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Teaching Romanticism XXII: Transatlantic Romanticism, part 3

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This issue was edited by Christopher Stampone.


Joel Pace (University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire): Infinite Progression—Mirroring and Self Reflexivity in Black Atlantic Romanticism

Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out is the story of an African-American man who accompanies his European-American girlfriend on a trip to visit her family. Chris, an acclaimed photographer, brings his camera to her family home and photographs the family, their estate, servants, and fellow guests at a party. The moment he looks through the camera, he becomes an avatar for the film’s audience.  He views the party through the lens, just as we are viewing him through the interpretive lens of Peele’s cinematography.  Unlike the tradition of filming from the straight white male gaze, however, Peele subverts this convention by putting the audience in the place of a black man at a social gathering of East Coast bluebloods. “The camera simultaneously creates distance and closeness between Chris and his subjects,” notes Lenika Cruz, “it’s a way to both observe and to escape” (“In Get Out, the Eyes Have It”).  Here, Peele switches the eyes by which audiences view social situations, drawing attention to the fact that Chris is less like a guest of the party and more like an event photographer. Like someone shooting a wedding, he has access to the most intimate moments among family, yet he’s always kept at a distance; it’s as if he’s working for the family. This aspect and the family’s black servants unmistakably introduce meta-textual conversations about both slavery and visual rhetoric.

The rhetoric of photography is rife with words and metaphors that are not without resonance in discussions of race in America: a photographer shoots people and – through a process of light striking the film that then must be kept in a dark room, submerged in water (simultaneously connoting the opposites of baptism and the “sunken place”), and hung – captures them in a picture.  Peele, like Lauryn Hill in her hit song “Everything is Everything,” seeks to “[d]evelop a negative into a positive picture” (Verse 2, Line 18),  moving from black and white negative stereotypes into a commentary on race that brings the need for radical change into focus. I agree with Cruz’s likening of Chris’s use of his cell phone to disrupt the hypnotism of the other black characters to the way cell phone cameras have been used to raise awareness of police brutality by capturing instances through video footage shared and streamed across social media platforms. David Shih argues that the film shows the power of visual rhetoric to critique race beyond the limitations of a language already imbricated with white supremacy. This mode of discourse as form of resistance goes back to the earliest roots and routes of the Black Atlantic. Viewing clips from Get Out as a class as a way of introducing the topic of race in relation to (moving-) image culture can help draw more powerful parallels not only between Peele’s techniques and those used by early abolitionists, such as Olaudah Equiano, but also between reader and author, viewer, and (moving) image.

Equiano’s Interesting Narrative begins with acts of defiance.  Upon opening the book, readers on the subscription list were greeted by a frontispiece of the

Frontispiece of the first edition, British Library Copy

Frontispiece of the first edition, British Library Copy

author who—against the racist laws and codes that forbade a black person to look a white person in the eye—meets their gaze. Moreover, he is holding a book in his hand that is open to “Acts Chap. IV. V. 12.”  Readers of Equiano’s book found themselves looking into a mirror of sorts: upon first opening the book, they encountered a picture of another person holding a book who is looking right back at them. By mirroring the reader, Equiano becomes an avatar for them, drawing attention simultaneously to the differences and similarities between the positions of reader and author. The text depicted in the engraving sends the reader to another book within a book—the Book of Acts in the New Testament, specifically the twelfth verse of the fourth chapter: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (KJV). The use of “we” brings Equiano and the reader together as equals.  These moments when the book speaks to its readers, when the text mirrors our act of reading, are important for pedagogy.  They are “teachable moments” that connect the Black Atlantic to Romanticism and directly connect us to each other and to these authors across oceans space and time as well as race, class, and gender.

Against laws that forbade slaves to learn to read and write stands Equiano’s literacy, underscored not only by his holding open a bible, but also by his African name written in cursive below as well as the title-page’s declaration of independence: “WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.”  Over half a century later, Whitman would publish an autobiography with a frontispiece that also challenged the reader. Just as Equiano’s clothes mark him as a gentleman and force the reader to reconcile his status and “cultural hybridity” with any stereotypes of how an African would be dressed, the tilt of Whitman’s hat, aperture of his shirt collar, sway of his contrapposto pose, and direct stare address the audience directly:

Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different. (ll. 1-4)

These moments of direct address to the reader simultaneously call into relief the difference between reader’s self and author’s self as well as the reader’s assumptions about both, thereby momentarily removing the alterity of otherness.  A similar but much more subtle admonition is given to us by Wheatley when she makes the reader the understood subject of her decree: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join the’ngelic train” (ll. 8-9).  This line reverses the power differential between an enslaved black woman and her audience of white readers by making them the loyal subjects of her imperative sentence. Here, Wheatley has knowledge of her readers’ knowledge, for she bids them “remember” something they once knew and have apparently forgotten: “in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom” (“Letter to Rev. Samson Occom” 226). Like Equiano, she reverses roles by not speaking to them as a slave who (according to the “Some” who believe “Their colour is a diabolic die” [“On Being Brought from Africa to America” l. 6]) has no soul, but rather an evangelist whose soul has been freed and saved and is proselytizing to do the same for the reader’s.  So, too, does Whitman “designedly drop” “the handkerchief of the Lord” “[b]earing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, / and say Whose?” (ll. 92-95).  In these acts of mirroring, to see the divine in others requires readers to see it in themselves.

These teachable moments create wormholes across oceans of space and time in which we are brought face-to-face with the authors, authorial personas, and ourselves.  Upon being opened, the formerly mute leaves of these books begin to speak to us in engravings, frontispieces, narratives, novels, and poetry, generating questions for class discussion: What message does the book convey to you and what’s your response?  How do we imagine these texts from separate traditions, nations, and times spoke to their audiences, and how do they speak to each other and to us?  Our imaginative interpretations become, for instance, the west wind moving through Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem bringing his words to life:  “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (l. 70). Lauryn Hill answers with a video that features Manhattan rotating on a turntable with the Empire State Building as the spindle. The divine black DJ’s hand is spinning records, lyrics, poetics, politricks, and seasons round and round in revolutions, while L-Boogie directly addresses us:

Let me tell ya that
Everything is Everything
What will be will be
After winter must come spring.
Change it comes eventually. (Verse 3, l. 11, and Hook)

Works Cited

  • Cruz, Lenika. “In Get Out, the Eyes Have It.” The Atlantic. 3 March 2017 <theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/in-get-out-the-eyes-have-it/518370/>.
  • Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, ed. and introd. Robert J. Allison. 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016. Print.
  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard UP, 1993. Print.
  • Hill, Lauryn. “Everything is Everything” By Johari Newton and Lauryn Hill.  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ruffhouse, 1998. CD.
  • Peele, Jordan. Get Out. Blumhouse Productions and QC Entertainment, 2017. Film.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind,” in Transatlantic Romanticism, ed. Lance Newman, Joel Pace, and Chris Koenig Woodyard. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2006.
  • Shih, David. Personal Conversation. 14 April 2017.
  • The Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge Edition: 1769. Print.
  • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, in Transatlantic Romanticism, ed. Lance Newman, Joel Pace, and Chris Koenig Woodyard. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2006.
  • Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought From Africa to America” and “Letter to Rev. Samson Occom” in Transatlantic Romanticism, ed. Lance Newman, Joel Pace, and Chris Koenig Woodyard. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.

Further Reading

  • Folsom, Ed. “Appearing in Print: Illustrations of the Self in Leaves of Grass. In The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995: 135-165. Print.
  • Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in Transatlantic Romanticism, ed. Lance Newman, Joel Pace, and Chris Koenig Woodyard. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.
  • McKenzie, D. F.  Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
  • Murphy, Mekado. “Jordan Peele Narrates a Scene from Get Out.” The New York Times. 23 February 2017. <nytimes.com/2017/02/23/movies/jordan-peele-narrates-a-scene-from-get-out.html?_r=1> Online.
  • Pace, Joel. “Towards a Taxonomy of Transatlantic Romanticism(s).” Literature Compass 5.2 (2008): 228-91. Web.
  • Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America: 1780-1865. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Christopher Stampone (Southern Methodist University): Crossing Oceans, Traversing Media: Transatlantic Romanticism and Digital Humanities

The penultimate chapter of William Wells Brown’s Miralda (1860-61) depicts a fraught exchange between the bi-racial eponymous heroine and her white father, Henry Linwood, about his “belief of the inferiority of the negro race” (232). After Jerome, Miralda’s black husband, exposes Henry’s “false position” on slavery and racial inferiority, Miralda turns to her father and declares:

The breast that glows with indignation at the unmerited oppression of the forlorn, and helpless fellow-creature, that melts with sorrow at the hapless tale of woe, that spontaneously prompts the vindication of the violated rights of humanity, in whatever form or comparison, on under whatever plea or pretext they may have been invaded—that breast is the hallowed abode of all the best affections of our fallen nature, and requires no argument to show that feelings thus radiated and diffused, like the genial rays of the sun, when once conveyed or concentrated, become if possible, infinitely more fervent and powerful in their influence. (233)

Exuding a sentimentalism that justifies the novel’s subtitle as a Romance of American Slavery, Miralda’s statement aligns abolitionists of all races with the highest forms of (human) nature—“the genial rays of the sun”—while also implying through such imagery that abolitionists are representations of Christ, like genial rays of the Son. Yet as many students—and scholars—reading the novel for the first time note, Miralda’s speech seems quite odd: the tone and content do not seem to match Miralda’s situation. Why would Miralda, who escapes slavery by fleeing to Europe, speak to her father, a slave holder, in such a rarefied way? The answer is that Brown did not write the speech; David Paul Brown did for his eulogy of William Wilberforce, an English politician and a leader of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain (5). William Wells Brown’s maneuver aligns Miralda with the British statesmen, and suggests African Americans become the primary champions of the abolitionist cause in America—a notion that makes sense given the novel’s serialized publication on the eve of the Civil War. Miralda’s speech offers one of many instances in which the African-American novelist repurposed material from other authors to write his novel, and I have found digital humanities programs—especially a program called Visualeyes5—helpful when teaching students the complexities of Brown’s transatlantic work.

Visualeyes5 is an interactive map that allows users to track an individual’s life and works. In the case of William Wells Brown, the program also enables students to review from whom—and how—Brown repurposed material. The map I am currently using to teach Brown’s works looks like this:

TR2-6

I intentionally structured the map so that, at first glance, it overwhelms the eye; students have the opportunity to see how vast Brown’s borrowings are. After overcoming their initial shock, students approach the map either as a timeline of Brown’s life, in orange on the map, or some of his borrowings, in blue. Clicking on a name—Thaddeus Stevens, for instance—brings the student to the congressman’s birthplace and supplies pertinent information about both his life and how his text appears in Brown’s work:

TR2-7

The program even allows creators to embed links to original documents, so students can read Stevens’s remarks in their original context. Visualeyes5’s digital ecosystem helps reveal the complex network of cacophonous voices that Brown united when writing Miralda and his many other works.

In addition to asking students to explore Brown’s borrowings using Visualeyes5, I grant them a stake in the learning process by requesting they locate and add information not found on my map. This approach invites students to become experts of Brown’s work: they find material from which Brown borrowed, understand it in its original context, and then show and explain how Brown reconceived the material for his own work using the digital map. Updating the map to include new materials is as simple as updating the Microsoft Excel sheet from which the program populates its material. Geoffrey Sanborn has conceived of Brown’s writing as a kind of funhouse in which the African-American author entertains readers by reworking others’ materials in a kind of literary juggling act. Visualeyes5 allows students to see that juggling act, and to get a sense of what that juggling must have felt like. Visualeyes5 brings Brown—and teaching literature—into the twenty first century.

Works Cited

  • Brown, William Wells. Miralda; or, the Beautiful Quadroon. A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact. Ed. Christopher Mulvey. University of Virginia. Rotunda. Marlborough Adam Mathew Publications, 2003. Web.
  • Brown, David Paul. Eulogium Upon Wilberforce; with a Brief Incidental Review of the Subject of Colonization. Philadelphia: T.K. Collins & Co., 1834. Print.
  • Sanborn, Geoffrey. Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Print.

Further Reading

  • Coleman, Dawn. Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel. Columbus: U of Ohio State, 2013. Print.
  • duCille, Ann. “Where in the World is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American History.” American Literary History 12.3 (2000): 443-62. Web. JStor. 13 Mar. 2013.
  • Greenspan, Ezra. William Wells Brown: An African-American Life. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
  • Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage. The History Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
  • Levine, Robert, ed. Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
  • Stepo, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1979. Print.

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