“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. 

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

The Museum by Leila Aboulela

They are telling lies in this museum,’ – Leila Aboulela (‘The Museum’ 18)

Martha Blow

Edited by Veronica Vivi

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

It was in my fourth year of university that I came across Leila Aboulela, shelved under ‘suggested further reading’ for a seminar on a Postcolonialism course. Indeed, before taking this course, my exposure to non-western writers within required reading was limited to the obligatory inclusion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in my second year. Although Aboulela’s novel The Translator occasionally crops up on postcolonial syllabi, it is her unflinching approach to colonialism in ‘The Museum’ that captured my attention and caused me to question museum ethics and neutrality. The 1997 short story’s value has not gone unrecognised elsewhere: it was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000. The 19-page tale paints the story of Shadia, a Sudanese woman studying at Aberdeen, and her acquaintance with a fellow student – a long-haired Scot named Bryan. The predominant theme of the story is the struggle of communication between colonialism’s ‘predetermined groups’, and while Bryan and Shadia begin to bridge the gap in communication, this is halted when they visit a local museum at the story’s denouement, culminating with Shadia’s announcement, ‘I shouldn’t be here with you. You shouldn’t talk to me…’ (Aboulela 18).

Continue Reading

Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe

Anonymous

Edited by Jahna Hampshire and Rianna Walcott

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

In his superb essay Africa’s Tarnished Name, Chinua Achebe asserts that “colonisation gave the world… a particular way of looking (or, rather, not looking) at Africa that endures, alas, into our own day” (1998: 20). I see this way of looking every day in my social anthropology studies. Africa in our curriculum appears only in relation to those topics that are most exotic to the Western consciousness — like witchcraft and magic — and those of strife and poverty that too often dominate the discourse around our continent.

Continue Reading

The Master’s Tools by Audre Lorde

Mayowa Omogbenigun

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Zoë Guthrie http://zoeguthrie.com/

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change’. – Audre Lorde (‘The Master’s Tools’ 19)

My four years at university have led me to a simple conclusion: universities are bastions of white supremacy. From my first-year at university, it was clear that I would not belong in the proverbial ‘Master’s House’ (Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools’ 19). It was micro-aggressions by students and academics alike. It was ignorant comments about the ‘Third World’ and the backward people living in it. It was learning everything from a Eurocentric and Western point of view and as postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty explains, Europe was the silent referent in everything I was taught (42). The imbalance of power was clear by the content of what I was taught and by the language used to teach. Throughout my first two years at university, I struggled to find language to express how I felt and was deprived of any courses that discussed people of colour. In my second-year, I remember an ill-conceived course simply called ‘Asia and Africa 2a: Societies, Cultures, and Empires, c.1600-1880’ and ‘Asia and Africa 2b: Nationalisms, Liberation Movements and the Legacies of Colonialism, c. 1880-Present Day’. As you can imagine, the course lacked nuance and was far too vague to offer any real insight into either ‘Asia’ or ‘Africa’.

Continue Reading

Postcolonial Climate Change: John Akomfrah and a discourse of difference

Clara de Massol

Edited by Muireann Crowley

Art by Sarah Summers https://www.instagram.com/ssssummers/

This article considers the ways in which postcolonial studies are integral to understanding climate change. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate; islands and coasts all around the planet are slowly drowning; and species are disappearing in the thousands each year as a result. In less than 100 years, climates and ecosystems will be completely altered; this will have profound implications on humanity in terms of our survival as well as our collective identity. In the last few years, the discussion around ecology and identity has crystallised around the concept of the Anthropocene, the name given to the geological epoch superseding the Holocene, in which human activity on earth becomes the main geological force. Confronting anthropogenic climate change involves destabilising the dominant cultural narratives regulating societies to understand and formulate the intersection of ecology and postcolonialism.

The Anthropocene was introduced by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 and urges us to rethink our relationship to our planet and to the life forms inhabiting it. The Anthropocene debate, along with concepts of globalisation and cosmopolitanism create the illusion that ‘we are all in this together’ (Braidotti, 2017), that with the advent of climate and ecological disasters, a kind of planetary citizenship and solidarity has formed. But this apparent interdependence and planetary empathy is in fact a neoliberal system of differentiation and hierarchy. Butler explains that in this climate, ‘some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, which kind of subject is not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human’ (2004, xiv).

Continue Reading

Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag (Essence of the Lotus) by Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain

Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Karl Egerton

Art by Priyanka Meenakshi https://www.priyankameenakshi.com/

Utopianism has been a part of Western academia since the work of Lyman Tower Sargent in the 1970s. Taking its etymological roots from Thomas More’s Utopia, it is an interdisciplinary subject that explores human hopes and imagination in radical ways. It aims to build a better tomorrow by criticising the past and the present. It has a broad emancipatory potential which draws in a wide range of scholarship. As an avowed utopianist, I am proud to have my work counted in this field. Yet utopianism is often lacking in racial and cultural diversity. This is a major failing in a field that is supposed to be about challenging oppressive norms.

One of the reasons for this is because of the sources in the canon. Although modern works include writers of colour such as Octavia Butler, there is an assumption that classical utopian literature is almost exclusively white and male. Yet this leaves out a diverse range of texts that imagine the scope of human hope in intersectional ways. An author whose work I feel challenges this white Eurocentrism is Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain. Known in Bangladesh as Begum Rokeya, her life is taught extensively in middle school but is surprisingly absent in later education. Having first studied her biography in History when I was in my early teens, I rediscovered her work in the course of researching my thesis.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Elizabeth Lawal

Edited by Muireann Crowley

Art by Zoë Guthrie http://zoeguthrie.com/

Second Class Citizen (1976) by Buchi Emecheta is set in Lagos, Nigeria during World War II, and is about a woman called Adah and her marriage to Francis. Although life initially seems rosy for Adah, things turn sour when it becomes clear that Francis is physically and emotionally abusive.

When I was in high school I came across this book by chance; it was in a box full of books the teachers said we could take for free. The main reason I picked the book was because I noticed that the writer was Nigerian and of Igbo descent. Later on, I gave a presentation on it because there were no books by a black woman on our English Literature syllabus. After the presentation I asked if the book could be added and although the teacher was encouraging, my classmates were not. I think it was quite different to what they were used to – most of my classmates were white British. I vividly remember an Irish girl shouting from her desk, “I don’t want to learn about Africa.” I was a confrontational child, so I asked, “Why?’’ And she hit me with: “I just don’t.” I remember being so disappointed, and saying, “Well, I don’t want to learn about James I or Shakespeare and the Industrial Revolution, but you don’t hear me complaining.” This was met with silence.

Continue Reading

No more posts.