Deconstructing Rhetorics of Slavery I

Where does one even begin?

Who can say that what they were taught in high school American history was adequate to begin the huge task of understanding the institution of slavery? Did college do a better job at teaching this deeply difficult past?

In my teaching, I have turned to talk about slavery and found my students, both the African American ones and the European American ones (at HBCUs other ethnicities have been small in number), to balk at slavery’s mention. Their level of tolerance has barely ever surpassed one day of discussion. After that, they have tended to find a safe space for themselves within either their phones or their desktops. I cannot say that I blame them for their retreat.

I do wonder, however, if my students’ responses to the topic have less to do with the topic itself than with the ways in which I and others before me have gone about the teaching. Somewhat differently, when I’ve assigned my students projects in which they either researched a former slave owner or a former slave, they have gone deeply into the work, finding sources I hadn’t and working tirelessly. I would even say that the work took on a spiritual dimension. My only disappointment has been that the students, almost all of them, have seemed quite ready to move on to their non-humanities majors after the end of the writing and research course. In other words, I don’t appear to have nurtured any historians. Then again, maybe I have.

In my own profession, more rhetoric than composition, I always hesitate to even utter a word about slavery. I left my doctoral work in English and Education convinced that every utterance houses as many untruths as it does truths. In my dissertation, I argued that, because of this, every utterance needs to be recalled, arrested, or reflexively critiqued. Twenty plus years after taking that position, I still stand by the argument and not just concerning slavery.

Recently, I pondered a statement made by Ira Berlin (1941-2018), a historian whom I greatly admire. In Many Thousands Gone, he wrote this: “historians have been transfixed by the commonalities that slavery produced.” Berlin did not speak of a “rhetoric of slave histories” or “rhetorics of slavery,” but I think this can be implied from his comment. Every history is its own rhetoric and historical schools, if there is such a thing, have rhetorics. I believe so anyway. I reason then that if, as Berlin stated, historians were or are transfixed by the commonalities of slavery, then the rhetorics they produce–write and speak–are in this vein and, for this reason, must be arrested or recalled.

Take for instance two statements that appeared recently in a new-ish history on emancipation. The first is a simple example, use of the word ran. In describing African American migration from sites of enslavement, the author wrote (an almost unforgiveable number of times) that the formerly enslaved ran to the Union army. I’ve read this particular text at least twice, and every time I come across a sentence with the verb “to run” (in its past tense) I experience a pang in my stomach. Quite possibly, this is an effect that nonreflexive rhetorics have on the physical being of readers. Quite possibly, this is why students cannot stomach being taught about slavery, by people who believe that they offer truths that are not in need of arrest.

The second example is of a different kind or on a different level but related I think to the first. In this example, the author writes that the formerly enslaved could not have imagined the future ahead of them. I’m not sure this is so. How might one reconcile the comment with Charles Sydnor’s (Slavery in Mississippi) statement that some slaves took their master or mistress’s cotton to market and even stayed over night there, or with new laws that sought to limit slave gatherings around court squares? Does the historian who assumes that the formerly enslaved could not have imagined the future before them discount the mobility some of them enjoyed during their enslavement? Should we imagine, discover, document new geographies of slavery to counter the idea that the mental map of bondspeople stopped at the plantation or farm gate?

Mind you, I teach writing, and I teach grammar as well. If the author of the offending sentence(s) was a student of mine I would simply have advised them to find a synonym for the verb ran. I’m not sure how well that advice would have been taken. My guess is that the author’s overuse of this particular word (and their editor’s failure to take notice of it) is influenced by its perceived relatedness to the condition of enslavement and to the phenomenon of escape. Slaves bent on having freedom run. In this sense, running has a positive connotation.

On the other hand, in the context of the book to which I’m referring, the connotation isn’t completely positive. I think, in the context of the early days of emancipation, the word diminishes their agency, much in the same way I imagine my own readers will argue the word slave does. It’s a good point, well taken, which is why I have tried in my own writing to use slave and enslaved interchangeably. I refuse to move away from the use of slave because of its historical and legal significance. That said, I am still of the thought that “the slaves ran to the Union army,” multiplied maybe a dozen or more times, diminishes their agency. Running is active; it is true. Perhaps it is to be read more actively; perhaps it should conjure up images of sprinters headed to the valiantly headed to a finish line, but, for this reader, psychologically, it calls up images of cowering figures, looking to the Union army for everything and giving nothing.

In one of the freedpeople’s stories I’ve read many times, the teller (the freedperson himself) narrates that he and a fellow arrived at a contraband (refugee) camp together. He approximates the date, names the place, and states that he arrived there with animals and a wagon. I know his story well as he is also a fellow of my own ancestor. The narrative is a testimony before an examiner for the Southern Claims Commission. In that context, it is clear that the said narrator is providing testimony for compensation for property lost to the Union army during the war. The freedperson does not win his case; he is not compensated, which is another story for another day. My point here is that I never would describe his migration to the camp, not given its particulars, as a case of running.

If a bondsperson had information for the Union army, or navy for that matter, or if, we might by now know to be the case, a bondsperson had labor to offer federal forces, then might there be a better verb to describe the movement: e.g. sought, encountered, found, searched, assisted, approached, gave, moved, migrated, etc.?

Admittedly, I have been told that I am way too critical in general of other people’s writing. Perhaps. I don’t claim mine to be perfect, and, in fact, I usually revise obsessively because I know just how imperfect it is. There is no perfection I realize, but I do think writers in general and maybe historians in particular must ask themselves what the implications are of the narratives they/we write. Do they, in their rhetorics, affirm already under-examined perspectives on peoples? Are those rhetorics proof of what Berlin wrote and also, partly, a contributing practice? In other words, do the rhetorics, the languages, of history transfix?

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