“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. 

‘IN ORDER TO LIVE’ BY Yeonmi Park: VOICE FOR A SILENT NATION

Giulia Colato

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustration by Maia Walcott

“You have to tell the world that North Korea is like one big prison camp . . . If you don’t speak up for them, Yeonmi-ya, who will?” (Park 264). After her mother said these words, Yeonmi Park decided to put aside her insecurities, her fear and the shame she felt and to write about her life.

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Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman: a Mirrored World

Erin Hutton

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevado

Artwork by Natasha Ruwona: https://www.behance.net/natasharuw40cf

I read Noughts and Crosses when I was about thirteen. It is the first powerful book that I can remember reading. However, re-reading my slightly battered copy at eighteen was a very different experience.  It was easier to understand that good people, like the characters in the book, could react so badly to violence. The terrorism in the story is painfully similar to current news headlines. Finally, after studying the fight for Black American civil rights at school, I could clearly see where Blackman got her inspiration. The scene where nought children face a mob of angry crosses to get into a decent school could have been drawn straight from the textbook photos of Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, 1957.  This seems especially important when one considers the things people said to the author as she was writing: “‘Slavery is in the past’, ‘Why d’you want to rehash something so painful?’, ‘Why do black people always harp on about slavery?’”(Penguin Random House, 2016). Perhaps, if books like Blackman’s were studied at university level, people would be less likely to have these attitudes, especially if the novel’s stark confrontation of cruelty made them consider that their comments are insulting. There are many example of history where people have ignored atrocities as they occurred.

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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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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Lily Thwaites

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Holly Summerson hollysummerson.wix.com/arts

Ying-Ying, you have tiger eyes. They gather fire in the day. At night they shine golden”’ – Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club 1989) (246)

Many times in my life I have wished to be more like my mother; she is strong, independent, smart, but also a little bit wild. When I was eleven, I went over to one of our bookshelves and found a fairly worn copy of The Joy Luck Club, picked it up and brought it to her. She told me to read it and I did.

Seven years later and only now am I beginning to understand the significance of this book for women like my mother; strong and independent women who were once caught between cultures, but also for others, who cannot grasp the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship strained in a cultural cross-fire. It is a book my mother and her friends have all given their partners to read, and it is one that deserves attention, specifically in English Literature syllabi, where I find texts with Asian influences are often disregarded.

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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Erin Hutton

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustration by Ottelien Huckin https://www.ottelienhuckin.co.uk/

History often ignores women’s contributions. Modern schools, such as my own, may try to teach about their contributions, yet it is clear that many women are resigned to the shadows. Pat Barker has emphasised this injustice with her shocking novel The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of The Iliad with one crucial difference: it tells the story of the women who were caught up in the bloodshed.

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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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More Than Just Blood: Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler

Angie Spoto

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva https: https://www.instagram.com/iiaraz_/

I hadn’t felt my baby move yet and wasn’t sure I wanted to. I confessed this to a friend in a café, who, bringing his hands together in front of his chest and clawing his fingers, said, ‘Yeah, it might feel, you know, like Alien.’ And his hands exploded outward, raining imaginary blood across our lattes.

My friend touched on a fear of mine: that having a baby would be like hosting an alien creature in my body. A fear no doubt inspired by my consumption of science fiction. Immediately, the prospect of pregnancy makes me think of the 1979 movie Alien, which undeniably plays out humanity’s pregnancy fears in the form of chest-ripping, murderous alien children. There’s also the ‘mystical pregnancy trope’: women in science fiction media are regularly forcibly or accidentally impregnated by aliens (Sarkeesian). This trope appears in Stargate SG-1, the X-Files, and Torchwood among other television shows and films.

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There but for the by Ali Smith

Allie Kerper

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Edith Pritchett https://www.instagram.com/edithpritchett_art/

Ali Smith’s novel There but for the tells the story of a man who, in the middle of a dinner party, locks himself in the spare room. The story unfolds over the course of the following year or so through the perspectives of four different characters whose lives the man, Miles, has touched in small ways. The characters whose voices comprise the story are Anna, an unemployed Scottish woman; Mark, a middle-aged gay man; May, an elderly woman with dementia; and Brooke, a 10-year-old Black girl. In each of their narrative turns, these characters reflect on experiences in their lives and how others perceive and react to them, giving the reader a rich and textured composite image of what human life can be in and around Greenwich, London in 2009-10. Smith’s novel marries realism and surrealism, satire and earnestness, and weaves it all together with wit and wordplay to create a compelling story of what it feels like to live in the political moment of the Recession.

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NOTHING OF WOMAN IN ME by Juliano Zaffino

Diane Lowman

Edited by Abigail Eardley

Art by Iara Silva: www.instagram.com/iiaraz_

Often, the contemporary eye looks at Shakespeare’s plots and characters with a certain skepticism. No matter how timeless and universal the themes – the joy, the anguish, the love – we cannot help but wonder: how could a mother not recognise her own twins? Do those simple disguises really trick everyone? And perhaps most persistently for me, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, what’s up with all these women? Under the auspices of the patriarchal system in early modern England, female Shakespearean characters are often submissive, with few admirable exceptions: the Princess in Love’s Labours Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing come to mind.  Ultimately however, Kate in Taming of the Shrew and others like her, leave modern women shaking their heads.

Any author of fiction – and Shakespeare is no exception – asks an audience to momentarily suspend disbelief. In novels, films, and plays, ghosts walk, witches prophesize, and statues come alive. But still, that final question persists: what is up with all these women? In Nothing of Woman in Me, which debuted in February 2018 at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, and will be reprised in July at the RSC Dell, director and playwright Juliano Zaffino attempts to answer this question. Zaffino earned his MA in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, and will pursue his PhD there next year. As a gay man, he has first-hand experience of belonging to a marginalised group in society. By exploring the psyches of some of Shakespeare’s most complex and thought-provoking female characters, Zaffino hoped to give expression to all silenced populations by “capturing the voice of women throughout history and in our modern day, and unifying these voices through the vehicles of Shakespeare’s voiceless women.”[1] He “brought his experience to the table: my life as a gay man, the women who had raised me and whom I had grown up with, the reading and watching and listening I had done.” The dawning of the #MeToo era has offered a relevant and powerful backdrop for his work, having finally provided the opportunity for many muted female voices to whisper, speak, and shout above decades of oppressive abuse. No longer willing to suffer in silence as if that were the norm, women from professional, political, academic, and personal backgrounds are setting each other free by telling their truths. Women in Shakespeare’s time could not do that: but Zaffino imagines what it might have been like if they could have.

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