[Blackstudies-l] The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Mon May 16 10:23:14 EDT 2016

Nothing sounded really new to me, but I guess I'll have to read the book to
find out  :)

lima at geneseo.edu sent you this article.

Democrat and Chronicle - 05/16/2016 - A01

New collection examines slavery’s legacy



A new collection of essays, Slavery in American Literature, edited by
University of Rochester associate professor of English Ezra Tawil, sheds
light on how America dealt with slavery and how voices for freedom, such as
that of Frederick Douglass, found expression.

The collection shows how slavery has been addressed — and not addressed —
in the literature and other aspects of American culture.

Tawil solicited essays from experts in academia — including UR — to examine
the legacy of slavery over more than 300 years in everything from personal
accounts and novels to music and film.

The co! llection, now available to the public, is in paperback, hardcover
and ebook. It is part of the Cambridge University Press’ Companions to
Literature publications, which are intended to reach an audience beyond

“What sets this collection of essays apart from other books on the history
of American slavery is that my focus is specifically on how slavery became
a theme in American literature and culture, how slavery found its way into
art,” Tawil said.

The goal, he noted, was to provide a

See ESSAYS, Page *6A*

Editor Ezra Tawil: Slavery presents “a glaring contrast between American
ideals and reality.”




Continued from Page 1A

comprehensive look at how slavery was portrayed over three centuries.

“And not just during the time slavery was a legally protected American
practice, but also in the 150 years since 1865, when the 13th Amendment
abolished slavery,” Tawil said.

Common thread

A theme that holds a lot of the chapters together, said Tawil, “is the way
slavery comes and goes in the American consciousness.” And he noted that
even when slavery was allowed, the public “oscillated between confronting
the crisis presented by slavery and trying to disavow or disappear it from
view.” The American public was slow to confront the institution of slavery!
— the most shameful chapter of American history. That’s why Frederick
Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a leader in the anti-slavery
movement based in Rochester, felt the need to give his famous 1952 speech,
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

This reluctance to address slavery reached the point that for a time, in
the 1830s and into the 1840s, Congress banned lawmakers from discussing

Slavery, Tawil noted, presents “a glaring contrast between American ideals
and reality.” And the racism that sanctioned slavery did not disappear when
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Tawil, 49, grew up in Brooklyn and earned his Ph.! D. in American
civilization from Brown University. He joined! the UR faculty in 2011.
Previously, he served in the English department of Columbia University.

He first addressed attitudes toward slavery in his 2006 book, The Making of
Racial Sentiment,

which looked at attitudes about race in frontier literature, especially
during the 1820s.

Eyewitness accounts

Douglass, who lived in Rochester in the pre-Civil War years, became a
leading voice against slavery, not only with his newspaper, initially called
The North Star, and stirring orations, but also with his autobiographies.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, was among
the various firsthand accounts of slavery — known as slave narratives.

“For me, they are the starting point,” said Tawil. “In order to move the
needle of public opinion, you have to move the heart.”

Tawil, in his introduction to the collection, noted how Douglass started
the narrative about his life by telling how slavery attempted to deny him a
sense of identity. Douglass had no sure knowledge — or record — of his age.

“This is a truly remarkable opening to an autobiography,” wrote Tawil.
“More than merely telling readers, it strikingly shows them that the author
lacks the most basic kind of information he needs even to commence his own
life story.” Douglass’ Narrative was widely read and left little to the
imagination about the bru! tality of slavery. He described how his aunt was
severely whipped by his owner — so that “the louder she screamed, the
harder he whipped.” In all, about 100 autobiographies of escaped slaves
were published in the U.S. between 1830 and 1860, noted Sarah Meer, one of
the contributing authors to the new collection.

“These acts of narration were also declarations of independence; some
narrators had gone to extraordinary lengths to be free to tell these
stories; some narrators endangered themselves by publishing them; most
exposed themselves to public doubt and testing of their veracity,” wrote
Meer, who teaches English at the University of Cambridge. Douglass’ second
biography, My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855, was more
reflective in to! ne, but no less condemning of slavery. Douglass told how
his owner ordered his wife to stop teaching Douglass because that could
only lead to trouble. “His iron sentences — cold and harsh — sunk deep into
my heart,” wrote Douglass. In his third autobiography, Life and Times of
Frederick Douglass, published in 1881 and revised in 1892, Douglass told
more about his life as a slave along with his years as a free man. He also
discussed John Brown and theHarper’sFerryRaidas well as his dealings with

Pro-slavery propaganda

As anti-slavery sentiments grew, so did proslavery literature, as told in
the chapter “Proslavery Fiction” by Gavin Jones and Judith Richa! rdson,
who are both on the English faculty at Stanford University. These novels,
according to the authors, while acknowledging that abuses were possible,
depicted most slave owners as good and claimed freed slaves fared badly.

In her chapter, “Moving Pictures: Spectacles of Enslavement in American
Cinema,” Sharon Willis, a professor of art and art history and visual and
cultural studies at UR, told how the film Birth of a Nation fanned racism,
while Gone with the Wind bemoaned the South’s defeat in the Civil War.

“Like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind remains one of the highest
grossing films in U.S. history, and with it re-elaborates that film’s
central th! emes in a melodrama that has become iconic in the national
imagery,” wrote Willis.

Although the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s focused attention
on the depiction of slavery in American literature, it wasn’t until the
1980s and 1990s that antislavery writers, such as Douglass, got their due

In the most popular American literary anthology of the 1970s, Douglass
could be found in the section called “Literature of the Nonliterary World,”
noted Robert S. Levine, another of the contributors to Tawil’s collection.

“Given such inertia, the field needed a provocateur who could generate
fresh critical perspectives on slavery and race in classic American
writers,” wrote Levine, who is a professor of English at the University of
Maryland, College Park.

That ! need for a “provocateur” was filled by Toni Morrison in her book
Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American
Literature, published in 1989, followed three years later with Playing in
the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination. JGOODMAN at Gannett


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