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.

The Call is coming from Inside Our House

Source

Wednesday, January 6, is a day that will live in infamy. Scores of American citizens, having consumed misinformation, lies, and vitriol-laden rhetoric from a number of sources, armed themselves, pushed past police barricades, and stormed the capitol building at the very day and time our Congress was scheduled to certify President-Elect Biden’s November 2020 win.

I want to be clear here, and state definitively that I am utterly uninterested in blaming any group or political party for what this group of individuals hath wrought. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes restitution and reparation to every American citizen who was forced to watch in horror as they laid siege to our seat of government. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our nation’s children an explanation for their atrocious behavior, particularly if they believe themselves undeserving of a time-out courtesy of our nation’s justice and prison system. 

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Source

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our country’s rising leadership a deep debt of earnest service, having planned and executed an attack that has resulted in worldwide shame and loss of credibility.

Too, I am utterly uninterested in comparisons of Wednesday’s events to any other type of protest except those which attempted to lay siege to a seat of government in order to invalidate a lawful election and intimidate lawmakers into halting progress toward installing the next national leader.

A quick scan of similar events that have arisen throughout our nation’s history will reveal that the only comparable event was the exact inciting spark of the American Civil War. Secessionists didn’t acknowledge Lincoln as their president. They formed their own government, chose their own president, and waged war on their own (now, former) country in order to protect their cherished ideals and values, all of which hinged on the “ holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

This is not fake. This is not staged. 

This is a horror movie plot playing out in real life, in our home. 

We cannot run up the stairs and hope that hiding in a closet and closing our eyes will cause the terrorists pursuing us to lose interest in snuffing out the life of our representative democracy. Because the call is coming from inside America’s house.

We cannot hide behind the cross of Christ and the promise of future spiritual unity and reconciliation, declaring thereby that we have transcended all the troubles of the world because Jesus saves. Because the call is coming from inside the church house.

We cannot deny that white supremacy played a role in the way rioters were treated or in the motivations they brought with them to their treasonous display, not even though we saw a scattering of people of color among them. They brought nooses and chanted a call to hang the sitting VP, all the while taking selfies with police officers who bore witness to their seditious occupation – not unlike Jim Crow-era postcards of smiling white families enjoying picnics at their local lynchings. Because the call is coming from inside American history’s house.

We cannot continue holding on for dear life to the tired notion that the rebel flag stands for heritage, not hate, clutching our pearls at valid claims to the contrary because many white people didn’t own slaves, because black people fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, because we really just love sweet tea and Jesus and don’t even see color except when it suits us. The individuals who stormed, pissed, shat, stole, and were then escorted out of our nation’s capitol building carried flags that showed their true beliefs, and even a quick look at primary sources from the Confederate states reveals exactly what their beliefs were then, and what beliefs present-day flagbearers cosign by extension: “citizens…shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” The Confederate states’ version of the American dream including keeping my skinfolk in a perpetual state of subhumanity and forced servitude. Their flag carries slavery’s ghost, and white supremacy’s still-present incarnation. The call is coming from inside the Confederate-sympathizing rebels’ house.

No matter what groups’ beliefs we hold dear, no matter how we personally identify and align ourselves, this call for terror, insurrection, even a second civil war, is coming from inside our home. It’s up to us to face the terrorists, disarm them, hold them accountable for the death and destruction they’ve caused, and build the America “that never has been yet…Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme.” 

This is our house, y’all. The unhinged aggressor won’t go away because we earnestly wish they would. We are going to have to build the house we want to live in. 

And this is not it.