemetery, and the United States Customs House on East Bay Street, he is commenting on the profound absence of consciousness he encounters from both sides, white and black. I get the sense from his text that even though he is an outsider in Charleston, he is one of the few who understands the weight of the social and cultural climate here. As he describes walking through Charleston, he is constantly questioning the silences and the areas, both physical places and in our thoughts, that are closed off to Charlestonians:

The rhythms of Africa floating over Charleston. White men and women dancing behind      the United States Customs House. Somewhere in the distance, around the corner and      out of sight, Sullivan’s Island. And before Sullivan’s Island? Africa. And the vessel’s              European port of departure? Its home port? Its home? … Ghosts walking the streets of      Charleston. Ghosts dancing in the streets of Charleston. (Phillips 265)

Phillips is able to put the present in context with the past in a way that really helped me understand the duplicity of Charleston: the willfully ignored or the silenced truth, and the way individuals and groups are complicit in their willful ignorance.

What speaks to the future for the history of slavery and racism in South Carolina and Charleston are two things: the first being Glenn McConnell who has been “elected” the next president of the College of Charleston and the second being this course which is proof that there are people who care about the real history and its impact on Charleston and the world around us. The institutions in South Carolina are still actively complicit in ignoring the racist sympathies and silencing of the beliefs in what should be an important leader for the Charleston community. It is therefore extremely important that those who understand the hypocrisy in this institutionalized forgetting continue to learn and grow in the history of slavery and racism and continue to inform others, like this class has done for me.

5/2/2014 3:41:11 PM

 

Works Cited

Phillips, Caryl. “Home.” The Atlantic Sound. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000. 223-65. Print.

 

The Fairy Tale of Slavery: Demanding a More Authentic Narrative (or, A Bench Is Not Enough)

[In this piece, MM starts by taking to task the “fairy tale” elements of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name for failing adequately to represent the systematic dehumanization involved in the Middle Passage and Atlantic slavery. She then goes on to argue that we ought not to be satisfied with comforting and comfortable tokens of memory–whether in a novel whose main character triumphantly shrugs off enslavement or in a bench by the road, but ought to “demand more.”  SKL]

The Fairy Tale of Slavery: Demanding a More Authentic Narrative

2:30 pm

Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel, Someone Knows My Name, follows the life of a young girl captured and sold into slavery. The young girl, Aminata, learns English as well as different dialects of African languages as she suffers the injustices of slavery, meets men will become prominent historical figures, and bears witness to significant events. The novel attempts to hit almost every aspect of slavery (kidnapping, sexual assault, kind masters, terrible masters, abolitionists, British relations, and more) creating an almost fairy tale version of the genre.

But slavery was not fairy tale and it is not a subject easily encapsulated. By creating a “paint by numbers” slave narrative, Hill ignores many of the nuances of systematic dehumanization. Part of his erasure stems from his perpetuation of a strong Western bias. Although Aminata is a Muslim originally from West Africa, she embodies and projects Western values, most obviously in her understanding and use of the English language. Part of Aminata’s depiction could be rooted in a trope we briefly touched upon throughout the course: Mother Africa.

The creation of a female representation of a place is not unique to the Pan-African tradition. Colonizers and those who resist colonizers have long relied upon the female figure to further their own political agendas regarding geographical identities. From the British’s use of Britannia and Hibernia to the Irish’s use of Cathleen Ni Houlihan to even the United States’ early use of Columbia, the female figure has been a frequent tool of colonial and postcolonial rhetoric. In some ways, the character of Aminata continues this tradition by acting as an all-encompassing mother figure: sexually appealing when young, maternal as she matures, smart, and resourceful as she grows older. Aminata is flawless because she represents the “perfect slave”: that is, a slave so upright and respectable that there can be no argument made against her character. Characters like Aminata (we’ve encountered several, but the one I find most similar is the mother in Sankofa) resist the rhetoric used by pro-slavery advocates and general racists to depict a different sort of African(-American)—one that does not require the paternalistic institution of slavery to guide her through life. Rather, the virtues of Aminata and similar characters illuminate and oppose the many vices of slavery.

But that is not all such characters do. The flip side of the female postcolonial figure demands that the feminine figure requires protection from her masculine counterpart. As Spivak famously observed, one of the most insidious techniques of colonial discourse was to depict the colonized female as needing protection from the colonized male. By portraying the colonized male as brutal, savage, and dangerous, empires justified their colonization of these peoples. In the nineteenth century, colonized peoples began to respond to such rhetoric by showing the colonized female as needing protection from the colonizing male. This allowed colonized men to re-contextualize their own positions within colonial and postcolonial frameworks to reclaim power, masculinity, and the moral upper-hand.

In Hill’s defense, Aminata has more agency than many of her predecessors did. Aminata manages to escape slavery, she survives while her husband does not, and she is able to travel the world as a woman to great success. But Aminata also speaks in “proper” English and uses genres and forms familiar to a Western audience, she possesses no humanizing flaws, and her experiences as a woman (her menarche, her sexual assault, her identity as a mother) are all reduced to tokens of her gender. Hill’s portrayal of Aminata fails to humanize her on a basic level and so, although the novel does expose the evils of slavery, it fails to give voice—as Morrison’s Beloved does—to the 60 million rendered voiceless.

Then again, that is just my opinion. Our class discussion regarding the merit of Hill’s work was divisive with two clear sides: those who believed Hill’s work was an excellent beginning to a necessary dialogue, and those who believed Hill’s text stunted the discussion regarding slavery and its legacy. I fell into the latter camp, finding particular fault in Hill’s privileging of a Western perspective, but I cannot forget my own background when considering Hill’s novel. I am a white upper-middle class woman from the mid-Atlantic. My Christian family benefitted directly from the Civil War and their gain has provided me with educational opportunities afforded to few: traveling from a young age, meeting a wide range of people, and attending the college of my choice. My education has helped me realize my own privilege, my own position, and my own role within the legacy of slavery. In most ways, I am the epitome of Western bias.

I have to pause to ask myself if part of my criticism of what I perceive as a Western bias in Hill’s work is the internalization of my own Western bias. Am I uncomfortable with seeing a consciousness so close to my own idealized and placed within an African context?

Although I acknowledge that this is not only possible but plausible, I think there is something deeper at work here for me and my classmates. It is not just an acceptance or resistance to our own varying privileges within the legacy of slavery, but our varying opinions on how the legacy should be reflected in society today.

We have looked at so many different newspaper articles throughout this semester that detail the way slavery still lingers in our consciousness. From vehement letter writers protesting the commemoration of Emancipation through the Jubilee Project to editorials describing French slave owners as the victims of a slave revolt, our narratives of history still need much development. We need to learn how to incorporate our painful histories into our national narrative.

In 2008, a year after Hill’s novel was published and almost two decades after Morrison’s Beloved debuted, the National Park Service along with different non-profit groups unveiled a bench on Sullivan’s Island to remember slavery. Inspired by Morrison’s assertion that there is no sort of monument—not even a small bench—to prompt the contemplation of this painful history, the bench stands as one of the few markers of our country’s long complicity in human trafficking.

This is what I have learned from the class: a bench is not enough. Lawrence Hill’s novel is not enough. I would question if it is even a good start. It seems to me that it is too easy to become comfortable with these consolation prizes. Slavery doesn’t deserve a bench; it deserves a hundred monuments. The people who were enslaved don’t deserve the idealized Aminata; they deserve to have the nuances of their experiences, the subtleties of their characters, the joys and pains of their lives portrayed in an authentic voice. We have said over and over that time doesn’t pass, it accumulates. We still carry this legacy, We should not be comfortable with it. We should be uncomfortable and challenged. Challenged to do better, to think better, to be better. I don’t have the answers. I don’t even have an answer. But this course has instilled in me the question: why don’t we demand more?

5:18 p.m

MM

Of Teaching, Token Gestures, and Textual Access — AS

[Although I said that I would be publishing these essays in no particular order, this fourth one follows logically from Kadri Naanu’s, since it ends with an account of the author’s visit — with Kadri — to Fort Sumter, and both students’ dismay that none of the staff at the Visitor Center there could even direct them to Toni Morrison’s “bench by the road.”  Before that moment, however, AS has already raised a series of interesting points about her role as a New Jersey-born woman now a teacher herself  (in middle school and at a community college), and she goes on to ask whether living in Charleston gave her access to the texts we were reading or whether the texts we were reading gave her access to Charleston.  SKL]

2 May 2014

Time Stamp: 10pm (1/5) – 1am (2/5)

Dr. Lewis –

I considered submitting a handwritten letter, but decided this would be more legible. I think this letter will provide you with what it has meant for me – a white teacher – to read these texts here and now, and hopefully give you a few other “something[s] of value.”

***

Although my mother always told me stories of the racist slurs and attempts of violence against her friend A. (my “Aunt” A) while they back-packed America and Europe, I don’t think I fully understood the cultural work both my mother and my aunt decided to take on in the 70’s.  We spent many summers with my Aunt A. and cousin V., so while I knew that they weren’t my “real” family it hardly felt otherwise. And both women – which I think I’m only beginning to understand now – took on the not-so-easy work of beginning to break down barriers at the personal and familial level. My mother lived in a small South NJ town with only whites, and my Aunt A. lived in Newark with only blacks. Although I could tell you some fascinating stories about their friendship and they ways in which they taught V. and I to interact (especially with one another’s hair, which [retrospectively] I see the importance of), I think the one thing my mother stressed to me as a (white) girl was that the world was going to work for me in ways it wouldn’t for V. My mother did not quote any Peggy McIntosh or Richard Dryer as Seddon does, but I think her point was the same: check your backpack full of white privilege at the door and do not walk around with something as counter productive and self indulgent as white guilt. I was to be aware of history, act accordingly, and work to change and challenge both the culture and myself as I grew into the world.

But despite all her lectures, I am unsure of what that world was or is, and if 2014 is even close to what both of these women hoped it would be. And even if changing my own view seems within reach, challenging the world around me is much more difficult to negotiate. Just last month I walked by student waving a Confederate flag on the College of Charleston campus, his poster claiming it championed diversity. I was taught to hate that flag and be suspect of anyone who loved it. But since moving to Charleston I’ve seen that flag every day, not just on campus in support of Glenn McConnell. And even after this class I keep wondering how exactly to confront this. I do not tell people it bothers me that they have this flag on their home…or their belt buckle, which seems especially perverse since it’s typically men. In the end, I did not confront the student. I thought ignoring him might be better than giving him a chance to get the attention I perceived he wanted. And would I just be another white liberal up in arms about a flag that does not “really” concern me?

As a white public school teacher (I taught middle school) and current technical college adjunct, I do not want to be like many of the abolitionists in the text we’ve read who co-opt narratives for a cause, or the few “good white folks” in Morrison’s Beloved. If I saw myself at all in these texts – and I think it is important that I often did not see myself – it was as these white people. There is a real danger here, I think, to end up as the kind of “moderate white” Dr. King addresses in his letter from Birmingham jail – the kind of white that claims equality and justice and yet does very little to dismantle the structures of white power and privilege that provide them their lives. (Not to suggest abolitionists didn’t do productive work.) I wonder if in walking by that student I was guilty of such moderation since now (I think) I have the right language for that discussion. When I first started teaching, I felt like I did not have enough history or the right language to address race in the classroom – especially as a twenty-one-year-old white woman just outside of D.C.

So thanks to these texts, this class, and much of the news, I spent most of this term at Trident Tech attempting to confront race (and gender) in open and productive ways, continually pointing out where whiteness and maleness were assumed as “neutral” within the texts or selecting works that directly challenge that assumed cultural narrative. Although I could have done this in another state, I think having access to this course in the context of Charleston changed how I approached teaching. Simply being in Charleston, surrounded by the immediate history of slavery and engaging my students with that history, deeply affected how the class engaged with the texts and one another. I often brought news about Glenn McConnell and items from your class to mine (like the Quashie painting and the news about the ironing board). I tried to explain that it was important to me, as a person and as an educator, to be taking a class like this in Charleston as I did not grow up here and felt sorely my lack of historical knowledge. I think this ultimately helped to build a dialogue that – while academic – was less student-teacher oriented and more student-student oriented in a way that allowed for a different kind of communication than if I asserted my teacher hat.

In many of these discussions, I admitted to my lack of knowledge, explained that for three hours each Monday I was also a student having my concept of the world challenged (in ways that I believed productive). Most of the time this allowed for meaningful and challenging discussions about the past and present day Charleston, and my students expressed genuine interest in trying to work out these issues with one another, or even their own gaps in historical understanding. But, I did have one student (the only white male) tell me after classes that he was tired of reading about “women and black people;” however, on the last day he finally admitted it was not “so bad” that I constantly presented ideas that were altogether different from his own. I like to think this means I did something right, and that attending this class has better equipped me to make my classroom a productive social and political space.

But I am also very aware that all of this came from the mouth of a white person, and sometimes I honestly do not know what that signifies. I want to challenge the way the world works, but I don’t want to be the “good white folk” or the blind abolitionist. In short, I do not want to set up a classroom paradigm that reads “white savior.”  My fear is that this would be quite easy to slip into. If someone were to take a snapshot of my class, it would depict a white person in the front and mostly black people in the seats. I am not suggesting I feel guilt over this, as I agree even that is a kind of privilege, but I think it is important I recognize this dynamic

A good paper would come full circle and reference my first story, but since this is a letter, allow me to close with another narrative I think you will find valuable in light of this class.

Kadri wanted to see Ft. Moultrie and the Toni Morrison bench, and I was able to take her last Friday. (I also wanted to see the bench because even though I had seen the fort, I never remembered seeing a bench like that near the beach.) The first time I was at the visitor center, I didn’t have the kind of historical appreciation for the little bit they do have on the Middle Passage in the museum. I think in my memory, there was much more on the Middle Passage and slaves and less about white soldiers, but I concluded it was probably because this class has changed so much of my framework for Charleston. Not that that two Yanks (my husband is also from NJ) didn’t love to point out the distinctly Southern white-washed narratives around town, but now I feel more acutely aware of the poor attempts at recognition and remembrance. I don’t know what is worse: the token gesture, or none at all?

After Kadri and I spent some time discussing the above question in the museum, we asked the (white) lady where the Toni Morrison bench was located. She had no idea about the bench, or even who Toni Morrison was, so she asked two (white) men who were also working at the park where it was located. Looks of confusion all around. I’m not entirely sure why I expected this to go otherwise. I do not know which one of us was more stunned, so we simply thanked them and walked out to explore on our own. Listening to Kadri process this encounter was fascinating. I think it was a clear testament and connection to Charleston culture that, while explained in class, became very real to her as she witnessed it first hand. Whose surprise was greater that none of them knew the name Toni Morrison? I still could not tell you.

We finally found the bench, and we couldn’t decided if perhaps it was appropriate it felt sort of wayside and underwhelming or that is was sad it overlooked the oil-tinted marsh water and a broken down boat. There were also two half eaten rotting apples near the bench, but I assume those aren’t always around. What surprised me, at least, was this sense that the texts we read (particularly, I Belong to South Carolina) so affected my access and perceptions of Charleston. At first, I very much thought of it in reverse – that having moved to Charleston gave me a better access to the texts. Ultimately, I think it is a combination of both; however, I’m more inclined to say that the texts are what have given me a different view of the area I hope to call home for at least another year.

Although your exam question was quite clear – what does it mean to have read these texts in Charleston right now – the answer is rather subjective to each student and my own response could have manifested in many ways. However, I decided on the stories about campus, teaching, and Kadri because it was in all those circumstances where I felt my education do what I think an education should do – that is, affect my daily life and make me (re)consider how I function in the world. And I decided on a letter because: 1. I love writing letters, 2. I wanted a slightly less rigid form and tone, and 3. you put the word “experimental” on the assignment sheet and that seemed like an invitation. So, I hope I did this right for the test, but mostly I hope it was “something of value” as your assignment sheet could be boiled down to that one statement.

– AS

 

Local and International Perspectives on Memory–Kadri Naanu

[The author of this third essay, Kadri Naanu, brings the fascinating perspective of an advanced comparative literature student from Estonia. Kadri is working toward a PhD dissertation comparing narratives of slavery in the United States with narratives of slavery in Estonia, where the slave-owning class was ethnically but not racially distinct from those enslaved, and where in any case the former slave-owners no longer reside in Estonia. As an outsider with a particularly acute eye for the way in which sites of former slavery have been commercialized as sites of leisure–luxury even–Kadri asks a really probing question: whether the stakes in the commercialized omission of the slave past in Estonia and in the South are the same.  SKL]

Local and International Perspectives on Memory

3 May 2014, from 10:29 am until 1.03 pm

While remembering his second journey from freedom back to enslavement, the protagonist of Caryl Philips’s novel Cambridge utters: “The horrors of this second illegal journey I have chosen to forget, although this unnatural and painful murdering of the memory has caused me distress at least as great as that suffered whilst enduring the voyage” (156). This quotation refers to both the pain of remembering, as well as to that of forgetting. The pain and discomfort Phillips is referring to, appears connected to the historic or national amnesia regarding slavery that is evident in Charleston.

The city of Charleston presents its visitors a proud picture of all of its various historical attractions as long as it omits the part of slavery. What was once a main entryway for chattel slaves to the United States is now a glamorous tourist destination with a historic colonial style downtown with odd cobble stone back streets where horse carriages stroll and gaslights flicker on the sides of houses.The tourist and an average international student are both presented a picture of an idyllic town where the past of slavery is hardly ever mentioned at all. In fact, the past of slavery is something that from an international distance is mainly connected to the rural Gone With the Wind type of plantations in the American South, and towns factor in only as far as places of escape in the North. But even for someone interested in the past heritage of slavery, finding evidence of its existence outside academia appears quite a conundrum. Plantations that offer tours advertize their beautiful architecture and new functions as hotels and restaurants and parks, but none of the mainstream information materials consulted before arriving in Charleston mention the painful and, therefore, guilt-provoking past of the town.

However, the commercialized omission of the slave past (turning old plantations into spas and hotels) is a phenomenon not limited to the American South. Many old manor houses in Estonia have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and spas. The manor stables that usually witnessed the horrific scenes of beatings are similarly renovated and brought to use as concert areas or guest houses. The information plaques on the sides of these buildings hardly ever mention the supplemental use of these buildings as the arena for the physical punishment of the enslaved.

Therefore, one is to wonder—if the past of slavery is similarly omitted from the physical or architectural world in these two different countries, are the stakes of remembering this past similar as well? This question, however, is one that results in a negative answer. The racial make up of the American society, whichis clearly connected to the slave past and which even post Civil Rights Movement determines the social status of many Americans, does not find its mirror image in Estonia’s racially non-diverse society. In Estonia the indigenous population have been able to empower themselves and claim ownership of their land and their country, when in the United States and especially in the predominantly white College of Charleston the racial divide is disturbingly noticeable in the everyday functioning of the school (this becomes evident if one were to look at the blue-collar positions on campus).

The texts that deal with the past of slavery, therefore, have a different function as well as different poetics regarding this function. The texts from the Estonian tradition that deal with slavery are usually written in a rather simplistic manner where the slave is glorified and presented as morally superior, and the master is demonized and presented as a one-dimensional evil. As the Estonian historian Marek Tamm has argued, these texts function mostly as tools for building our national consciousness and presenting the national historic myth as a continuous struggle with foreign powers towards liberation. What enables such a function is the fact that Estonians do not need to build a functioning society that needs to accommodate both the historic victims and the historic perpetrators (because the Baltic German population mostly left the country in the midst of World Wars). In the United States, however, the texts that have slavery as their central subject matter need to deal with the legacy of slavery in a way that honors the authenticity of memory and provides an arena for some kind of consolation.

That is why the questions of memory are central to the texts we read from the African American tradition. However, the centrality of memory and forgetting in most of the texts with such an international background attests to the fact that the question of remembering the past connected to slavery and the slave trade are more universal than specific to the American South in nature. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge, and Marie Nourbese Phillips’s Zong! all tackle the ghost of slavery and the painful memory of the past. Out of these three texts the creation of historic amnesia is best exemplified in Phillips’s work that presents the ways in which historic documents silence the voice and, omit the experience of the enslaved. The cruel work of remembering is thematized in Beloved and the problems of recreating the authenticity of that lost voice is best touched upon in the graphic poetry collection Zong!. All of these texts, as well as others read throughout this course, made an effort to cancel the historic amnesia written into the tourism sites of Charleston and the international sites of the slave trade in order to deal with the hard work that is connected to “beating back the past”.

Identifying with the Ghosts of the Zong — Christopher Taylor Cole

[in this essay, Christopher Cole refers to the novel Feeding the Ghosts by Guyanese-born author Fred d’Aguiar, a novel that was based on the infamous case of a slave-ship known as the Zong, whose captain threw overboard more than 130 of his captives (while they were still alive) and then claimed for the “loss” from his insurers.  The insurers refused to pay, so the case was taken to court–not with the captain (one Luke Collingwood; the equivalent of d’Aguiar’s Cunningham) as defendant on a charge of mass-murder, but with the insurers in the dock for having reneged on the insurance agreement. The courts initially found in favor of the ship’s owners, but on appeal reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the insurers. Despite strenuous efforts of noted abolitionist Granville Sharp, prompted by Olaudah Equiano, no one was ever charged with murder. The case has led to numerous other artistic and historical treatments in addition to d’Aguiar’s novel, notably Marie Nourbese Philip’s Zong!, James Walvin’s The Zong, A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery,  and Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic.  JMW Turner’s famous 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)  is commonly regarded as having been inspired by the massacre.  SKL]

22, April 2014

Start Time: 8:33am

During the course of the semester, we have read several narratives regarding the institution of slavery. As a Michigander and as a white male, I found these texts to be exhilarating and very informative since Michigan’s history is not primarily filled with slave elements. I remember learning about slavery in middle and high school, but reading these texts brought slavery more to life–which is eye-opening since it took these slave narratives to stir interest in slavery rather than non-fiction texts like the ones I was coerced to read in my History classes. Living now in South Carolina, a state that not only propelled the institution of slavery but also harbored and transported slaves throughout North America, I am able to see these places in real time and juxtapose its historical past with its historical present. For example, Sullivan’s Island used to be my favorite beach to sunbathe, but since I now know that Sullivan’s Island was once a place where transatlantic slaves were deposited after the Middle Passage before being transported to the slave markets in Charleston, I feel a little uneasy sunbathing on sand that absorbed tears, blood, and who knows what else. Though slavery in America has been abolished for many years, I feel like it lingers–almost to the point of saturation–in every nook and corner of Charleston. Walking down the street, one can still see anti-slave rebellion barbs on the wrought iron fences, street names of historical slave owners and anti-abolitionists, a fort that stands as a symbol of the Civil War and racial disparity, etc. You can still even see the markets where slaves were bought, sold, traded, and reprimanded.

As a white male northerner, I was not, and still am not, used to the history that lingers in Charleston. The subtle, yet particularly blatant at times, aspects of racism and class differences still inhabit South Carolina. For example, the active pursuit to build hotels, businesses, uptown apartments, and high-end restaurants may look like an innocent attempt to build a better Charleston, but realistically, these tactics are just legal cannon-like shells to enforce and encourage the expulsion of the black inhabitants from the city–some who have familial ties with the city for hundreds of years. Before this course, I would not have particularly noticed these things in great detail, but now that my eyes are open, I cannot help but become intricately interested and involved.

Furthermore, as a gay man, I found these texts to be speaking to more than just the savage–almost barbaric–horrors of slavery, but rather to the cumulative result of a system which continues to be at the pinnacle of power–white male patriarchy. Even though I am a white male, my sexuality makes me a minority and a target for discrimination and surveillance. In Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, Feeding the Ghosts, I connected with Mintah and her adversity since her source of struggle was not with slavery itself, but rather the laws and the enforcement of laws which benefited the white male patriarchy system and power. Even though the novel is set in the late 1700’s, D’Aguiar’s novel, to me, spoke about the anti-gay laws in the U.S. that are controlled and surveillanced by white male patriarchy. Much like the laws in the novel that leave Mintah and her fellow slaves powerless (even voiceless), laws against the LGBT community are similar since they create a liminal space of being resulting in a sense of second-class citizenship. Just like the sexual surveillance within the novel, LGBT sex is surveillanced and controlled through laws and surveillance. In several states, homosexual sex is considered a crime. In fact, recently, a few states have re-empowered and addressed their anti-sodomy laws as a symbol of continued homosexual surveillance. This may also be read as laws that continue to empower heteronormativity. Just like D’Aguiar’s characters, people of the LGBT community lose agency and are denied free will.

Mintah’s entire world is controlled by the slave system and Captain Cunningham’s avaricious drive for profit and power. To Captain Cunningham, Mintah and the other slaves aboard his ship are nothing less than cargo–no more than spices or the animals that inhabit the lower decks. In fact, they are all reduced to numbers and tallies within his ledger. Despite Mintah’s attempts to show she exists as a person instead of an item, or the crew’s plea to end the massacre, Captain Cunningham does not sway. He is, ultimately, a symbol of the slave system and its laws, white male patriarchy, and surveillance. Again, as a gay man, I viewed Captain Cunningham as similar to modern-day politicians who hold tremendous power in Congress, executive-level judges within the court system who affirm heteronormative laws, and religious figures who fuel animosity and disparity between heterosexuals and members of the LGBT community. Together, these three institutions together not only produced and empowered slavery, but also the continued oppression of LGBT individuals. Captain Cunningham, much like these individuals, uses laws to enforce his power; the courts at the end of the novel absolve Captain Cunningham and perpetuate the slave trade and the slave system, and religion in the novel is used to justify the actions that occurred on the Zong.

Much like the enslaved Africans on the Zong, the LGBT community are “caged” in by the homophobic laws that encourage discrimination, dehumanization, and even violence. Also, much as in the case of the Zong, these laws and systems perpetuate injustices that are created, managed, and controlled by people who are not members of the community that are affected. Who gets to determine who is a slave and who is a slave-holder? Who gets to determine if someone can marry someone s/he loves? Mintah and the slaves, to me, represent more than just slavery. They are my fellow LGBT brothers and sisters. They are the past, present, and future gays, lesbians, transgendered, gender-queer, and bisexuals. They are–metaphorically, spiritually, and symbolically–me.

I felt this connection with Mintah and the black slave community when Mintah first attempts to resist Captain Cunningham and Kelsal. She separates herself from the collective whole and defies Captain Cunningham and Kelsal–saving two children. Once their feet touch the ground, the two children run to the collective whole and the collective whole protects them by shielding them. In this way, Mintah becomes a symbol of resistance much as queer figures have–such as Harvey Milk, Ellen Degeneres, etc. The collective whole in the novel, to me, is just like the LGBT community. Comparing the collective whole and Mintah with the LGBT community, both adhere to the same principle–the community helps the individual, and the individual helps the community. With her bellicose nature, Mintah protects the collective whole by attempting to free them from their chains. Interestingly also, the collective whole protects Mintah by hiding her from Kelsal and the other Zong sailors. This phenomenon also occurs in the LGBT community.

Though this course specifically encompassed the institution of slavery and its history, I–with my Northern-Michigander-White-Gay-Male concepts, beliefs, and precepts–related to these texts in a particular way based on my particular situation. As a gay white male in an exceedingly religious southern state, I am able to identify with these slave narratives and their stories despite time, space, gender, race, and even religion because their struggle parallels my struggles–struggles with unjust laws, obtusely religious zealots who use religion as a force to propel their own hate, racism, and agendas, and discrimination. Whether the character was Aminata from Hill’s Someone Knows My Name or Equiano himself, I saw aspects of myself in them. I was able to glimpse into the past to characters who have lost their stories, their voice, and their own sense of self through the power of white male patriarchy and ability to manipulate history.

Stop Time: 10:45am

 

Plantation Mentality Still Exists–Meredith Chance

[this is the first of the promised exam essays by students in my ENGL 517 class entitled “Narratives of Slavery.”  Throughout the semester, our discussion had been informed by news items that attested to the lasting legacy of slavery and the attitudes to race connected with that legacy. Meredith Chance’s essay picks up on just such a news item that broke between the end of the semester and the exam itself.  SL]

Plantation Mentality Still Exists

[April 30, 2014 – 6:45 p.m.]

This week, NBA Clippers team owner Donald Sterling was accused of being an “antebellum slave master… [who] makes money off blacks but doesn’t see them as equals deserving of respect” (Broussard). Twitter rants are common, though they are not usually directed at owners of major athletic franchises whose teams are currently in the league playoffs, and those rants especially aren’t issued by respected ESPN analysts. One would imagine the behavior of Sterling must have been pretty reprehensible to be called out nationally, and it was. Sterling was recorded telling his mixed-race girlfriend, “Don’t bring black people [to my games].” She asked him if he realized he has a whole team of players who are black, and he said, “…do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?” (Wagner). Through these statements, Sterling exemplifies this generation’s virtual slave owner. He said, “I don’t want to change the culture
because I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t want to change” (Wagner).

Should we find this behavior appalling? Of course, we all should. Do we actually? I’m
not sure. These kinds of comments seemingly occur often, and in fact, Sterling has been at it for many years. In a 2009 wrongful-termination lawsuit that was eventually rejected, former Clippers general manager and NBA legend Elgin Baylor claimed that Sterling had a “plantation mentality” (Manfred) From the lawsuit, Sterling said, “Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players” (Manfred). Sterling seems to embody the racist slave owners we have met throughout the semester, though he doesn’t quite meet the gentility of Garner or the cruelty of schoolteacher. He is somewhere in between, allowing his “players” to believe they are acting on their own accord, but in reality, they are like marionettes, controlled by Sterling and his capital. Theoretically, his players are similar to very well-paid slaves: they are owned, they have no say in their owner’s treatment of them, they must fulfill their daily duties as outlined in their contracts, and they cannot “escape” due to contractual obligations. Even their rebellion had to be silent, taking their warm-up jackets off and turning their team shirts inside out to hide the team logo. They understand they must act in a particular manner in order not to receive punishment, much like the myriad of slaves we encountered in our texts.

Sterling was also recorded telling his girlfriend, “There’s no racism here. If you don’t want to be walking into a basketball game with a certain person, is that racism?” (Wagner). Yes, Sterling, that’s racism. He finally made these “mistakes” on a mainstream level, inciting the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, to bring down the hammer and ban him from basketball for life. But, does banning him, forcing him to sell his team (and potentially make more than a $650+ million profit), and imposing a meagre $2.5 million fine make it all better? Certainly not. Men like Sterling embarrass those of us “whites” who have completely differing opinions on race and racism.

Before this course, I’m not sure how much I would have paid attention to the Sterling
mess. I probably would have written him off as some generic rich, racist, jerk, but I would not have sought out articles and reviewed stories of his past behavior. I want to get in his head, jump around, and jumble all his thoughts up so he can see how much pain this inflicts on those he degrades. He essentially says that we live in a world where racism is dominant and believes there’s nothing he can or wants to do to change it, so why bother trying. If everyone held those beliefs, we would still own slaves in South Carolina. We would not have progressed at all. But, dear Sterling, not all of us feel the way you do, and some of us do want to make a change. Sterling has been accused of “parading” his players in front of women and has commented, “Look at those beautiful black bodies” (Manfred). He sounds like a slave trader at an auction, putting his men on the block and encouraging would-be slave owners to value them based on their bodies alone. Sterling has essentially fallen into every stereotypical slave owner trap set up for him.

This country, and especially this region in which we currently reside, has a history of
ignoring racism, or sweeping it under the rug, in hopes that it will just go away. People in the South don’t seem to realize that things don’t change on their own; people change things. I generalize when I say that many southerners are torn between wanting to forget slavery and needing to remember it. Incidents like Sterling’s remind us that we haven’t come very far in the whole scheme of things. I’ve lived in SC most of my life, and I’ve known many people like Sterling, and I’ve also known many who claim to be his opposite. People can say whatever they want, but it’s their actions that speak loudest.

Returning to graduate school in Charleston at the grand mature age of 28 has given me
more worldly insight than I may have had immediately following my undergraduate education from rural Clemson. This course has made me think back to my childhood, to those friendships I had because I loved the people for themselves and not because of some set of beliefs instilled in me. My childhood African-American friend, Patrice, stands out in my mind. We had a pool in my backyard growing up, and not until one of my neighbors made a comment about her not being able to get her hair wet did I even realize Patrice was any different from my other “white” friends. But, many years later, I still remember that comment, and I can picture Patrice using a kickboard and paddling around the perimeter of our pool at my seventh birthday party to avoid getting her hair wet. That comment has always bothered me because why did it have to be pointed out that she was any different from the other partygoers? The ignorance we had as children seems almost refreshing.

Deborah Seddon says that Sethe holds the Bodwins and all white people responsible for
schoolteachers’ actions, and it’s possible to see how she believes this. But, are we all still held responsible today? Or, is it more realistic to say that schoolteacher is responsible for all of our actions? We should have learned from his mistakes and his ignorance, but, clearly, as shown by Sterling, it didn’t all sink in. The Bodwins, in a way, remind me of Donald Sterling in that they appear as one thing and act as another. The Bodwins appear to be “teammates” with the escaped and freed slaves, though that figurine on their table still bothers me. The one:
Sitting on a shelf by the back door, a blackboy’s mouth full of money. His head
thrown back farther than a head could go, his hands were shoved in his pockets.
Bulging like moons, two eyes were all the face he had above the gaping red
mouth. His hair was a cluster of raised, widely spaced dots made of nail heads.
And he was on his knees. His mouth, wide as a cup, held the coins needed to pay
for a delivery or some other small service, but could just as well have held
buttons, pins or crab-apple jelly. Painted across the pedestal he knelt on were the
words ‘At Yo Service’. (Morrison 300)
Morrison’s depiction of this terrible figurine shows us that even well-meaning whites can’t
escape the bits of racist behavior and thoughts that exist within us. Morrison’s thinly veiled statement that no white person is a good white person bothers me, as I suppose it should. I’m reading it in today’s context, but Morrison means it in a wholly different context. All white people were to blame for Morrison’s text, and all white people were complicit in slavery or racism.

To me, my grandfather exists as a stereotypical old, white, well-off, Charlestonian who is
blind to the progress that has been made in race relations in the last 75 years. But, he’s blind because he chooses to be blind. I do not, nor have I ever, allowed him to get away with racist comments in my presence, but I’ve witnessed others just laugh them off. I know his comments make them feel awkward, but how do you tell your 85 year-old elder that he’s wrong? It’s strange to think that I categorize his, infrequent mind you, statements as either “not so bad” or “offensive” because they are all bad, and they are all offensive, even if they are few and far between. While I do not believe we should be to blame for the behaviors and injustices of our ancestors, we can attempt to rectify the future and prevent further damage. I believe South Carolina, and Charleston specifically, is a place similar to South Africa in which “legislation has changed but the sociopolitical and emotional landscape remains haunted by racism and in thrall to the past” (Seddon 33).

Eusebius McKaiser suggests, “It is all South Africans’ duty to engage each other as
equals both within the public and private spheres” (Seddon 35), and I believe Charlestonians could adhere to his advice as well. Racism is, and continues to be, an issue among white and black people. How can we right the wrongs of those who were responsible for the terrible atrocities of slavery? How can we move on as a society if blame is still placed and if shame is still held? People in today’s world are finally getting around to accepting things/behaviors/ideas that our grandparents would not or could not understand: sexuality, lifestyles, policies, reforms, and much more. Why not add race relations to it? Shame and regret are hard to overcome, but isn’t it time we tried harder than we’ve ever tried? As my term paper identifies, talking about slavery is the only way to heal. So, while we are all present in the middle of a major historical city in the system of slavery, let’s talk about its past. Barbara Applebaum believes that “no white person can claim to stand outside of the system of racist oppression. Privilege speaks through white people—even when we do not intend it” (Seddon 36). White people need not to be
numb to what we say; we need to be cognizant and aware of all potential racist beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in order to promote communal healing. We should not be like Denver and only desire to know the history of our own pasts; we should want to know all of our history.

The novels we have read bring attention the atrocities of slavery and identify that our behavior has repercussions. I know that my mind has been opened up because of this course and the reading of these texts, so I would imagine others’ could be as well. In an age where it’s “cool” to think outside the box and to be an individual, why not bring slave history back into focus and mainstream discussion? Instead of choosing something insignificant to stand behind, stand up for this important issue and this important history.

[April 30, 2014 – 9:36 p.m.]

Works Cited

Broussard, Chris (Chris_Broussard). “Donald Sterling has the mentality of an antebellum
slave master: he makes $ off Blacks but doesn’t see them as equals deserving of               respect.”  26 April 2014, 2:10 p.m. Tweet.

Manfred, Tony. Business Insider. 28 April 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.

Seddon, Deborah. “’Be a Mighty Hard Message’: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the
Exploration of Whiteness in the Post-Apartheid Classroom.” Safundi: The Journal of
     South African and American Studies 15.1 (2014): 29-52. Academic Search Complete.
Web. 2. Feb. 2014.

Wagner, Kyle. Deadspin. 27 April 2014. Web. 29 April 2014.

“Narratives of Slavery” class yields amazingly powerful, thoughtful responses

It’s been a very long time since I actually posted anything on this blog–the actual programming of the Project technically stopped, after all, with the end of 2013–but here’s something that readers will, I hope find interesting and appropriate even if it’s a bit tangential to the Project proper.

This last semester I taught a graduate class–my first in many years at the College of Charleston–entitled “Narratives of Slavery.” My aim with the course was to go beyond simply having the students become familiar with what have become canonical texts (e.g., Douglass, Jacobs, Stowe) and think about the whole process of narrativizing slavery–how do we write slavery into (and out of) being, how do we use narratives of slavery for the purpose of abolition, what happens when we write particular narratives of slavery, what gets written out of the history of slavery when particular narratives become dominant, how do contemporary narratives of slavery feed into and compare with historical accounts, how do historical accounts feed into historical fiction, and so on? So we started by looking for particular tropes in 18th-century poetry and prose and by reading some of Hayden White‘s theorizing about the role of narrative in history-writing.  One of the things that immediately jumps out as you do this reading is the reiterative nature of so much of it–the image of the Brookes, for instance, reproduced almost every time the Middle Passage is discussed, is a visual version of this trope of repetition–but textually much the same thing happens. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, for instance, itself derivative in many places of earlier writers (e.g., Benezet) gets repeated in summary over and over again in historians’ accounts of the trade. We have the Slave Voyages Database to give us a sense of the breadth of the trade now, but when historians move to narrativize the trade, Equiano’s account, whether or not it is accepted as “authentic,” is the go-to text.

Those are just a couple of examples of the way narrativizing slavery produces something remarkably singular, surprisingly narrow.  And my sense was, in the United States, that this remarkably singular, surprisingly narrow dominant narrative of a fundamentally transnational process has folded an Atlantic experience into the national story, the story of “slavery” (singluar) in the United States . And following the singularizing of the the story of slavery in the US, we also have a singular story of abolition, and eventually a singular progression fromJim Crow, through the Civil Rights era, to the presidency of Barack Obama.  Perhaps I’m in danger myself here of reproducing that narrative and perhaps I’m in danger of singularizing the singularizing process, but it was the consciousness that this singular story with its strong sense of teleology and progress tends to discourage truly critical thought that made me pick texts that would disrupt the national and teleological one.

Hence, my selection of texts that stressed both the local and the global. Here in Charleston, South Carolina, of course, Equiano himself plays into this strategy. Unquestionably an “Atlantic Creole,” the possibility that he may have been born in South Carolina rather than south-eastern Nigeria doesn’t just raise fascinating questions in general about “authenticity” and (ghost-) writing, but specifically prompts questions not just about Charleston as “Slavery Central” but also about the suppression of that particular story, the loss of the particular local story in the generic national one (when, for instance, Equiano enters the canon of African American literature). In any case, as an effort to re-localize the narratives, the class read Susanna Ashton’s collection of South Carolina slave narratives entitled I Belong to South Carolina. While Equiano’s autobiography has its own interesting narrative as a lost-and-found text, having all but vanished from sight through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, it is truly remarkable historiographically (though totally predictable ideologically) that nobody had previously collected a set of South Carolina slave narratives until Ashton and her students did so in 2010.

One feature that the collection brings out is the variety of experiences people had under this singular system we call “slavery.”  Even in this one relatively small state, the conditions people endured varied not just according to time, across the nearly two centuries of legal slavery in South Carolina, and place (plantation, city, Lowcountry, Midlands, Upcountry), but according to gender, religious affiliation, and so on. More pertinently for the students in the class, especially the South Carolina ones, these texts made the story of slavery intensely local and intensely personal. The writers in I Belong to South Carolina name names: towns, streets, and, most particularly, families. South Carolina’s a small state; families, like many in the South, have shown a strong attraction to place, and  have stayed put. So you see a familiar name, you have to ask: is my friend x related to those guys, should I presume that white friend y is descended from slave-owners as automatically as I can assume that black friend z has to be descended from someone once ensnared in slavery?

In any case, reading the narratives in I Belong to South Carolina sensitized the students to the local-ness of slavery, and to the deliberate erasure of those narratives from our textual and visual landscape. So it was an amazing gift when in February a statue was quietly unveiled in Hampton Park to Denmark Vesey, leader of an alleged slave uprising in 1822–with minimal prior publicity locally and almost no coverage nationally; and it was an even more amazing gift in April when another statue was unveiled, with much greater hoop-la and wider national coverage (the Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the event), to federal judge William Waties Waring who in the late 40s and early 50s drove a stake through the heart of the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had legitimated racial discrimination in the former Confederacy through the first half of the twentieth century. Not all of the students had previously heard of Denmark Vesey–not one had heard of Waties Waring until they’d read about him courtesy of an extract from The Atlantic Sound by St. Kitts-born, black British author Caryl Phillips.  Even more surprisingly, none had heard of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, ether, so it is easy to see how the notion that South Carolinian race relations were not as violent as those of Alabama or Mississippi, say, has been perpetuated by the deliberate suppression of information in schools and public discourse: the national story’s sidelining  of South Carolina has provided a very ready alibi in this process.

On the other hand, it was imperative in the course to point out that recognizing that South Carolina was Slavery Central should not provide an alibi for the national story’s teleological embrace of abolitionism. Up to the end of the eighteenth century, slavery (legal slavery, that is, or slavery as an acceptable part of a given society’s structure) was ubiquitous; racism was not invented in the southern states of the USA or unique to those states, and racism does not only occur on a simply binary basis of self/non-self. Reading Ama Ata Aidoo‘s plays Dilemma of  a Ghost and Anowa in relation to extracts from Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother opened students’ eyes to the complexity of African/African-American relationships, and the complexity of memory in particular local sites within that other falsely singular space called “Africa.”  That Hartman and Henry Louis Gates both referred to the way in which local Ghanaian children use the repetition of a particular narrative of slavery to get money out of (African)-American visitors again reinforced the manner in which repetition and erasure complicate any notion of authenticity.

By the time we got to one of the most predictable choices of texts on the syllabus, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the students were already well primed to approach that by now classic text in a different light. I had told them about the visit Toni Morrison had made to Charleston in July of 2008, the 200th anniversary of the banning of the international slave trade, as part of the Toni Morrison Society’s 5th biennial conference. On that occasion, Ms Morrison had dedicated the first “Bench by the Road” memorial at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, the site of the “pest houses” where captive Africans had been quarantined before transfer to mainland Charleston for sale into slavery. I had told them how coverage by the New York Times of Morrison’s visit and her dedication of the bench exemplified what we’d been talking about the narrowing of the national story. When the Times published their piece on the visit, the featured picture was of the magnificent, smiling Ms Morrison on the bench–it was the image of a celebrity justly satisfied with a completed task. What did not appear on that page were other photographs that told a different story, not of a completed once-upon-a-time history, but of an ongoing, here-and-now history continuous with the stories of physical and psychological violence of racism that provide the stuff of Morrison’s extraordinary narrative art.  What the Times might have put on their front-page was a photograph of Ms Morrison seated alongside Thomalind Polite and her daughter Faith, seventh- and eight-generation descendants, respectively, of a child known only as Priscilla who was shipped from Bunce Island in Sierra Leone to Charleston in 1756. The family that Priscilla started on a plantation owned by Elias Ball has lived continuously since 1756 in the Goose Creek area where the Balls had made their fortunes off slave-grown rice.

However, it wasn’t a local angle that came to drive our discussion of Beloved, but a global one.  In another amazingly fortuitous gift in the timing of this course, I happened to receive a copy of the latest issue of Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies a matter of weeks before we were to read Beloved. In this issue, Deborah Seddon, a lecturer at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, had published a really thought-provoking article on her experience teaching Beloved to South African students in post-apartheid South Africa, a site whose history of racism, and more particularly whose history of the memory and forgetting of racism resonated with Charleston’s as people in both sites are urged to move on into the sunlit uplands of a supposedly “post-racial” society.

It was Seddon’s article that prompted me to set an unusual “exam” for my students.  I asked them to write an essay loosely modeled on Seddon’s: that is, to write me an essay critically reflecting on their experience of having taken this particular course at this particular time and in this particular place.  In order to ensure academic rigor, they were to emulate Seddon’s article by focusing on a particular text, by framing their own experience of the course in relation to contemporary theoretical debates about race, writing and difference, and by explicitly addressing their own positionality.  They were to take no more than three hours to write this essay. The results of this “exam” exceeded my expectations by some margin. They were without exception deeply deeply thoughtful, amazingly well constructed, and powerfully eloquent and richly deserving of a wider readership than their teacher alone. With my students’ permission, therefore, I am going to publish their essays on the Jubilee Project blog-site. I believe you will understand why as you read them over.

(I will publish the essays separately with a gap of a day or two between posts so as not to overwhelm any readers of this blog at one time. The essays will be published in no particular order.)