Monday, May 14, 2018
May 14, 2018: Spring Semester Recaps: 19th Century African American Literature
[As another semester concludes, a series recapping some of the wonderful texts we read in my classes, along with some other Spring work of mine. Leading up to a preview of coming attractions for the Summer and Fall semesters. I’d love to hear about your work, past, present, or future, in comments!]
On three texts I had never read until I had the chance to teach this class for the first time.
1) Victor Séjour, “The Mulatto” (1837): Séjour’s short story, one of the first published works of fiction by an African American author, is far from perfect; many of my students objected in particular to the highly melodramatic ending. But from its multi-layered narration that anticipates later local color writing (a white outside narrator visits an older slave who then tells him the story that forms the bulk of the text) to its complex psychological depiction of a trio of slave characters, and even to that shocking and controversial but compelling final scene, Séjour’s story is both ground-breaking and highly readable.
2) Henry Highland Garnet, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America” (1843): I wrote about Garnet’s stunning and stirring speech in my preview post, and when we finally had a chance to discuss it in class, I wasn’t disappointed. Students found that whole week, which also featured David Walker and Martin Delany, to be one of the most interesting and inspiring of the semester, and I’d have to agree. And Garnet’s speech, which more or less directly calls for slave revolts and the violent overthrow of the system of slavery in America, was particularly arresting and compelling for both the students and me (having never read the whole thing until I was required to for this class).
3) Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868): Like too many of us I suspect, I only began to learn about Keckley through her small but important role (played by Gloria Reuben) in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). So I was very glad to have the chance to read excerpts from her autobiography/slave narrative for this class, and to learn a great deal more about both her perspective and her activist work (which the movie frustratingly omits entirely). The first half or so of our class featured a large number of slave narratives, and I worried at times about repetition; but in truth, each and every one of them was unique and compelling in its own distinct ways. Keckley’s was no exception, and I look forward to reading the whole of her book soon.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What have you been or are you working on?