Discussions about race and justice in the United States are as old as the nation.
Issues of systemic racism define much of the conversation in 2015, with stories of those affected by it both captured in YouTube videos or shared in social media posts.
In the mid-1800s, former slaves told their stories in written memoirs designed to expose Northern audiences to the evils of slavery. These narratives, traditionally called “slave narratives,” can offer insights for 2015 America and inform the national dialogue about race, according to Shenandoah University Associate Professor of History Ann Denkler, Ph.D.
The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History chose Denkler to be one of 27 select educators to participate in a June seminar on the slave narratives, held at Yale University.
The seminar occurred on the heels of the shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a white man is accused of taking the lives of nine African Americans, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator. David W. Blight, director Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition and professor of American history, knew Pinckney and had to attend the seminar the week after the June 17 slayings, Denkler said.
The narratives reveal how to fight injustice without invoking hatred. “And they did it all with the power of the word.”
—Ann Denkler, Ph.D.
As the educators reached back into the past during a painful time for African Americans, they did so through narratives that not only describe times of toil and terror, but also express abundant hope.
Study of the narratives reveals how deep the desire for freedom runs, Denkler said. The wish to be free occurs at the moment of enslavement, and in the case of someone, like famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass who was born into slavery, from childhood. Although he knew no other life as a child, he knew he was living in a system that was confining and racist.
Freedom was so central to the stories that Denkler said her roommate during the seminar, a professor from Tuskegee University, rejected the designation “slave narratives,” preferring to call them “narratives of freedom.” That’s how Denkler is referring to them as she teaches them this semester. She started the course with Harriet Jacobs’ powerful narrative.
The quest for freedom means different things from the slave narratives to today — now, as then, it means justice, and in our contemporary world, it also includes efforts to end poverty and police brutality.
However, reading the narratives can inspire an understanding and context that are unlikely to be found in what could be seen as the narratives of oppressed people in 2015 — social media and video posts about inequities that, with frequent repetition, spark increasing vitriol.
In a narrative of freedom, a reader feels empathy and gains insight, Denkler said. The reader grows more educated about the author’s experience and asks the question, “How are we going to fix it now?”
The narratives were designed for that “What’s next?” question, even though the country wasn’t, following the Civil War. One could argue that the nation still hasn’t answered that question. But, even so, the narratives can provide some guidance on how to start trying to find an answer.
The narratives, through their existence and influence, reveal how to fight injustice without invoking hatred and create power without using force. “I think the narratives are brilliant at that,” Denkler said. And they did it all with “the power of the word.”
Former slaves knew how to tell their stories with great persuasiveness as they described the most dramatic moments of their lives. “They knew what they were doing,” Denkler said. And even though the stories related the horrors of slavery, they were focused on freedom. “There’s always hope in a slave narrative.”
The narratives also tell a quintessentially American story, Denkler said. “I have nothing. The world is against me. Now I’m free. It’s the individual against the odds.”
Yes, it’s a mythologized story, like the Horatio Alger ideal Americans know so well, but it remains endlessly powerful. Denkler said after reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative, she says she always feels like “I
can do anything.”
That’s quite a legacy for once-enslaved people to offer readers of today.