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Friday, September 13, 2019

September 13, 2019: Slave Rebellions: Henry Highland Garnet’s Address

[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
On the contextual and the contemporary importance of a striking speech.
When I learned I would have the chance to teach 19th Century African American Literature (the first of our two-course Af Am survey sequence, and a class cross-listed between our English Studies and African American Studies programs) for the first time in Spring 2018, I knew I would want to include a number of texts and voices on the syllabus that I have never before taught. Of course folks like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and Charles Chesnutt and Ida B. Wells, favorites whom I’ve taught many times before, would occupy prominent places. But for my own experience and benefit, and even more for the goal of exposing the students to the widest range of texts and figures possible, I wanted to balance such existing favs with ones with which I’m far less familiar. Thanks to the great first volume of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, I had no shortage of such authors and works to choose from, and included at least one text per week that I’ve never taught before. One of those is also a fitting text with which to conclude a week of posts on slave revolts: Henry Highland Garnet’s stirring and controversial 1843 speech “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America.”
Garnet (1815-1882), a former slave (he escaped from slavery in Maryland with his entire family when he was about 10 years old, moving to New York City) turned Presbyterian minister and Abolitionist activist, delivered his “Address” at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo. An aggressive and impassioned call for noncompliance and violent resistance—the final paragraph opens, “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!”—Garnet’s oration, which came to be known as the “Call for Rebellion” speech, drew forth condemnations from Douglass and other abolitionist leaders, although it also fell just one vote short of approval as an official resolution of the convention. And that duality—the speech’s controversy yet also its popularity—offers a vital illustration of the spectrum of perspectives, voices, arguments, and goals within the nascent Abolitionist movement, much less the broader social and cultural debates over and narratives of slavery and race in America. I can’t imagine a better course in which to engage with that breadth and depth of voices and ideas than a survey of 19th century African American literature, and I believe Garnet (among others, like David Walker) helped us engage with those themes and threads fully and successfully.
My goal for the course was to focus on those historical topics and frames pretty consistently, but there’s no way that this course—like any in the age of Teaching under Trump, but also in specific and particularly salient ways—wouldn’t engage with 21st century American issues and conversations as well. For example I made sure to have a #BlackLivesMatter thread throughout the semester, to think about what our different authors and texts have to add to that concept and conversation. In the case of Garnet’s speech, even his titular address to a slave audience—as well as the speech’s opening clause, calling that audience his “Brethren and Fellow Citizens”—reflects a humanizing and individualizing perspective on each and every African American slave that wasn’t necessarily central to every Abolitionist argument (at least some of which focused on slavery as a system, on broader moral or economic questions, and so on). One of many interesting contemporary echoes that it’s vital to draw out of this speech and all of the course’s complex and crucial texts.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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