What Students are Reading: Marrow of African American Lit
I believe there are a few events in my life which have not happened to many; it is true the incidents of it are numerous; and did I consider myself a European, I might say my sufferings were great; but, when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurence of my life.
If you can’t place that quote, students in Literature 255 Marrow of African American Literature can help you out. It’s from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written by Equiano and published in 1789. He was enslaved as a child in Nigeria, eventually purchasing his freedom.
Excerpts from the memoir are staples of the course developed and long taught by Professor of Literature Vincent Odamtten. It explores how African Americans produced literature that expressed their identities in the face of enslavement, exclusion, and terror. “I think of it as a sort of foundational course, and also it allows students to recognize that these African American writers, as much as they are writing about their own experience, they're writing about the American experience,” Odamtten says.
The course is cross-listed in literature and Africana studies, which he chairs, and its current students come from across disciplines, STEM and social sciences among them. Here’s a quick take from Odamtten on three writers, Equiano included, that his students are reading this term.
Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)
Captured as a child in what is now Senegal, Wheatley all the same became a successful poet at a young age. She was enslaved to a Boston family that provided her with an education, and she spoke several languages, including Latin and Greek.
Wheatley gravitated toward English poetry of the neoclassical period, working within that tradition and making it her own. “She produced poetry that spoke of her own experiences, in terms of her own desire for freedom, not just for herself, but for her brothers and sisters who were enslaved,” Odamtten says. Wheatley eventually became free.
Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Equiano’s memoir, first published in England, was influential and hugely popular. Some have questioned whether he really was born in Nigeria, but credible scholarly investigation indicates that he was, Odamtten says.
“We study him primarily because he is very significant in the rise of the abolitionist movement in England, where his work was published,” he says. “And a lot of our own contemporary civil rights movement activities, the ways in which we protest, were really developed in this period in which he was writing.”
Charles Waddell Chestnutt (1858-1932)
Odamtten named the course after the Chestnutt novel he assigns to his students, The Marrow of Tradition. It’s a fictionalized account of an actual white supremicists’ bloody 1898 overthrow of the local government in Wilmington, N.C.
Chestnutt shows how easy it was to accomplish the coup, based on fear mongering, manipulation of the media, and pitting the white working class against the black population, Odamtten says. Chestnutt raises the question whether the coup reflects the marrow of American tradition.
“Although Chestnutt at the end, in a sense, suggests possibly some kind of reconciliation and a redress of the injustice of what happened, it's a very tenuous gesture to optimism,” Odamtten observes.