#SlaveLivesMatter: Pruning America with New Shears
At the end of September, President Obama declared that October 2016 would be National Arts and Humanities Month. Obama called on the nation to “acknowledge all those who have proudly and passionately dedicated their lives” to the arts and humanities, and to “continue to harness the unparalleled ways the arts and humanities bring people together.” As Dr. Meredith Jones Gray, chair of the Department of English, pointed out in her welcome to the event, “Every month in the Department of English is a celebration of arts and humanities.”
However, serendipitously, October happens to be the month when the Department of English annually celebrates the John O. Waller Lectureship on the Arts. The Waller Lectureship commemorates Dr. John O. Waller each year by inviting a scholar to present their work. This year, the event took place on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. in the Newbold Auditorium. Waller was former professor in the Department of English who taught and inspired many of the current professors in the department.
This year’s presenter was Dr. Valerie Lee, Professor Emerita and Acting Chair of the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University. Lee, herself a graduate of Andrews University’s Master of English program which Waller helped to pioneer, discussed the genre of neo-slave narratives in her talk entitled, “Neo-Slave Narratives: #Slavelivesmatter.” Slave narratives were very popular during the abolition movement in the first half of the 19th century, and they continued to be popular afterwards. Several, such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, continue to be taught in high schools across America.
Despite their apparent cultural importance, as Lee explained, it was expected that American slave narratives would no longer be written after the end of slavery; however, recent writers have continued to write in the slave narrative style, forming the genre now called neo-slave narratives. Lee defines neo-slave narratives as novels which mix the autobiographical traditions of slave narratives with a modern consciousness, including elements of critical race theory and an intended Black audience (the original slave narratives were written to a white audience to promote the abolitionist cause). Like the slave narratives of the past, the writers of neo-slave narratives recognize the need for change in America. Lee argues that “America needs pruning. Authors of neo-slave narratives use new shears.”
Most commonly, according to Lee, the purpose of neo-slave narratives is to point out race and/or gender problems in the present by resituating people in the past, where audiences will more clearly be able to see the problem. Lee provides the example of Kindred, Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 novel which follows an African-American woman who is transported into the past to pre-Civil War Maryland, where she meets her ancestors. Some other examples of neo-slave narratives include Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991), and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016). By examining racial and gender problems in the past, counter-imposed with ideas of the present, the writers of narratives such as these can force readers to engage with issues which they might not notice or might otherwise choose to ignore. In doing so, the arts can tangibly be a force for change, as President Obama said, even further reflecting our “national soul” by making us “truer to ourselves.”