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CSSC Faculty Studying Slavery: Simon Lewis

By Grayson Harris
Posted on 27 October 2020 | 11:39 am — 

Simon Lewis, Professor & Speaker of the Faculty Senate at the College of Charleston

This post, written by Simon Lewis, is the first of a series that documents work studying slavery by faculty members of the CSSC.

I joined the English Department at CofC in August 1996 as an Assistant Professor of World Literature, specializing in African literature. From the outset of my time here I was fascinated by the history of Charleston and the depths of its connections with West Africa — not just through the brutal experience of slavery, but also as a result of other cultural connections and legacies visible and audible in architecturedesignlanguage and speech patternsmusic, and so on. In fact, one of the earliest pieces of writing I had published after coming here was a piece for the College magazine entitled “The Africanness of Charleston.”

Just before I arrived at CofC, the College had established a new interdisciplinary program known as the CLAW Program–the program in the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World. The program’s first directors set up the annual pattern of events that CLAW has put on pretty much ever since – with faculty seminars, guest lectures, panel sessions, film screenings each semester, plus, most years, an academic conference. Through this extensive programming I have gradually learned more and more about the history of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World in general and the specific history of slavery and its legacy here in Charleston. I’m proud to have been an associate director and director of the program on and off since about 2000, and grateful to have been able to contribute to the program’s impressive scholarly output, which now includes more than 20 books published either in the USC Press Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World series or by other academic presses, including the University Press of Florida, Louisiana State University Press, the University Press of Mississippi, and Purdue University Press. The 2017 Hines Prize-winning manuscript (awarded for a first manuscript on a Carolina Lowcountry and/or Atlantic World topic) was published by Cambridge University Press.

Front cover of Simon Lewis & David Gleeson’s edited collection, The Civil War As Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War

Many of these titles have derived from major international conferences, covering topics such as the impact of the Haitian Revolution, manumission, the banning of the international slave trade, and maroonage. Many of the conferences have had significant public involvement and outreach, perhaps none more so than the 2017 “Transforming Public History” conference, which featured a keynote lecture by Smithsonian Director Lonnie Bunch in the Mother Emanuel Church. The 2018 Reconstruction conference started with the unveiling of a historical marker on Meeting Street commemorating the remarkably progressive 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. Earlier conferences had included the unveiling of the first “Bench by the Road” by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison (2008), moving ceremonies in honor of the dead of the Middle Passage (2013), and in memory of the dead of the US Civil War (2015), the latter featuring a homily by State Senator, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, so viciously assassinated two months later.

Poster for the 2013 Jubilee Project, by SC artist Leo Twiggs.

My own role in all of these events has generally been that of something like an intellectual impresario, hosting and coordinating established scholars through series like the Wells Fargo Distinguished Public Lecture Series, but the experience has also influenced my own teaching and writing. In 2013, for instance, as an outgrowth of my coordination of the Jubilee Project SC, commemorating emancipation and educational access in Charleston in the 1860s and 1960s, I taught a graduate seminar on narratives of slavery. That course produced some stunning work by my students and gave me the material for an essay of my own on what it meant to teach such a course in Charleston, SC—Slavery Central.

Having forged partnerships and connections with institutions studying slavery around the world, the CLAW Program’s work valuably complements the work of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, and I am thrilled that the College is formally represented by the CSSC in the Universities Studying Slavery consortium.

If you are interested in learning more about slavery in an Atlantic World context, please spend some time on the CLAW website, and consider checking out the Addlestone Library’s compendious CLAW Libguide.

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