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Hispanic Studies Faculty Transition to New Career Phases

Posted by: Mark Del Mastro | July 3, 2014 Comments Off |

Effective summer 2014, three outstanding faculty members of the Department of Hispanic Studies transitioned to new phases in their professional careers.

Dr. Herberto Espinoza, Associate Professor of Spanish, retired as Emeritus Faculty after 27 years of service to the College.  Model teacher, respected scholar and past Chair of the then-Department of Spanish and Italian from 1995-98, Professor Espinoza will now enjoy his retirement with family in South Carolina.

Professor Karen Berg, Senior Instructor of Spanish, also retired as Emeritus Faculty after 24 years teaching Spanish language and literature at the College.  Six years after joining the CofC faculty in 1990, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts.  Dr. Berg’s steadfast rigor in the classroom and loyal service to the College of Charleston will not be lost as she will return to teach two classes in the fall of 2014 as an adjunct instructor.

Finally, Dr. Benjamin Fraser, Associate Professor of Spanish, accepted a position as Professor and Chair of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department at East Carolina University effective July 1, 2014.  A remarkably prolific scholar, an innovative teacher and a tireless editor of multiple journals, Professor Fraser will now lead his own academic department in Greenville, North Carolina.

We are grateful to the invaluable contributions of all three professors, and we wish them the best of luck during these next stages in their admirable careers.

under: Faculty News

Dr. Del Mastro Participates in XV CILEC in Madrid, Spain

Posted by: Mark Del Mastro | June 24, 2014 Comments Off |

Professor Mark Del Mastro participated in the 15th annual International Conference of Contemporary Spanish Literature (CILEC) at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain (June 23-25, 2014), where he presented his study “Carmen Laforet y el décimo aniversario de Al volver la esquina.”  He was also an invited panelist in the round table session entitled “La literatura española por el mundo.”

under: Student News

David Brion Davis’s Final Word on Slavery and Emancipation

Posted by: lewiss2013 | June 23, 2014 Comments Off |

David Brion Davis recently published The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the third volume in a trilogy of books on the history of slavery in Western culture. The first one came out nearly fifty years ago, so this last one is the culmination and distillation of a life’s work. What’s so cool about it is that it is dedicated to the ending of slavery, the history of emancipation from the Haitian Revolution through to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in the US. The reference to the Haitian Revolution also indicates something important about Davis’s angle: that he’s not focusing on conscientious white abolitionists and what Marcus Wood calls “the horrible gift of freedom“, but on the role of black abolitionists. The book is well worth the read. For a fuller account, you can read my review in the Charleston Post and Courier.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

under: Jubilee Project


(applications due June 18, 2014)

Brockington and Associates is seeking an experienced archaeological field and lab technician based in our Mt Pleasant, SC office. The position requires an individual with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology, anthropology, or a related field, and a minimum of field school or the equivalent field experience.
This job will require the successful applicant to perform both field and laboratory duties as needed.
Work schedule will include 40 hour weeks. No overtime is expected on these assignments. We will provide vehicles for daily travel between the project area and the office. Single- occupancy hotel rooms and meal allowance are provided when traveling is required. Brockington offers benefits including, health and dental insurance, 401K and paid vacation

About the Job:

Field responsibilities include the ability to conduct shovel testing and/or other unit excavations, artifact identification, note-taking, recording soil and other observations, field photography, use of handheld Global Positioning Systems devices, and general tasks under the direction of the Project Manager. Travel, physical labor, and time spent in outdoor conditions are a requirement of this job.
Lab responsibilities include complete processing of archaeological specimens (washing, labeling, cataloging, etc.) The successful applicant conducts all aspects of the management of archaeological collections including inventorying and preparation for long-term curation: primary sorting and preliminary analysis of archaeological artifacts, maintaining and verifying specimen logs and other documentation on archaeological projects, data entry, updating and verification of the archaeological database. Other responsibilities include assisting with and becoming familiar with more detailed artifact analysis, monitoring and upkeep the ongoing electrolysis conservation projects, artifact photography using digital imaging system, preparing related archival materials for long-term curation, and performing other related duties as assigned.

Full/Part-time: Full-time

Driving required: Yes

Application due date: Applications must be received no later than 5:00 pm on June 18 or they will not be processed or considered.


under: News

Dr. Owens’ Book Chapter Appears in _Letras en la celda_

Posted by: Mark Del Mastro | June 16, 2014 Comments Off |

Professor Sarah Owens’ book chapter entitled “Monjas españolas en Filipinas: la formación de lectura y escritura de sor Ana de Cristo” has been published by Iberoamericana Editorial Vervuert in a new volume on nuns called Letras en la celda: Cultura escrita de los conventos femeninos en la España moderna.

under: Faculty News, Research

Student Leah Theoharidis in San Marcos, Honduras

Posted by: Mark Del Mastro | June 3, 2014 Comments Off |

Spanish major and Sigma Delta Pi member Leah Theoharidis will be in San Marcos, Honduras this summer with family to participate in Cape Cares, medical mission.

under: Student, Student News

Director Proud of Avery’s Role in Celebrating Black Life

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | June 2, 2014 Comments Off |


30 May 2014 | 10:29 am By:

Patricia Williams Lessane has served as executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston since August 2010.

Patricia Williams Lessane

Before joining the College, Lessane was a faculty member at Roosevelt University and a consultant for The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Fisk University, a master’s in liberal studies from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D in Anthropology from University of Illinois at Chicago.

Q: As a cultural anthropologist, one of your research focuses is on Black life in popular culture. Can you talk about this topic in the context of what you have accomplished at Avery?

A: I think our public programs — specifically the conferences, film screenings, and public lectures — best reflect my interest in Black life in popular culture and the intersection of race, class, and gender in Black life. We’ve been able to bring some of the best minds to the College, including Drs. Harry and Michelle Elam (Stanford University), Dr. Joyce Ann Joyce (Temple University), Dr. Cathy Cohen (University of Chicago), filmmaker Julie Dash, and Dr. Johnetta Cole (Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art) to name a few.

Q: What are some of your current projects?

A: I teach every semester. It gives me the opportunity to connect with our students, and I enjoy talking to them and discussing the topics I am passionate about. I teach courses in African American Studies and Anthropology, including African American Society and Culture, Black Bodies in Television and Film, and The Peoples and Cultures of Africa. Next spring (2015), I will teach a First Year Seminar course on the Great Migration.

Patricia Williams Lessane with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

I am co-editing with Dr. Conseula Francis, an anthology of essays on the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, and co-editing with Dr. Violet Johnson (University of Texas College Station) and Dr. Gundolf Graml (Agnes Scott College) a volume of essays, Deferred Dreams, Defiant Struggles: Critical Perspectives on Blackness, Belonging and Civil Rights (part of the FORECAAST Series by the Collegium of African American Research).

I am working on an essay about the 50th anniversary of Nothing But a Man, a film by Michael Roemer and Michael Young. And, I am so excited about our recent NEA award to develop a documentary about the remarkable life and work of Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor. So I will be making a film with Julie Dash!

I am equally thrilled that our 2014 symposium, “The Marrow of Tradition: The Black Film in the American Cinematic Tradition,” will screen and highlight the work of African American filmmakers and generate critical dialogue about the Black film tradition and the salient ways issues of race, class, gender, oppression, resistance, and liberation struggles have historically inculcated in the work of radical pioneers of race film and many that followed.

We take our name from Charles Chestnutt’s remarkable novel of the same title. A fearless commentator on racial violence and injustice, Chestnutt’s novel chronicles the events, which lead up to a fictional race riot in Wellington, North Carolina.

RELATED: Read a 2011 profile of Lessane in The Post and Courier.

Q: What object, story, or person associated with Avery has had a strong impact on you and why?

A: I have spent a good deal of time on the papers of Dr. Millicent E. Brown, so I’ve gotten to know a great deal about her life and work in civil rights and as a Black pedagogue. While I haven’t done any research on the Septima P. Clark collection, I am just so proud to be able to say that we have it. She is such an important figure in African American history, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Charleston.

Most recently, I used the Joseph Towles Collection for my Anthropology 322 course — The Peoples and Cultures of Africa. It’s such a rich collection. As an anthropologist, having the work of anthropological luminary Colin Turnbull -a brilliant but unsung African American anthropologist — at my fingertips is truly an added bonus of working here. My dream is to develop a mixed media traveling exhibit about Towles.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about Avery?

A: Three of our Avery staff members are headed to the Ivy Leagues this summer! I am headed to the Harvard Institute of Higher Education Management Development Program, and Mary Battle and Shelia Harrell-Roye will both be at Yale for the Yale Public History Institute.

 RELATED: Watch a 2011 video interview with Lessane.
under: News

Why It’s Time for a New Rhetoric about Race

Posted by: lewiss2013 | May 30, 2014 Comments Off |

[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.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

under: Jubilee Project

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

Posted by: lewiss2013 | May 29, 2014 Comments Off |

[{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.


Filed under: Jubilee Project

under: Jubilee Project

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

Posted by: lewiss2013 | May 28, 2014 Comments Off |

[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.




Filed under: Jubilee Project

under: Jubilee Project

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