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

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

The Fairy Tale of Slavery: Demanding a More Authentic Narrative

2:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:18 p.m


Filed under: Charleston, SC, Jubilee Project, Slavery

Local and International Perspectives on Memory–Kadri Naanu

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

Local and International Perspectives on Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Charleston, SC, Slavery

“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

The Color in Freedom Experience–An Interactive Journey Along the Underground Railroad

The color in freedom experience workshops are designed to use arts integration and a positive, nontraditional methodology to talk about slavery.  They will feature age-specific information and use the arts as a tool to engage in conversations about slavery. The workshop’s facilitators are History scholars and experts on the topic of slavery and the Underground Railroad who will utilize their decades of expertise to educate and inform the audience.  Workshops will address each audience at its level.

All workshops will be held at the College of Charleston Avery Research Center, 125 Bull Street, Charleston.  The workshops will take place on May 3 and 4.  For more information, call Sheila Harrell-Roye: (843) 953-7613 or visit the Avery Center’s website.

Filed under: Charleston, SC, Jubilee Project, Slavery, U.S. Civil War, Upcoming Events

Civil War historian Eric Foner to visit two campuses

 Eric Foner, historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” will be in the Charleston area for two free public lectures.

His College of Charleston talk is part of the Southern American Studies Association Biennial Conference and sponsored by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of English, Department of History, Avery Research Center, African American Studies and the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust.

To view the Post and Courier‘s full article regarding Foner’s lectures, visit

Filed under: Charleston, SC, Emancipation, Jubilee Project, Slavery, U.S. Civil War, Upcoming Events

SC National Heritage Corridor’s SC Traveler Newsletter’s Coverage of the Jubilee Project

“The SC Traveler Newsletter,” South Carolina National Heritage Corridor’s guide to the most unique spots in South Carolina, has included coverage of the Jubilee Project in the January/February 2013 issue.  To read the article, as well as other interesting information about travel sites related to African American history, click here.


Filed under: Civil Rights Movement, Desegregation, Emancipation, Jubilee Project, Slavery, U.S. Civil War