“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.)

Filed under: Charleston, SC, Jubilee Project, Slavery

Julian Bond to Speak at College of Charleston — Friday February 7th at 6pm

Although Julian Bond may not get as much press as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, et al., he was a seriously important figure during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Please, if you possibly can, pitch up to Physicians Auditorium on George Street this evening at 6 to hear what he has to say about how far we’ve come in the last 50 years and what still remains to do.


Filed under: Jubilee Project

Exhibitions in Charleston and Greenville

A couple of great exhibitions of interest to Jubilee Project followers have recently opened in the Lowcountry and in the Upstate.

Here in Charleston, you can take in a remarkable art show featuring the beautiful work of Doris Colbert Kennedy, curated by Jonathan Green. Kathleen Curry in the most recent issue of the Charleston City Paper describes Ms Kennedy’s work as inspired by her reading about quantum physics, but her paintings have nothing of the academic about them beyond their titles: they are characterized as Curry writes by “rich, multi-layered colors” and have a vibrancy and movement that makes them feasts for the eyes.

The show, which also features work by Alvin Staley and Amiri Farris, is on display at Charleston’s City Gallery at Waterfront Park–surely one of the most beautifully situated art galleries around–and runs from January 25th through March 9th. For further details, call the gallery at 843-958-6484. You can read the City Paper‘s preview here.

For those in the Upstate, Furman University’s Upcountry History Museum, located at 540 Buncombe Street in Greenville, just opened a terrific exhibition entitled “Protests, Prayers, and Progress: Greenville’s Civil Rights Movement.”  The exhibition documents the struggles and victories of upstate civil rights activists of the 1960s.

As the recent Charleston historic marker series indicated, the story of South Carolina’s civil rights movement often gets lost in the broader national narrative.  South Carolinians, however, also did courageous and principled work to integrate this state’s institutions–our schools, our churches, our lunch counters. “Protests, Prayers, and Progress” allows visitors to the Museum to follow the journey of the activists whose commitment and bravery helped to lead Greenville out of the era of segregation.

The exhibition will be on display from January 18th to June 15th. For more details, click here or call the Museum at 864-467-3100.





Filed under: Art Exhibition, Charleston, SC, Civil Rights Movement, Desegregation, Upcoming Events

“Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle” — series of events scheduled for North Augusta, SC

If you have family, friends, or acquaintances in the area from Aiken, SC to Augusta, GA, please share the following information.  All events are free.
“Created Equal:  America’s Civil Rights Struggle”
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History have developed this special project as part of its Bridging Cultures initiative in order to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The project is intended to guide public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in U.S. history.
The Nancy Carson Library in North Augusta, SC has been  selected as one of 500 national sites to present a film series and discussions on topics related to various civil rights issues.  Events are scheduled throughout the month of January….. Please click on the link below for more information:  http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs164/1113040920538/archive/1115943439563.html

Filed under: Jubilee Project

Jubilee Project Wrap-up and Future

Jubilee Project wrap-up discussion, College of Charleston, November 19th, 2013.   Pictured (facing camera, left to right): Mike Coker, and Simon Lewis; (with backs to camera, from right to left): Jack Bass, Deni Mitchell, Jonathan Green, and Aurora Harris. On the screen is a map of South Carolina showing all the former rice plantations -- http://www.ricekingdom.com/plantationmap.html.

Jubilee Project wrap-up discussion, College of Charleston, November 19th, 2013. Pictured (facing camera, left to right): Richard Ogden, Mike Coker, and Simon Lewis; (with backs to camera, from right to left): Jack Bass, Deni Mitchell, Jonathan Green, and Aurora Harris. On the screen is a map of South Carolina showing all the former rice plantations — http://www.ricekingdom.com/plantationmap.html.

On November 19th, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in 1863, a small gathering of Jubilee Project stalwarts met at the College of Charleston to discuss where we have been and where we go next.  Emerging from our discussions, we have decided that next semester, Margaret Mauk will put together a physical scrap-book along with a digital version to record as fully as possible the key events of our Year of Jubilee.  If you have physical artifacts–invitations, programs, flyers, newspaper clippings, etc. –that you would like us to include in the scrapbook, please send them to me as soon as possible c/o the Department of English, College of Charleston, 66 George Street, Charleston, SC 29424-0001.  Likewise, if you would like to write a report or a review of any of the events that made up the Jubilee Project, or if you would like to write a reflection on the Project, please send those to me via e-mail at lewiss@cofc.edu.  We will offer the physical scrapbook to the Special Collections department of the Addlestone Library for safe-keeping and for use by future researchers, and hope to have the digital version accepted by the Low  Country Digital Library.

During the meeting on the 19th, I referred to a planning charrette held back in 2007, and pointed out that many of the goals identified by that charrette to overcome the acknowledgment gap that exists between public recognition of white and black contributions to local history have been achieved, at least in part. Aurora Harris’s stellar work with the Preservation Society , for instance, made major contributions to publicly acknowledging African American contributions to area history. But there is much more to be done. As such, we decided that one way the Jubilee Project could remain effective beyond this year of multiple anniversaries would be as a kind of clearing-house for all kinds of events to do with emancipation and educational access. Accordingly, I invite you all to keep on sending me details of any events that might be in the spirit of the Jubilee Project in the coming months and years.  I will attempt to maintain a calendar on this blog-site and will continue to make postings to the Facebook page.

Finally, please be on the look-out for a number of ambitious events coming up in the future: the 2015 commemoration of the end of the Civil War (May 1st, 2015?); a major conference on slave port cities and public memory (March 2016); and a conference on South Carolina’s Reconstruction Constitution (March 2018).

In the meantime, if you’re in Charleston this New Year, please do consider attending one of the many Watch Night services, and join us for the annual Emancipation Day Parade.

Thank you all for your support over the last year and for your participation in the Jubilee Project.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

NPR Feature on a Photo History of Slavery in Brazil

While we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation in the United States, we’d also like to remember that slavery in the Americas did not end completely until 1888 when Brazil finally abolished slavery. Although photographic processes had been around since at least 1838, technological improvements in the later half of the nineteenth-century allowed slavery in Brazil to be photographed in greater detail. However, it was not until recently that the images were enlarged to show the brutal truths of slavery. A new exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil offers a more in-depth look at slavery through the preserved photographs. NPR recently featured the exhibit on their Morning Edition news program. In part of their interview, Lilia Schwarcz, one of the exhibit’s curators, says that they do not want to only show the slaves as victims.

Machado says many slaves were running away, while others had formed armed bands and were revolting. The enlarged images show the look in the eyes of the slaves. The battle, says Lilia Schwarcz, is very evident.

“They were fighting for their freedom,” she says. “So you have here a discussion about freedom.”

For more information and a video, check out the link here.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

Project Highlights

In preparation for today’s wrap-up discussion I’ve drawn up a list of highlights of the Jubilee Project from September 2012 — the anniversary of the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation — to now — the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It’s a pretty long list, but I think worth publishing in full.

Jubilee Project—some highlights so far

September 2012—Avery Center Black Power conference

October 2012—College of Charleston Theatre Department, Flyin’ West

–SC State University, Stanback Museum, “Africa Revisited” exhibition

–Upcountry History Museum, “Freedom Stories” mini-conference

November 2012—Penn Center, Annual Heritage Days, 150th anniversary celebration

New Year’s Eve/Day—Watch Night Services; Emancipation Day parade

January 2013—Gibbes Museum, “Witness to History” exhibition

–Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble, “Freedom Rides On” concert

–Clemson University, Integration at Clemson commemoration

–Southern American Studies Association conference

–St. Helena Branch Library, “Reflections of St Helena Island” presentation

February 2013—CSO Spiritual Ensemble, “Ode to the Fisk Jubilee Singers” concert

–College of Charleston, “Unity through Song,” Claflin University Concert Choir

–Magnolia Plantation, ASALH luncheon

–Charleston Stage, A Woman Called Truth

Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, “Heritage Days”

–Clark Atlanta University, WEB Du Bois conference

–College of Charleston, “Education for Emancipation” seminar

–College of Charleston, Nancy McGinley issues an apology on behalf of CCSD at College of Charleston’s “Education for Emancipation” seminar commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of South Carolina public schools

–Charleston Preservation Society, Civil Rights Era Panel Exhibit Opening

–Caw Caw Interpretive Center, “Rice and Liberty: The Stono Rebellion”

–Riley Center for Livable Communities, “Tru Emancipation een de Gullah/Geechee Nation”

–Penn Center, “Tribute to the Civil Rights Movement”

March 2013—Agnes Scott College, Collegium for African American Research conference

–College of Charleston, African Literature Association conference (including “I Have Known Rivers” ceremony)

–College of Charleston, “African American Belonging and Tourism Justice” lecture

–PURE Theatre, The Mountaintop

April 2013—College of Charleston/Circular Church, Fisk Jubilee Singers

–Ella Baker Day symposium

–College of Charleston, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” reading

–Lecture by Edna Medford at 77th Annual Meeting of the University of South Carolina’s South Caroliniana Society

–Preservation Society, Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance Reception

–Preservation Society, Modern Civil Rights Era site marker unveiling

–Charleston, Charleston Area Justice Ministry kick-off event

May 2013—Columbia, The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) “Lift Every Voice” forum on collecting, archiving, preserving and teaching the Civil Rights movement

May/June 2013—Mount Pleasant, Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival

–Circular Church/Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Becoming Harriet Tubman

July 2013—Reenactment of Assault on Fort Wagner

–Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie Trust, Fort Wagner panel discussion

–City of Charleston, Unveiling of plaque commemorating USCT role in Assault on Fort Wagner

August 2013–Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music and Movement Festival 2013

–College of Charleston, Exhibition in honor of WEB Du Bois

–College of Charleston, Commemoration of March on Washington

–Slave Dwelling Project, overnight stay at College of Charleston

–Avery Center, “Unenslaved” exhibition, paintings by Jonathan Green

– Preservation Society, S.H. Kress historic site marker unveiling

September 2013— Claflin University, “From Brown (1954) to Brown (1963) and Beyond:  Challenges of Advancing Educational Equity in South Carolina” symposium

–Preservation Society, Progressive Club historic site marker unveiling

–University of South Carolina, Desegregation Commemoration (including  appearances by Andrew Young, Nikky Finney, et al.)

–McKissick Museum, “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” exhibition

–College of Charleston/Middleton Place, Lowcountry Rice Culture forum

October 2013—Preservation Society, Hospital Workers’ Strike historic site marker unveiling

– Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, Passages art show and sale

November 2013—College of Charleston, Gettysburg Address panel discussion

–Avery Center, Slavery at USC presentation

–Penn Center, Annual Heritage Days Celebration, “Eyes Still on the Prize” symposium

–SC State, Civil Rights: Then, Now, and When…?

 Jubilee Project forthcoming events

2014 Brown at 60/ Civil Rights Act at 50

2014    Slave Dwelling Project conference, Savannah, GA

2015 Decoration Day at 150

2016 Port Cities and Public Memory conference

2017 50 Years of Desegregation at College of Charleston

2018 Reconstruction Revisited: South Carolina’s Progressive Constitution (1868)

Filed under: Jubilee Project

150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

At this point, we have posted quite a few videos of people performing the Gettysburg Address. But with today as the anniversary of Lincoln’s speech, we thought Johnny Cash’s more musical interpretation makes for a nice soundtrack to accompany some facts about the Gettysburg Address.

  1. Lincoln DID prepare for his speech. Despite the contrary popular myth, Lincoln had begun researching and drafting his speech before leaving Washington D.C. While he only had a few weeks to prepare, most scholars agree that he did not wait until the train ride to begin considering his remarks.
  2. Lincoln delivered his remarks to a crowd of 15,000 people.
  3. William R. Rathvon is the only known person of that crowd of 15,000 to leave a recording detailing his experience, including a recitation of the address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fU6UacteZus
  4. While there are five known manuscripts for the Gettysburg Address, they all contain slight variations so we don’t really know what Lincoln said exactly (but we have a pretty good idea). Most scholars follow the Bliss manuscript as the standard.
  5. Lincoln was not the only person delivering a speech that day; Lincoln was not even the headliner. That honor went to Edward Everett who spoke for two hours that day. Lincoln spoke for a little over two minutes; the standard version of the speech runs to only 272 words.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

Dissing the Gettysburg Address and Regretting It–or Not

A friend has just forwarded me this interesting retraction of a dismissive review 150 years ago of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:  http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/15/us/gettysburg-address-editorial-retraction/index.html.
Clearly these editors don’t share the same sensibility as our dearly beloved friends at the Post and Courier in Charleston South Carolina–who saw fit to publish some really pretty obnoxious comments about the GA this Veterans Day–of all days. I won’t honor the piece by re-posting it, but you’re welcome to look it up if you want to see what I’m referring to. If anyone felt moved to write a sharp rejoinder to the editor of the Post and Courier, I would encourage you to do so. Here’s a version of what I sent them yesterday–which may or may not appear:

Dear Sir,

Kirkpatrick Sale may prefer to live in a nation whose watchwords are not freedom and democracy, but I don’t think he’d like it. He may prefer to live in a nation that does not guarantee equal treatment under the law, or aspire to provide equal opportunity for all its citizens, but why the Post and Courier would publish his cynical misreading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is beyond me. Why you should have done so on Veterans Day of all days, the day when we remember American men and women who died in the service of this nation “conceived in liberty” and dedicated constitutionally to the principle of republican government is unfathomable.  To those men and women who answered the call of the United States and went to war secure in the belief that they were risking their last full measure for principles of freedom and democracy nowhere so memorably and definitively expressed as in the Gettysburg Address, Mr Sale’s sophistry is nothing short of an insult.

Simon Lewis

Filed under: Jubilee Project