“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. 

Is It About Time We Just Stop Stop-and-Search?

Elly Shaw

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Anonymous

As the Black Lives Matter movement has recently dominated news media outlets and social media feeds since the murder of George Floyd, I have noticed that some fellow Brits seem to believe that whilst rampant inequality and racially motivated police brutality rage on in the US,  “at least we have it better here in the UK”. This is an insidious thought process. We may not have widespread legalised gun use in this country, but just because we do not have that, it does not mean we do not still have a severe problem of systemic racism at the core of UK society.

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Harmonia Rosales’ Black Female Universe

Words and Illustration by Tanatsei Gambura @tanagambura

Edited by Veronica Vivi

The Black imagination is a dangerous, radical phenomenon. More still is the Black, female imagination. It is an envoy into the speculative realm of pure freedom. In an existence that is marked by the suppression of the Black female form in all its shapes, the Black imagination functions as a powerful and liberating force. That being said, a pleasurable Afrocentric paradigm of the world is too abstract and incomprehensible to many. However, for Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales, not only is it conceivable, but, more importantly, it is a divine universe that can be translated into compelling visual representations for others to bear witness to. 

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Basking in the Afterglow: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’

Laura Hackshaw

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Maia Walcott

Moonlight has been an unprecedented and much needed piece of art which transcends the basic categories and labels that accompany the ideals of it simply being a unique ‘independent’ movie or at its most reductive, a movie about what it is like to be a young, black, gay boy becoming a man. Moonlight is about running through doors with your eyes closed not knowing how to find your way to the other side. It is about the fear, the panic, the discomfort and the frustration of having to come to terms with your own identity when your identity itself is based on societies preconceptions and expectations of who you should be, how you should talk, walk and who you should love – all before understanding how to first love yourself. It is profound because it transforms and challenges common ideologies surrounding black male-hood; black male tenderness and affection, the redemptive power of mentors, music and community and how these all shape the people we become. 

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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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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 Road To Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

Isabel Lwin May Khine

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Art by Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/

TW: Suicide, Sexual assault

The study of migration is interdisciplinary. Despite this, I have not come across much discussion in literary studies about the role that contemporary human migration plays on the way we read and what we choose to read. While universities would like to present themselves as progressive through a nod to Postcolonial Studies, in the arts we fall into the trap of discussing migration as if it is a static thing of the past and not alive today. This is because most discussion in the arts about migration is retrospective and looks to history for examples of human migration and migration crises, rather than looking at the situation today. I would like to move away from the institutional focus on the history of human migration. Instead, through analysis of The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone, I will be focusing on what the migrant has to say about themselves, their own existence, and their experiences in a contemporary context. By doing so I hope to centre conversation on the migrant’s agency and personhood.

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