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. 

Debates about whether The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory should be taught in schools has taken up prominent space in public discourse over the past few years, but with increased intensity since the final few months of the Trump presidency. At the heart of this discourse is how public educational institutions narrate the history of Black suffering and Black resistance. Black education historian Jarvis R. Givens discusses in his recent book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching how Black teachers deployed “fugitive pedagogy” through wearing “a mask of compliance” during the Jim Crow era to “appease the white power structure, while simultaneously working to subvert it,” by marshalling in information about the history of the Black World If they were caught teaching about subversive Black historical actors like Nat Turner, teachers could find their lives quite literally endangered. Unfortunately, we see echoes of this past today. Nevertheless, we must wield the spirit and tradition of fugitive pedagogy in this moment. 

This history of Black subversive teaching shows Black scholars today a tradition we can both follow and build on through how we teach and construct physical, floating, and invisible institutions of learning. Although we do not live under the same Jim Crow conditions, there are clear overlaps with how local and state legislatures are censoring the ability of teachers to teach historical truths about the United States’ violent past, and Black people’s history of resistance in response to that violence. State legislatures from Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, and Arkansas are moving to ban teachers from teaching seventeenth- and eighteenth-century histories of African diasporic politics, marronage, and Black people’s encounters with slave courts that my colleagues Clifton Sorrell III (University of Texas at Austin) and Geneva Smith (Princeton University) bring to bear in this roundtable. I hope that this roundtable shows what an incredible privilege, honor, and responsibility it is to author stories about our seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ancestors, all of whom had incredible ideas, dreams, aspirations, and normal human flaws. 

Sadly, we are not singularly up against legislative bodies attempting to silence our histories; we also tussle with those that have grown tired of historical and cinematic depictions of enslaved people. I have heard countless people over the years say, “there are too many slavery movies.” Despite disagreeing with such a sentiment, I understand where Black people are coming from when they make such claims. Many see films like 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained and view graphic displays of violence and murder on screen, like the murder of George Floyd last summer, and think those images represent weakness. 

What many of these detractors do not see, and often lack knowledge about, is the richness of Black resistance, and in particular, the history of marronage. Clifton Sorrell III describes in his piece how “Black life in vast early America was molded by their politics of survival that allowed them to adapt, resist, and constitute new life in the violent colonial landscape.” The history Sorrell brings to bear fits nicely with Jarvis Givens’ description about how Black teachers “between the late nineteenth century and [Carter G.] Woodson’s first textbook in 1922 included expansive coverage of maroons, fugitive slaves, and slave insurrections.”Black schoolteachers and students knew that powerful narration about the Black past was transformative, despite the bloodiness of the history teachers taught and students were taught about. Black scholars of #VastEarlyAmerica, and all of the Black past for that matter, should not run away from their duties to engage the many publics our people find themselves in. The past is never past, because as Geneva Smith highlights in her piece, “the strange fruit produced by slave court trees helped bear mass incarceration, the use of prison labor for capitalist enrichment, and the violence of being Black in America.” Teaching students and the public alike about this history is one of many opportunities to chart a better tomorrow. Historian Vincent Harding best describes this path as a “long continuous movement,” of Black struggle that flowed “like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and rolling with life.” Geneva, Clifton, and I have hopefully shown throughout this roundtable that narrating the histories of our unsung ancestors is how we ensure their experiences, and ultimately their lives, are never forgotten in discussions about what it meant to be #BlackinVastEarlyAmerica. 

Adam Xavier McNeil is a PhD Candidate in History at Rutgers University and co-host of the New Books in African American Studies podcast, a podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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