I teach African American Literature, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Like many people, the past few days I have found myself explaining things that I thought didn’t require explanation. Among these things is that Confederate statues are not war memorials as generally understood, but monuments intended to memorialize and romanticize the Confederacy, a nation explicitly founded to defend the right of whites to enslave black children, women, and men. We take it for granted that statuary of Nazi military leaders from the war years are better suited to museums than public squares; but statues of leaders of armies mustered to preserve slavery are somehow treated differently. Research demonstrates these Confederate monuments were erected—many during the Civil Rights era—to validate narratives of white supremacy, to commemorate not individuals but a way of life dependent upon inflicting exceptional physical and psychic violence upon black children, women, and men. An estimated sixty to twenty million people died in the transatlantic slave trade. Somehow, the personal pain of these black children, women, and men, the murders, rapes, and other violences of slavery, are glossed over by the mythology these statues help perpetuate. As I point out to students, so successful has this propaganda been that many have never questioned the ethics of marketing plantation houses—sites of sustained racial terror—as romantic wedding venues.
So how is this about literature? For those who are unaware, Documenting the American South has made available an unprecedented number of novel-length narratives by those formerly enslaved, in which they recount portions of their experiences of slavery. (I say portions because many refrained from recounting fully what they witnessed or experienced out of respect for Victorian conventions.)
The full-length narratives most commonly taught are by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and sit firmly within the canon of American Literature. Douglass is considered one of the greatest orators and rhetoricians of American letters; Jacobs is a master of a variety of literary forms, weaving them together to craft a compelling and persuasive account which students find absolutely gripping. (She spent seven years hiding in a crawl space to prevent her children being sold.) These narratives remind us in deeply personal ways of what slavery meant to those enslaved, while also being among the nineteenth-century’s most important literary works.
For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, there is also the genre of the neo-slave narrative, essentially a modern work set during slavery. Many neo-slave narratives have proven to be critical successes: Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer, as did Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988), and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003). Octavia Butler’s Kindred is always popular when I teach it; so is Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose.
It’s obvious to literary scholars and students: we read and interpret narratives all of the time; our understanding of the world is shaped by the narratives we encounter. And often we don’t realize what those narratives are—as the saying goes, a fish can’t tell you the colour of water. But sometimes events reveal narratives some weren’t even aware of, and that’s where I’ve found myself the last few days, having to argue that the Confederacy wasn’t an underdog nation we should honour for adhering to its foolish beliefs in the face of overwhelming odds, but a nation founded to defend racial terror as a way of life.