The Power and Importance of Narrating Stories of Black Life in #VastEarlyAmerica

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library under Creative Commons License

When I decided to major in history at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) nearly a decade ago, I never thought I would eventually contribute to historian Karin Wulf’s articulation of #VastEarlyAmerica via a forum like Insurrect!. I did know back then, though, that I did not want to study 20th century Black life like most of my classmates and professors. As an undergraduate student, I yearned to better understand the world we lived in. I gravitated to topics that assessed how Black people encountered violence, and the strategies Black women, men, and children used to resist and survive. History professors at FAMU like Darius Young taught me about why our role as Black storytellers is important to our people’s self-esteem and knowledge of self, while also connecting us to West African traditions of storytelling like that of the griot. Building on my growing base of knowledge, I applied my learning over nearly three years at multiple African American public history sites during my undergraduate and early graduate school training and education. Ultimately, my interest in researching the history of enslaved people and the institution of slavery came in Spring 2017 when I took a Comparative Slavery course at Simmons College (now University) taught by Jessica Parr. Although not on Parr’s syllabus, it was in her class that I learned about Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book, Never Caught. As Providence would have it, Dunbar would one day become my dissertation advisor. After purchasing my copy that semester, I distinctly remember laying on my couch in Boston and blurting out, “DAMN, I WANNA DO THIS!” And “THIS” meant writing about enslaved women that escaped slavery like Ona Judge. Judge, who absconded from President George Washington’s home in Philadelphia, remained “Never Caught” after settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say, great storytelling can positively affect people’s lives! What 2021 has also shown us, though, is that great storytelling can result in incredible controversy. 

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