Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

A few months ago, I found myself in the uncomfortable, surreal position of defending my stance against teaching Huck Finn – even as an option – to 21st century high school students. 

I want to be clear here: I have never read the book, and I doubt I ever will.I don’t think the book should be burned or banned. I don’t think Twain’s work is all trash.

Rather, I think it’s past time to trouble the antebellum narrative we’ve spoon fed to America’s high schoolers for several generations now. We need to question what’s considered classic and canon.

So I said so.

And then there was an argument – a question of what I’d suggest in Huck Finn‘s place, a comment that “my students know they can talk to me” – all the usual suspects.

Although I am not the most widely read English teacher, I am confident that we don’t have to work that hard to find stereotype-free content that offers a valid alternative to typical antebellum stories. Instead of continuing to tell schoolchildren and young adults that slavery was long ago and not that bad for all people who were enslaved, we can allow formerly enslaved persons’ work to speak for itself, and we can turn to present-day black creatives who are masterfully re-imagining what was, is, and could be in the future.

For Americans of a certain age, the only antebellum narrative that we know centers characters like Scarlett and Rhett and focuses on their love story, while black characters are relegated to background tropes – existing only to prop up and help develop the white leads. Even the few antebellum stories that don’t star Scarlett and Rhett are still chock full of white saviors and magical n*groes. If art reflects life or vice versa, it stands to reason that when we change the narrative we consume, we might begin to stop expecting real-life black people to behave like the tropes with which we are so very familiar.

Take, for example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a historic autobiography written by a woman who escaped from bondage. In her own words, she recounts the struggles she faced and trials she endured. Her prose is fluid and engaging. And her perspective is real rather than imagined.

As I was preparing for the fraught Huck Finn meeting, I asked for guidance from a historian friend, who pointed me to slave narratives that were recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration. The Library of Congress has a collection of these narratives that is accessible online. And locals can find a stash of narratives from people who lived in our area, thanks to East Texas History. Additionally, a number of local colleges and museums contain a wealth of primary sources with historic perspectives we never had access to as young students.

Can you imagine the connection students might feel to history if it were intentionally made concrete and brought near to them rather than remaining an abstract, olden time amoeba?

Just last year, Janelle Monae shined in Antebellum, a horrific imagining of antebellum life set in present-day America. The premise is that a group of white people has built an escapist business for a certain white clientele who wants to experience the glory of the old South. Black men and women are kidnapped, chloroformed, and secreted to an off-the-grid plantation to be forced into servitude for the entertainment of paying white guests.Their cell phones are taken from them to prevent their being tracked, and those who attempt to escape are dragged back to disappear into the “burning shed,” a crematorium that ensures their families will never know what happened to them. The story is dark and deeply disturbing. But as it is told from the point of view of a kidnapped and enslaved woman, it represents an alternative to the narrative we normally see.

As you think through the stories you’ve been told about antebellum life – that some masters were kind, that slaves were better off before the Civil War, that most white people couldn’t afford slaves – I hope that you’ll pause to reflect on the following questions: 

  • Before now, were stereotypical-vernacular-laden enslaved black people your only mental image of black life before and during the Civil War? What effect might that singular image have had on your expectations of black people in your everyday life?
  • Have you ever questioned the prevalence of antebellum black characters in close proximity to white characters only as spiritual guide, humble servant, or obstinate intransigent? 
  • How many books, movies, and shows have you seen that feature black characters in antebellum narratives, telling their own stories, with their own voices?
  • How might your view of American history change if you heard a perspective that’s been largely left out of history books?

I hope you’ll lean into these questions and allow yourself to be curious about the discomfort you feel, should it arise, and change – as necessary – the story you are telling yourself: about the existence of white supremacy, and about the impact that a white-centered view of history has had on American society. Keep showing up to this space, and I will too. We can and will build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

5 thoughts on “Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

  1. Thank you Querida for sharing your heart and for standing up for what is true and noble. I wish I would have had a teacher like you. I totally agree with replacing those mandatory reading books with factual books from the prospect of the slaves. Personally when I read or watch movies from the marginalized point of view my heart is changed and my eyes are open to the truth of how it truly was and is for the people who lived it. May the Lord bless your endeavors and may the fire that is lit in your continue to spark a fire in others. I pray the next generation be bold and rise up.
    I’ve heard it said unless the truth of our history is told we never learn from our past mistakes nor grow in our future to prevent those mistakes from continuing. May we each be aware of how we can use your example and be the change we wish to see.

  2. I *love* this post.

    As a not-quite-elderly woman (white), I’ve never been able to bring myself to read Twain’s novel. I don’t understand why it continues to be taught. As you’ve said, there are so many other narratives that deserve to be front and center. Honestly, i don’t think we as a nation will ever be able to resolve the many, many effects of the traumas enslavement caused unless and until we’re willing to read/hear about it as told by people who somehow survived it.

    I wish that we white folks would put Black folks’ experiences at the heart of the American experience, which is where Black folks have been all along – just wilfully ignored by those of us who are white. Even the name “Black History Month” hits all kinds of wrong notes, as if Black lives are separate from our collective experience. This is *so* false, such a distortion of our history as a nation. It “others” Black Americans in an especially awful way, IMO – Black Americans and all Native peoples, Latinx folks, Asian Americans – everyone who has ever lived on US soil is part of American history. All of you deserve to be at the heart of how history is perceived, taught, disseminated. Nobody exists in a vacuum, after all, though it suits the purposes of far too many people to represent such lies as gospel.

    As for GWTW, i really hate it. Have never read the book, and trying to sit through the film… i have never been able to endure it. Mainly because every time both Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen get scenes, it’s just so awful for them – i mean, *way* beyond cringeworthy. And all the time lavished on selfish, entitled Scarlett and rapacious, amoral Rhett is wasted. There were and still are so many stories (real and fictional) worth telling. Theirs is not one of them. It’s like an addictive drug, i think, for many of us white folks, because it allows us to effectively negate the very real lives of people who endured enslavement and its horrendous effect on Black people and on this country as a whole.

    I so appreciate what you’re doing, for your students, for the curriculum/assigned reading, and in your own writing, here. Wishing all kids could have teachers who are willing to stand up for the truth, and to try and get us stubbornly recalcitant white folks to see through the eyes of others. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this is, for you and everyone else involved in the good fight.

    A change *is* going to come, though i fear some of the things that might well occur as a consequence of us white folks’ refusal to accept the truth about our country and the history embodied in each one of us. The past 4+ years are, i think, only a mild foretaste of what *might* happen as a result of our (white peoples’) insistence on white supremacism.

    May God help us all. We need that far more than we know.

      1. I believe it will, but at this point, i don’t think i will live long enough to see things put even halfway right – so much has been destroyed from the inside re. the federal government, and the current resurgence of white supremacism *really* scares me.

        I was just a little girl when so many of the key moments occurred re. the Civil Rights movement, and when Dr. King was murdered, i was just 11. Obviously, i had a child’s understanding of these things and what was at issue, but it was horrifying all the same. I feel like we’re going through the worst of the 1960s all over again, but this time, people *can* get others’ perspectives from their phones – there’s no excuse for any of us to be captive audiences for the propaganda TV channels, radio shows, etc.

        It feels like too many of us are already scrambling to try and discount the evils still occurring in our country, b/c people are overwhelmed and want an escape. The thing is, there isn’t any. We have a 1-term president in office, and 73 million people who voted for Lord Voldemort + likely millions more who support him.

        Meanwhile, the population is becoming less and less white. when Pres. O was serving his 1st term, i read that the Census Bureau was predicting that white people would no longer be a majority by 2040. It seems, from what little i know, that this could be true by 2030 or even before. People know this, even if they haven’t come across any kind of rational discussion about it. They are feeling so threatened that white supremacism is gaining converts far, far too quickly. (In all parts of the country, including my home state of PA.) Granted, the worst and most obvious voter suppression is happening south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it’s bad in the rest of the country too, judging from stuff I’ve read. (And am only too aware of, including the overt racism that’s just baked into the Philadelphia area, for example.)

        I wish we had answers, and i wish i knew how i could help shoulder the tasks that need doing. One thing i saw a bit of when i lived in the DC area was how the local community lifted up, supported – carried, if need be – those who were/are in need. My take is that Black people know far more about this than people who look like me do, b/c who else can people turn to, throughout our history and at the present moment? If we are smart enough to watch, listen and learn, we might actually be able to be halfway decent allies. If we don’t bother, well…. that really is not something I’m able to contemplate, without triggering waves of anxiety – it’s not just personal, it’s on behalf of people i know and care about, including some of the women I’ve worked for who knew how to get through to me and others like me. They were/are educators, but in this case, they said little. They took me with them to visit places and people I’d not otherwise have met. What they mostly did was to teach by example – and let me (and others) see for ourselves.

        My apologies for rambling. I know this + my previous comment = too long, but there are very few places where anyone engages so thoughtfully and eloquently on so many things. (I think social media is probably the worst place to attempt any nuanced discussion on much of anything, let alone the issues you’re writing about.)

        Thank you for all that you do, Querida. My apologies for perhaps trying to push “not all white people” in my previous comment. But the ‘graph on GWTW is something that… well, it’s an incredibly harmful fantasy, and the sooner us white folks let go of it, the better. And what i have always felt about both Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen having to play such evilly stereotyped roles…. i wish they and so many others had had the freedom to be in both movies and stage plays that are honest, and compassionate and that aren’t playing to a white crowd as the default audience.

        Our lives become richer and we all become freer through listening to other folks’ stories.

        All the best to you and yours!

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