The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

Are Your Kids Going to Vacation Bible School This Summer?

VBS

via Creative Commons

If so, you need some historical context.  Check out Chris Gehrz’s “A Brief History of Vacation Bible School” at The Anxious Bench.”  Here is a taste:

In his 1964 history of Christian education, Wheaton education professor C.B. Eavey traced the idea back to Boston just after the Civil War, but it’s generally agreed that the first VBS antecedent to be held as a summer church-run activity took place starting in 1877 in Montreal, Canada. Then in 1898 Eliza Hawes, the children’s ministry director at New York City’s Baptist Church of the Epiphany, organized an “Everyday Bible School.” Originally held at a rented beer hall, attendance plummeted in 1900 when Epiphany’s pastor insisted on relocating to the church itself. The program moved back near the beer hall the following year, Hawes’ last at the church, when she ran seven separate schools.

But it was another Baptist from the same city who is most frequently credited with founding the “vacation church school” as we would recognize it: Robert G. Boville, executive secretary of the New York City Baptist Board of Missions. “He had a concern,” write James E. Reed and Ronnie Prevost, “similar to that of [18th century Sunday School founder Robert] Raikes in Gloucester [England], that children of New York be given religious instruction during their idle summers to keep them out of trouble and develop patterns for productive and upright adult living.” Or as Eavey put it: “The vacation church school was started to gather idle children into unused churches where unoccupied teachers might keep them busy in a wholesome way in a wholesome environment.”

Read the rest here.  How can you bring your kids to a week-long event without understanding its history?  Too many people live their everyday lives this way.  🙂

The Author’s Corner with Colleen A. Vasconcellos

Colleen Vasconcellos is Associate Professor of Atlantic History at University of West Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838 (University of Georgia Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838?
CV: It actually began as my master’s thesis at East Tennessee State, a project that examined the experiences of enslaved children in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to continue that as part of my doctoral dissertation and I expanded my focus to include the experiences of the children who were bought, sold, and born on Atlantic plantations. Unfortunately enslaved children for the most part have been lost within the traditional treatments of Atlantic World slavery, treatments that categorically depict the enslaved as victims or voiceless statistics. As a result, they largely remain silent players in the annals of history. When you do see them appear in the narrative, you see them largely as statistics or as part of a conversation on infant and child mortality, slave women, or slave families. Their story is lost within another story. However, their story is one that is worth telling, and that’s what I really wanted to do. 
 
What I have found is that enslaved children were anything but silent, and that becomes increasingly obvious when one enters the archives and begins searching for them. I wanted to find enslaved children’s place and voice within that larger narrative on slavery as a whole in an effort to bring their experiences to the forefront and help them step out of the shadows of the periphery. No matter their location, enslaved children performed a myriad of tasks on the estates in which they lived, ranging from fieldwork to domestic servitude. Whether African-born or creole, these children lived in an environment that constantly reinforced their status as chattel, a status defined by the nature of their work itself. What I wanted to do was focus on them as children, and specifically as children who struggled for survival in a world that refused to acknowledge and protect their childhoods. And I wanted to examine the various ways in which enslaved children as a whole coped with the hardships of slavery and the realization that they were slaves by considering how they developed physically and psychologically within the plantation complex.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: By focusing specifically on the changing nature of slave childhood in Jamaica, I consider how childhood and slavery influenced and changed each other throughout from 1788 to 1838, with the abolitionist movement standing as the main catalyst for change. I argue that while the value of enslaved children shifted from burden to investment and then back to burden during specific periods of the abolitionist movement, their childhoods were always contested and redefined by the children themselves and the slave community as a whole.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: I think the book is important because it tells the story of an overlooked childhood. They were incredibly important to abolitionists, planters, and especially to the slave community. Yet, not so much to historians. This book rectifies that by exploring children’s experiences as slaves through the lenses of family, resistance, race, status, culture, education, and freedom we can see that. Enslaved children symbolized financial stability to planters, but they also symbolized hope and freedom for enslaved and apprenticed adults during this period in Jamaican and Atlantic history. Furthermore, these children were historical agents in their own right. They performed the same tasks as the adults who worked beside them. They suffered the lash just as severely as adults. And they were just as malnourished, if not more, than enslaved adults. They were fighters. They burned crops, broke tools, ran away, and tried to harm their owners. They resisted their status as slaves just as loudly as adults, and they carved out their own place for themselves in that community. This book focuses on their agency and gives them the voice they deserve.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CV: I’m actually not an Americanist. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian and I teach courses on the Atlantic World, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as the African Diaspora. However, as an Atlanticist, I do focus on the connections of the wider Atlantic world, so I see the influences that American history had on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and vice versa. 


Fun bit of trivia though…I originally planned on pursuing the American track in my doctoral program at Florida International University. However, I took a Florida and the Caribbean class during my first semester at FIU and absolutely fell in love with Caribbean history. After that, there was no going back. I majored in Latin American and Caribbean History, and minored in African History.
JF: What is your next project?

CV: For my next project, I’m interested in examining the last voyage of the slave ship Wanderer. This ship brought a cargo of about 300-400 boys to Georgia in 1858, and it is the last documented slave ship to do so in American history. Most histories of the Wanderer have focused on the court case that debated the legality of the voyage, but I want to examine the nature of the voyage itself. Where did the boys come from? How does this voyage differ from other voyages that carried mostly boys or African youths, and how does this enhance our knowledge of the illegal trade and the experiences of children in the trade as a whole. It’s not going to be an easy history, and I’m not really sure if I can do what I hope to do, but I’m going to give it a shot.

JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Colleen!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner