“Such Small Stuff as Letters”: The Importance of Including the Works of 19th Century African Americans in Undergraduate English Literature Courses

Kiefer Holland

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Artwork by Natasha Ruwona

Whilst the works of nineteenth-century African Americans may feature on some of the rarer undergraduate English Literature courses, or in specialist modules, I believe they should be far more prevalent. In this article, with help from Sojourner Truth and Josiah Henson, I would like to present the idea that the inclusion of works by nineteenth-century African Americans would be highly beneficial in any standard undergraduate literature course. Two of the central lessons literature students learn during an undergraduate degree are how to closely read a text, and that language itself, because it is a human construct, is rife with insufficiencies. The latter lesson ranges from the inability to truly represent human emotions with words like “love” and “hate,” to the painfully reductive terms with which we attempt to categorise people. The conditions under which the works of nineteenth-century African Americans were created means that they are some of the best texts through which to learn those two lessons. While no two nineteenth-century African Americans approached language and its applications in the same way, they were all in one way or another faced with the reality of Black literacy during their lifetimes, which carried the legacies of slavery even after the conclusion of the Civil War. Literacy was illegal for millions of enslaved African Americans, and the primary nineteenth-century audience for the writing of free African Americans was white abolitionists who demanded the truth of their lives without embellishment or interpretation. As Frederick Douglass recalled, abolitionists demanded that he “Give us the facts [. . .] we will take care of the philosophy” (My Bondage 361). For people to whom literacy was denied in enslavement and then restricted in freedom, but who were nevertheless subject, in numerous atrocious ways, to the writings of others (laws, ledgers, racist caricatures, to name a few), engagement with language was understandably complex.

      The thoughts of nineteenth-century African Americans upon a literacy that they were systematically denied in enslavement varied greatly. Douglass viewed literacy as “the pathway from slavery to freedom”, but Sojourner Truth chose to remain illiterate and defiantly proclaimed “I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations. I can see through a millstone, though I can’t see through a spelling-book [. . .] I know and do what is right better than many big men who read” (Douglass, Narrative 33; Truth qt in Anthony, 926). Within literary studies, Douglass’ response is much more comfortable, because it celebrates literacy as a route to empowerment. Truth’s response fits much less comfortably within standard literary discourse and makes the study of her words far more challenging. Thankfully, Truth’s illiteracy did not stop her leaving written records in the form of narratives, letters, reports of her speeches, and anecdotes from those who met her. All of those texts are, of course, written by other people, and they often vary in their representation of Truth greatly, even when presenting the same events and speeches. Inevitably, literature students will face factors like unreliable narrators and questions of authenticity during their courses. However, it is unlikely they will face the question these works bring up for Truth scholars to this day: how can we know which records are reliable sources of Truth’s words? Reading the multiple and conflicting records of Truth, literature students would need to consider whether their analytic skills help them reach a better understanding of which texts are reliable; could close comparative readings uncover a consistent voice among the inconsistencies? Going one step further, they might question whether searching for Truth’s “authentic” voice is even appropriate; perhaps Truth’s choice to remain illiterate means that the fragmented and conflicting records of her words reflect her intentionally complex relationship with language better than any single reading could ever hope to.  

      Like Truth, Josiah Henson was illiterate when he escaped enslavement, but, unlike Truth, he did start to learn to read and write in the early 1830s shortly after his escape. Despite this learning, Henson had his first narrative, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849), recorded by a white male amanuensis. However, nine years later, his second narrative, Truth Stranger Than Fiction (1858), declares Henson to be the sole author. In any other context, scholars might take granted that Henson had written the later work himself, but the authorship of the second narrative remains contested ground. As both texts are autobiographical, they inevitably include many of the same scenes. Therefore, undergraduates could engage with the question of Stranger Than Fiction’s authorship and compare how both texts present the same scenes and what this could tell us about the authorship of the later work. For example, the students could analyse a single sentence in which Henson secures the help of Frank, a white man, in his fight for freedom. In Life, the moment of Frank’s agreement to help is presented as follows: “He entered cordially into them, with that sympathy which penetrates the heart of a slave, as little accustomed as I had been, to the exhibition of any such feeling on the part of a white man” (32). In Stranger Than Fiction, it is as follows: “He entered cordially into them, and expressed, as he felt, I doubt not, a strong sympathy for me” (70). By closely reading those sentences, undergraduates would notice the removal of Henson’s emotional reaction and the reference to Henson as a “slave” in Stranger Than Fiction. They could then examine what those changes could mean about the authorship of the text and why those changes might matter. This process would test their close reading and linguistical analysis abilities as they come to conclusions on what the removal of a single word might mean in the context of an entire book and the life it represents.

      The questions and challenges raised by an engagement with the works by and about Truth and Henson are typical of those raised by nineteenth-century African American literature. These works test students’ close reading abilities and push at the boundaries of what they feel they know, or can know, about works of literature. It is for this reason that I believe the inclusion of texts from this body of work would be a great addition to English Literature undergraduate degree curriculums where it is all too rarely found.

Works Cited

Anthony, Susan B., Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Editors. History of Woman Suffrage, Volume II. 1861-1876. Project Gutenberg, URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28039/28039-h/28039-h.htm. Accessed 02 October 2020.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Miller, Orton & Mulligan, New York, 1855. Documenting the American South, URL: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass55/douglass55.html. Accessed 02 October 2020.

—. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Documenting the American South, URL: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html. Accessed 02 October 2020.

Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Arthur D. Phelps, Boston, 1849. Documenting the American South, URL: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson49/henson49.html. Accessed 02 October 2020.

—. Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Henry P. B. Jewett, Ohio, 1858. Documenting the American South, URL: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson58/henson58.html. Accessed 02 October 2020.

Kiefer Holland is a third-year English Literature PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. He has an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Brighton and a masters in American Literature from the University of Edinburgh. His research examines the writing and speeches of nineteenth-century African American women. 

A digital illustration of an old dirty computer screen with a pac man style game on the screen.

Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’

Cameron Perumal 

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Maia Abayomi

‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’ is a narrative film accompanying Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album of the same name serving as a backdrop to (and catalyst for) its plot. It depicts the story of Jane 57821 – a femme-presenting, queer android – in a seemingly dystopian future. ‘Seemingly’ because the film almost scarily imitates an all too familiar contemporary political landscape and its relationship with the Other (including, as mentioned by Monáe in interviews, queerness, being minoritised, and the experience of being a Black woman). Jane 57821 is a queer android – inferred from her relationships with Zen and Ché (portrayed by Tessa Thompson and Jayson Aaron, respectively). Jane is also part of an underground resistance and is captured by the oppressive government, deemed a ‘dirty computer’ that needs to be cleaned, and has her memories deleted one by one – but not before the audience gets to relive each one. 

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Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place: A Radical Black reimagining of a better future

Oluwaseun Matiluko

Edited by Maria Torres-Quevedo

Artwork by Olivia Twist: YesOliviaTwist

I am currently in the final year of my Law degree. When the time came to select the modules I would study this year I decided to pick the modules in which I knew I would feel represented and seen. Although I enjoyed the previous years of studying ‘Contract’, ‘Tort’, ‘Criminal’ and ‘Property Law’ I felt the need to expand my horizons; to study something that I had never had the opportunity to study before and probably would not have the opportunity to study again. So, alongside my modules ‘Equity Law’ and ‘Employment Law’, I elected to study modules in ‘Sex, Gender and Law’ and ‘Law and Race’. I had one more option left, and I was struggling to fill it when I spoke to my good friend Sheila. She had seen an open module listed on our University website– ‘African-American Music in the 20th century’– and when I clicked on it I immediately smiled. A module focussed on the music that I love but also drew on its West African heritage seemed to perfectly intersect with my interests and my personal heritage and so I jumped at the chance to study it. I am so grateful that I did.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Jasmine Thakral

Edited by Karl Egerton

Illustration ‘Double Consciousness’ by Natasha Ruwona, https://www.behance.net/natasharuw40cf

The Hate U Give deals with the way in which police brutality and systematic criminalisation of black bodies damage African American communities, depicting the struggle often felt by people of colour between who they are and how they are perceived by the world. The events of the novel are particularly resonant in light of recent cases of police brutality which have resulted in the death of victims such as Trayvon Martin, which sparked the activist movement, Black Lives Matter. The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter as she negotiates the fallout from the horrific police brutality suffered by her friend Khalil. The novel explores Starr’s journey to finding her voice so that she can explicitly challenge police brutality against African Americans.

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Black Girlhood in ‘Bone Black’ by bell hooks, and ‘Zami’ by Audre Lorde

Francesca Sobande

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Olivia Twist: http://www.yesoliviatwist.com/

For some, the work of bell hooks needs no introduction. It may have represented their entry into Black feminist media and cultural critique, or the starting point of their understanding of the intersections of sexism and racism. I will always remember when I first came across the writings of hooks. I found such excitement in reading a distinctly Black feminist voice that is rarely found in university curricula. As I read hooks’ engaging analysis of media and consumer culture, I thought to myself “I never knew that academic writing could be like this!”.

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Interview with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of ‘Harmless Like You’

Interview by Toby Sharpe

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Arta Ajeti https://www.instagram.com/artawork/

Could you start by describing your career? What do you do, and what have you written?

I wrote a novel called Harmless Like You about a Japanese artist living in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. She ends up abandoning her son. It’s about how and why that happens. Oh, and there’s a bald cat, if you’re a fan of bald cats.

I’m also the editor of an anthology called Go Home!, which is a collaboration with the Feminist Press and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It’s a collection of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction about home by writers who identify as Asian or Asian-American.

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The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline

Jossalyn Holbert

Edited by Jahna Hampshire

Art by Holly Summerson hollysummerson.wix.com/arts

Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” outlines a day in the life of Sarah Boyle, a married mother of an indeterminate number of children living in Alameda, California during the 1970’s. Her life consists of pink children’s bottoms fresh out of the tub, strawberry jam on a strawberry floor, cleaning her house and meticulously labelling the items within it as a means of creating some order in her cluttered space. Her home becomes an enclosed vacuum, a microcosm of the wider universe barreling quickly and unstoppably towards a state of complete chaos, entropy. Physics enters the story sideways and strangely, with the heat death of the universe occurring in Sarah Boyle’s very kitchen. She has no means to stop it, attempting every day to sweep, vacuum, dust, wipe down, and order every object before in her path – no small task given that there are 819 objects in the living room alone (4). Despite her efforts, entropy descends upon Sarah’s kitchen anyway. Throughout the text, Zoline combines a feminist critique of the heterosexual, nuclear family dynamic pervading life at the time with a metaphysical association of the home as a miniature universe. Sarah Boyle’s struggle is not only against the social norms that tie her to her kitchen, full of dripping strawberry ice cream and ‘wet jelly beans’ (8), but also the monumental, intangible, unconstrained laws of the universe. The only agency she has, then, comes with hastening the inevitable state of entropy so that it occurs all at once and by her own hands. In other words, Sarah Boyle trashes her kitchen.

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Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics

Temitope Ajileye

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Anonymous

“I don’t know where to begin […] because nothing has been written here. Once the first book comes, then we’ll know where to begin”. Barbara Smith

There is some irony in how I came across Black is Beautiful, a masterpiece created by African American scholar Paul C. Taylor. I was looking for Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and, while waiting for the bookshop staff to locate it (their attempts would eventually prove unsuccessful despite their certainty that ‘Russell has to be in the shop’), my eyes wandered and settled on Taylor’s book. How lucky I was!

        The opening quote, taken from Barbara Smith’s Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, immediately presents us with the urgency that the book tackles and tries to solve. There is much art by, about, and with black people, but not enough thought to connect them together, help us think more productively about black expressive culture, which would allow us to contextualise and understand our reactions to black art. There is a strong feeling that much can be said about this art and an even stronger desire for these intentions to be finally clearly stated.

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Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Anonymous

Edited by Jahna Hampshire

Art by Anonymous

After close to two years of studying anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston has yet to appear on any of my reading lists. This is a great shame, not only because it exemplifies the erasure of black women in academia that is all too common in higher education, but because her work specifically has so much to offer to new anthropology students.

While reading Mules and Men, Hurston’s ethnographic text on black communities around the American South, I was first struck by her confident centring of self. In great contrast to the majority of other ethnographic texts I have read, Hurston actively recognises her own place in the context of her fieldwork, making no attempt to hide herself in her ethnography. Rather, Hurston makes personal experience an equally valid and visible dimension of her ethnographic exploration, an approach whose significance I explored in a previous Myopia article (projectmyopia.com/toyin-odutola). In Mules and Men, Hurston unapologetically presents her jovial disputes with her research participants, casual banter with old friends and new acquaintances, and even being mocked and criticised by the people whose presence she was in. These honest and colloquial dialogues are not means to the ethnographic material, but the qualitative data itself… arguably, creating a richer picture that authentically describes the extent to which the presence and identity of the anthropologist affects the relationship between ethnographer and ethnographic subject; and the knowledge that is chronicled as a result.

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Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Maïa Walcott https://maiawalcott98.wixsite.com/mysite

Danzy Senna’s first novel, Caucasia (1998), is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Birdie with a black academic father and a white mother who is the estranged descendant of a prominent Bostonian family. The story follows the highly problematic construction of the young girl’s identity after being separated from her sister and black father and growing up with her white mother on the road around New England assuming different racial identities, which she is able to do due to her ambiguous ethnicity and her ability to “pass” for white.  It is a story deeply indebted to the history of the American Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, and its philosophical preoccupations, providing poignant commentary on the trope of “lighting out,” a term taken from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, meaning going west, shedding history, and switching identities. While, during my undergraduate education, I studied a number of texts that addressed these genres and themes, Caucasia highlights the racialisation of the traditional American Bildungsroman and the American identity that it constructs in a way that none of the other texts I studied did.

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