“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.)

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