Interesting Narratives

You will have to take my word for it, but I was drafting my own post for Cliopatria about Olaudah Equiano before I saw Caleb McDaniel’s very smart reflections on the same subject. I’d just had the opportunity to meet the eminent African-Americanists Ira Berlin and Vincent Carretta. I told Prof. Berlin a pretty good story (second-hand) about cooking burritos on the radiators in Widener Library, but conversation then turned to Carretta’s work on Olaudah Equiano and the somewhat similar controversy around Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins.

Earlier posts by Caleb and Ralph Luker should have you covered on both Equiano and Kelley-Hawkins, but just to recap: Equiano was a freed slave, a sailor, an abolitionist, and the author of The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative is one of the earliest extant slave narratives, and one of our only primary accounts of the Middle Passage from Africa to America on a slaving ship. Except that it might not be a primary account. Vincent Carretta’s work argues that Equiano was born a slave in South Carolina, and that his description of the middle passage was based on oral testimony from other slaves. (Brycchan Carey has a very useful website on Equiano, including excerpts from the Narrative and an outline of the debate around Equiano’s birthplace.)

And Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was the 19th century novelist, “rediscovered” in the 1980s as a “lost” African-American author, who now appears to have been white all along. “Whispered behind this discussion,” Ralph said last month, “is the fact that this may be the second time that Henry Louis Gates has identified the literary work of a white woman as that of an African American woman.” I have indeed heard that whispered, and even spoken in a normal tone of voice, but one might also whisper that there are many who find it very satisfying to catch a scholar with the visibility of Henry Louis Gates in a muddle like this, and perhaps cast the whole enterprise of literary historicism into question. See how discussion at Crooked Timber quickly turned to whether the whole field had been “Sokalled” (a reference to physicist Allan Sokal’s 1996 hoax on the cultural studies journal Social Text.) Viewers of The Simpsons will know what I mean when I say that some commentaries on l’affair Kelley-Hawkins bear a distinct resemblance to Nelson Munce’s “HA-ha!

Once the fun of Sokalling the lit crits has faded, I imagine Kelley-Hawkins will be, as Scott McLemee puts it, “re-forgotten.” You can, with some effort, come up with reasons to keep studying her—as a kind of Borgesian fabulation or as an example of nineteenth-century racial prejudice—but I have doubts that these are going to keep Kelley-Hawkins in the limelight for long. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is how dull her novels are. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kelley-Hawkins is no Borges, and dull or racist Victorian writers are hardly in short supply.

First-hand accounts of the Middle Passage are harder to come by, so the Equiano case is a little different. If “the African” was not in fact born in Africa, in many ways that makes his Interesting Narrative even more interesting than it already is. It makes it easier, as Caleb said, for students to see Equiano’s Narrative as a rhetorical text, to ask how it works and why it was written. It emphasizes, as Prof. Berlin pointed out, that the Narrative is an artifact of a black Atlantic culture. And it turns the Narrative into a rather audacious act of self-invention—like other 18th century autobiographies I could mention.

But it also means that the Narrative is not, strictly speaking, true. Even if we assume that Equiano’s second-hand version of the Middle Passage is largely accurate, Carretta’s discovery would still remove one of a very few first-hand primary sources on the experience, and on African society in the eighteenth century more generally. It is easy to see, without imputing misrepresentation or sloppy scholarship to anyone, why many historians would not want Carretta’s hypothesis to be correct.

I trust that outright falsification is very rare in the academy, and that the way academia works usually corrects for it when it does occur. We all want a scoop, so there is always an incentive for research, revision, and verification. But it’s also true that we all have our own kinds of blinders on. Some questions seem more salient than others. Some lines of investigation get deemed blind alleys. We can be deeply invested in certain ways of thinking without even knowing it. We tend to find in history what we want to find, not because we’re being dishonest, but because history is big and we’re being selective.

This also makes me think about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. DNA evidence now seems to confirm that Jefferson fathered several of Sally Hemings’ children. DNA testing is pretty new, but the Jefferson-Hemings story is not. The claim that Hemings bore Jefferson’s children was leveled publicly during his first term as president, and considerable evidence to support it has always been around. But the story was never given credence by mainstream historians, and it lurked for nearly two centuries in the not-quite-respectable corners of sub-history. Today, the Jefferson-Hemings story has been added to standard U.S. history textbooks. I myself wrote a few new paragraphs on it for the revised edition of a U.S. history text published in 2000. Was it really DNA testing that brought the Jefferson-Hemings story into the master narrative? Or was it a shift in the kinds of things we want to know about the past—the questions we consider worthwhile as history?

Not every scoop makes the papers, or even Cliopatria. Historical discoveries, though true, may still flounder in the marketplace of ideas. If there is such a thing as an idea whose time has come, then there must also be ideas whose times have not yet come, and others whose times have come and gone.

I admit to being perplexed by all these issues. Hopefully I have achieved the “informed and thoughtful befuddlement” Caleb tries to model for his students—a wonderful phrase, by the way, Caleb, and an admirable goal. I do have an idea that I can bring this rambling to some resolution, in my own mind at least, by connecting it all to the history of the telephone—but that awaits another post.

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)