“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. 

Starting the conversation: an interview with ‘Practically Creating an Inclusive Curriculum’

Mark Gavartin and Roohi Bhatti

Edited by Karl Egerton

Art: ‘The Agnew Clinic’, Thomas Eakins

For many people, visiting their doctor with a problem feels like a routine task. Even when they are nervous or distressed, they place their trust in the clinician in front of them to provide advice, assistance and direction. Doctors, by virtue of their undergraduate and postgraduate training, and their long clinical experience, are expert pattern spotters, and this is one of the key things that makes them efficient and useful. What happens, then, if you’re a patient who doesn’t fit the pattern that those doctors were taught at medical school, learned for their professional exams, or saw regularly in their clinical practice?

‘Practically Creating an Inclusive Curriculum’ is a grant-funded project at UCL Medical School (UCLMS) looking at opportunities to liberate and decolonise the medical undergraduate curriculum, which still remains a new concept among medical educators.1 To find out more about the ins and outs of this project, we spoke to the two clinical academics at UCLMS who are leading this pioneering drive. They recently published a short blog piece on their motivations and progress in the British Medical Journal.2

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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).

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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.

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Interview with Professor Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

Interview by Tanuj Raut

Edited by Rianna Walcott

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

I think that Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.

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Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

Curricular Dissonance:
Teaching English Literature as a Postcolonialist, or, the Power of Voice

Dr. Justine Seran

Edited by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo

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

I taught pre-honours literature at the University of Edinburgh for three years, and it never ceased to frustrate me, as a researcher specialised in contemporary literature, postcolonial criticism, and women’s studies, to expose future generations to the very curriculum centred on dead white men that I strove to escape by focusing my research on exploring (and celebrating) the work of living women of colour. Critiquing an antiquated curriculum and suggesting a wider breadth of reading to students during tutorials is one thing, but embedding diversity on the level of course design and organisation is another.

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