Toe to Toe Disclaimer: This “Toe to Toe” series is not about arguing that one text is better than another; instead, it is about the battle that plays out between texts every semester as we are forced to cut or change out readings because there just aren’t enough days in the semester to read and discuss everything we think should be in the course. So we ask ourselves: What are the main themes I will be addressing this go around? Which texts will help my students and my courses achieve their goals? And, we ask our texts, why do you belong on my syllabus?
In my last Toe to Toe, I considered two non-canonical pieces of American literature, Iranian American literature, with which some may or may not have been familiar. This time, I am comparing the most canonical slave narrative—Frederick Douglass’—with another that still exists within the canon of American literature anthologies, even if only in excerpt form—William Wells Brown’s.
At the beginning of the semester, I like to wander through the textbook section of my campus bookstore to see what others are teaching. I have taught at colleges that organize the books by department and course number and at colleges that organize the books by authors’ last names. I prefer the former because I can see what will be in my department’s classrooms, and I can choose which other related fields, from American Studies to theater, to peek in on. However, the grand scope I experience when it is organized by authors’ last name creates an entirely different understanding of what is being taught at the college. This practice, also, creates an alternate sense of what is canonical at that moment. What is showing up a lot, sometimes excessively, on syllabi at my college? What is not, whether it has fallen out of vogue or still not made it into the line up?
Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is taught in many departments. This is not the least bit surprising. Douglass’ Narrative is one of Henry Louis Gates’ identified “classic” slave narratives, alongside Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs. On numerous occasions, I have seen a tweet or heard an exasperated plea for other instructors to let go of Douglass’ Narrative and teach his My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), instead.
This response to Douglass always makes me smile. As an undergraduate, I read Douglass’ Narrative in 5 courses with 5 different professors across 3 departments, and I was done, completely burnt out. I was really invested in it at first, but, in the same way a radio station ruins a song by overplaying it, I needed a break. Since that time, I have enjoyed rediscovering Douglass on my own terms and through different texts. Douglass is a fascinating historical figure. I have also been particularly interested in the ways he crafted his public image as the most photographed person of the 19th century.
So, we could switch things up a bit by teaching Douglass’ My Bondage, instead, or we could be bolder and acknowledge one of the numerous other slave narratives at our finger tips. William Wells Brown’s Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847) can be found among the 16 narratives in Sterling Lecater Bland’s 3 volume collection African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology (2001), which does not include the 4 classics identified by Gates. Other narratives in the collection that readers may be familiar with are Nat Turner’s and, husband and wife, William and Ellen Craft’s.
Nell Irving Painter notes that Brown’s struggle to stake out space in American literary studies during the 20th century is due in part to our obsession with Douglass and in part to the fields of book history and performance art still developing at the time of his first biography’s release. In other words, his contributions to various fields were not yet realized. However, abridged versions or excepts of his narrative have made their way into American literature and African American literature anthologies, which makes incorporating Brown into survey courses relatively easy.
Teaching the Slave Narrative:
I have taught Douglass, Jacobs, and Brown together in one course, and I have taught each of them individually as the sole slave narrative representation and with other slave narratives. I have also included Booker T. Washington’s hybrid slave narrative-autobiography Up from Slavery (1901) a time or two.
Rotating different slave narratives into an already designed course can be quite manageable because we generally have a similar approach to teaching the slave narrative as a subgenre. My own standard is to introduce students to James Olney’s slave narrative plan, characterizing its common elements. Then, I have students find the places in whichever slave narrative we are reading that reflect those elements.
Depending on the slave narrative we are reading, some of the specific elements may be missing, and when that happens we discuss the purpose of that element and consider whether or not there is something else present that achieves that goal. Other times, there are multiple places in the narrative where the same element can be seen, so we discuss what the repetition of that specific idea adds. This approach both enables us to focus on the narrative within the subgenre and to develop our discussions around aspects that are more specific to the writer’s individual experiences.
While slave narratives can be approached in this similar way, each has its own strengths when it comes to teachability. This is where rotating in different slave narratives gets more complicated. Thematic organizations of courses require specific considerations, but the various slave narratives available do offer a wide range to meet different course needs.
Teaching Douglass through feminism
Clearly one benefit to choosing Douglass’ Narrative is the wealth of information and supplemental materials available to do so. For instance, showing students a map of his movement during slavery through his escape can help them better conceptualize his physical movement. That said, as I mentioned earlier, I was burnt out on my experiences of Douglass in undergrad before I was taken into the narrative from an entirely different perspective during grad school. How does Douglass change when we approach Narrative through a feminist lens?
It is easy to teach Douglass in conversation with The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791), having students consider the similar emphasis on the individual and the self-made man. It is just as easy to challenge that reading of Douglass by focusing on the moments in his narrative where women are involved. At times, Douglass’ statements about the women in his life conflict with his actual descriptions of their actions. This approach leads into a conversation about the purpose of slave narratives within the abolitionist movement and about the version of Douglass being crafted in Narrative. Utilizing the feminist lens additionally brings black masculinity to the forefront of the conversation.
Teaching Brown through African American literary tropes
For those teaching slave narratives within the context of African American literature or those teaching it in an American literature survey course where African American folktales are also a part of the course, Brown’s Narrative engages more directly with other aspects of the African American literary tradition. One of the sections that often shows up in anthologies involves Brown’s positioning of himself as the trickster character in his own life. Students struggle with this scene because they become very conflicted when Brown gets out of this whipping by tricking another black man into taking his place. They are initially proud of Brown for outsmarting his situation, but then struggle with him setting up another. This is where teaching the complexities of the trickster character and tradition in African American literature becomes important.
Trudier Harris suggests teaching the trickster concept by discussing the differences between con artists/conning and tricksters/trickery and the differences between masking and uncle tomming with students so they understand the nuances of the trickster figure. Any current mainstream movie involving con artists, like American Hustle (2013) or Catch Me If You Can (2002) or Ocean’s 11 (2001), can be helpful to juxtapose with the trickster. For teaching masking, I have brought in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s short poem “We Wear the Mask” which helps students better discern the concept.
Framing Neo-Slave Narratives:
On another front, I have yet to teach a neo-slave narrative without first contextualizing it with a slave narrative. I have mentioned pairing Jacobs’ Narrative with Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, which was due in large part to their focuses on family. In a course focused on 20th and 21st century African American literature, I had students read Brown’s Narrative before introducing them to Thylias Moss’ Slave Moth (2004). First, I think it is important to show students the larger tradition that neo-slave narratives are responding to and to open up a discussion of the historical revision occurring in neo-slave narratives. Second, when I make these pairings they really are pairings. Brown and Moss’ text both include scenes set in St. Louis which brings the Midwest more directly into the slavery conversation. Additionally, the majority of neo-slave narratives feature a female protagonist, so I do like to provide contrast with a slave narrative authored by a man.
Since the slave narrative was not the focus of the course, another one of the reasons I chose Brown’s Narrative was because of its shorter length. We were able to quickly move through it in a single class period and onto our main focus. This is true of many of the other slave narratives in Bland’s collection. Likewise, in survey courses, these shorter narratives create the space to read more than one or two.
Both Douglass and Brown were public figures who had lecture tours and wrote many other texts. In much the same way that we need to acknowledge more authors in the slave narrative subgenre, we also need to make students aware of the various other genres these men participated in. Let’s not forget Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853) is the first published novel by an African American, and as a side note for those interested in teaching the musical Hamilton, this fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved daughters might be a very productive pairing.
This semester I tried something new in my Intro to American literature course. I didn’t teach a slave narrative. I lectured on slave narratives, discussing the 4 classics, and I taught Onley’s characteristics of slave narratives. Then I had students read Brown’s play The Escape, or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), which has some similar preface materials that claim the authenticity of the story being told. We discussed the limits and strengths of presenting a slave narrative in the play form. My students were in charge of developing our discussion questions that week, and without my prompting, all of them chose one of Onley’s elements to craft a question around. This approach they took really worked. They were able to comment on both the element and how the form changed it.
My last Toe to Toe took a more neutral position to the texts. This time I am not so neutral. Should we continue teaching Douglass? Of course! Should we switch it up and teach lesser known slave narratives, like Brown’s? Absolutely! We need to actively acknowledge that Douglass wrote within a subgenre that includes many other voices and bring more of those accounts into our classrooms. If there is only room for one slave narrative on the syllabus, then have Douglass or Jacobs one semester and Brown or Crafts the next. That is not even to mention the possibilities in teaching the graphic novel adaptation of Nat Turner’s narrative.