“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. 

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Words and Illustration by Tanatsei Gambura @tanagambura

Edited by Veronica Vivi

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Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Kirsty Kennedy

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Illustration by Maia Walcott

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Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevado

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

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Avani Udgaonkar

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Olivia Prenderghast: https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/

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Erin Hutton

Edited by Veronica Vivi

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

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Clare Appezzato

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustration by Holly Summerson hollysummerson.wix.com/arts

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