Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Amazing Grace: Historical Fiction, Primary Sources and Social Justice

This has been a historic and moving few weeks, and the connections that have bubbled up between history, the opening of the human heart and the expansion of freedom have inspired this post.

When the Supreme Court expanded the definition of fourteenth amendment rights to guarantee the right to gay marriage in every state in the union, freedom was likewise expanded. That this decision fell roughly on the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising makes it even more resonant with the struggle that went before.

Meanwhile, a more painful resonance came with the despicable and cowardly mass murder of nine Black worshipers at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston in the name of white supremacy. The initial resonance was with our ugly history of racial violence. 
(right - a sign about the Confederate battle flag amidst the tributes at Emanuel AME)

But something astonishing happened which shifted that resonance to a deep and resounding echo of the history of the inspired struggle for civil rights and human dignity in the United States. Rather than the effect desired by the alleged killer of starting a ‘race war’, the ultimate effect of his crime was to galvanize people to tear down emblems of hate and segregation across the South: a symbolic step, no doubt, but a valuable one. A way of saying that Black Lives Matter -- the doing is still up to all of us. The forgiveness extended to the alleged killer by the relatives of his victims was stunning and heartrending.

President Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney movingly engaged with the themes of violence, injustice and the possibility of change, and inspired me to think about how powerful historical narrative narrative can be. Here is a link to the eulogy:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK7tYOVd0Hs)

The president wove his speech around the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and made repeated references to history, mentioning that while we “have a deep appreciation of history…we don’t have a deep appreciation of each other’s history”, and suggesting that “we’ve been blind to the way that past injustices continue to shape the present.”

And as a deep believer in the idea that knowing each other’s history is a step toward “…the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity” that the president lauded and that the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage embodies, I’m thinking in this blog about how important it is to go directly to the source and listen to the voices of those who have too often not been heard. Historical fiction can be a first step for kids and teens toward that engagement. (left: Ouladah Equiano - see below)

At the end of my ancient history class this spring, I asked students to either bring in a quote from one of the “voices” that we encountered through our primary sources or to note which voices we did not hear. In the time period that I was teaching, such voices are limited, though some students loved that they could still hear Sappho, an ancient Greek poet, declare her love for another woman (notably, if they had read Sappho in the nineteenth century, the pronouns would have been changed by translators to make the poet appear heterosexual). Other students enjoyed hearing the wisdom of Confucius or the wild irreverence of Aristophanes. 

But many observed that they couldn’t hear at all from most women, or working people or slaves, and they wished so much they had been able to. They could only hear about people like Spartacus, the leader of the great slave uprising, or Boudicca, the warrior queen of the Iceni, through the words of others who were almost always elite, and often hostile.

As we teach history closer to the present day, more voices can potentially be heard as literacy expands and more sources survive — even the voices of the otherwise dispossessed (though there are still many, many silences).

An important role of historical fiction for young people is to give them an idea of who these voices belong to so that they can make the important step of transitioning to reading the actually primary source material that fiction writers use as sources for creating their work. Often the voices of the primary sources engage with issues that still stir and divide us today. In thinking of the legacy of slavery, several works of fiction and non-fiction primary source narratives come to mind.

For example, I remember reading Paula Fox’s novel The Slave Dancer as a child. The emotion it evoked is still vivid in my memory – pity and horror, as the main character’s musical talent is twisted into the service of macabre practice of “dancing” the captured slaves on a slave ship to keep them fit so they can be more readily sold once they arrive at slave ports.

Another story which has this powerful effect is “The People Could Fly” —the eponymous folktale in the collection of The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Leo and Diane Dillon. Many of the tales in the collection are ingenious examples of the oral tradition of riddle-making and story-telling which convey the richness of African American culture during the long period of slavery. Often there is a sense of joy despite dire circumstances. But the final story fully embodies the cruelties the slave system inflected and the passionate desire of enslaved people to ‘fly away’ to a land of freedom. 

This kind of narrative structure allows children and young teens to understand the horror of slavery and the value of every human being in the way a text- book just can’t convey.

The narrative form (usually an autobiographical narrative) was also used by eighteenth and nineteenth century former slaves who were also passionate abolitionists  in order to fuel others to join the abolitionist cause, and this ‘story telling’ of their own experiences is, I think, the next step for teens who have already read fictional accounts of slavery.

I’d suggest that history teachers can carefully and thoughtfully link the two, using the fiction as an introduction leading students into the primary sources. These primary sources are certainly much more challenging reading, which is why I’m specifying that this is a good tactic for older teens, though it is also possible to rework such connections so they are manageable for younger students (using only a chapter or a few paragraphs of a primary source and discussing how it differs from the fictional account and talking about the writer’s voice and purpose).

For example, no history teacher can hear "Amazing Grace",  the hymn the president so surprisingly sang, without connecting it back to the British abolitionists who fought and won the abolition of slavery by parliamentary vote in most of the British empire long before America achieved abolition through war.

Among this group was Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who bought his freedom and devoted his life to the cause of abolition. He wrote The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and using his own story to make his appeal to the humanity of his readers in the cause of liberty. And he was not alone in using self-story-telling as a means toward liberation.

By telling their own stories, by engaging readers with empathy, and using the sort of structures that keep readers concerned with the outcomes of their tales, former slaves made slavery real and urgent to people who had never experienced it.

I am, of course, thinking of Equiano, but even more of the greatest (I believe) of all slave
narratives The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. This is a text I would love to see more teens reading in high school as they become more sophisticated readers of historical material.

The power of Douglass’s book is overwhelming. Every time I teach it to students, it is the autobiography that most powerfully moves them. From the description of Douglass’s mother walking miles from a neighboring plantation just to put him to sleep as a small child to the story of a man being shot dead by his master’s overseer for refusing to obey an order, to Douglass himself reaching his breaking point and beating up a degenerate overseer (in introducing this episode he says: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man”) to his final triumphant escape, the details are raw and the story urgent.

But for me, the most affecting chapter is the one where Douglass learns to read.

 His mistress begins teaching him, before being forbidden to do so by her husband (it will “unfit” Douglass to be a slave, the husband explains). But Douglass perseveres in any way he can, hiding books, tricking other kids into teaching him. 

What I love about this account of learning is how strongly he connects learning with liberation. He describes how learning about the slave trade engenders fury and discontent in him and concludes “I could regard (the slave traders) in no other light than a band of successful robbers”.

But even learning that causes pain is part of this process of liberation — for Douglass and for many others. As he explains, “(t)he silver trump of freedom…roused my soul to eternal wakefulness…” and once he had learned to read, he could never stop hearing that trumpet.

Douglass’s words ­—the words of any powerful primary source recording vast, systemic injustices —can still rouse our complacent souls to eternal wakefulness.

And if historical fiction for young people can serve as a bridge to Douglass’s thundering words, so much the better.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, everyone has a history and there is room in historical fiction to hear those stories.