On My Many Metaphorical Hats

This semester in Early Minority Lit, we’ve worn a lot of hats.

When I look back on this course, when I try to synthesize everything I’ve learned, I realize that what I’ve learned is a little bit of everything – and the only way I can make sense of the many, seemingly disparate skills I’ve practiced this semester is to reflect on all of these hats.

When we started the semester, we were ordinary English lit graduate students, reading canonical and not-so-canonical works of early American literature. We focused on the intersection between Christianity and slavery, on the impact of religion on the role of women, and we got our introduction to life writing, travel writing, and diary writing.

We asked critical questions – tough questions – particularly about the issue of slavery. We saw the nuances in defenses of slavery written by both black and white authors. I began to understand, for the first time, what it means to try to “imagine” yourself into the mind of someone who lived two or three hundred years ago. I began to grasp how educational it can be to read works from the past when you shed your contemporary biases and attitudes.

Geek Hat

I need this geek hat.

At the same time that we were learning about these authors and their complex beliefs, we were discovering our inner computer geeks. We got our introduction to coding and collaborating through our Wiki pages. I have to admit that if someone had told me, a few months ago, that I would be editing Wikipedia while in grad school, I would have thought they were crazy – but I did it! And now, our class’s work is out there on the “real” Wikipedia for anyone to read. That’s been the biggest takeaway for me in this class: the idea that we can produce public knowledge for a general audience – rather than closed-access knowledge for an academic audience. As a minority scholar and scholar of minority literature, it’s impossible for me to forget the fact that I’m privileged to be receiving this level of education at TCU. I’m inspired by the work we’re doing because it has helped me to find purpose in my academic work, which can feel so far removed from my background… and to envision more ways I can carry that sense of purpose into the future, through digital work.

The computer geek hat is one that I’ve worn both in and out of class. I came to this course with a basic knowledge of HTML, CSS, PHP, WordPress, databases, and web hosting/design. But my reintroduction to digital work has reminded me how much I love it, inspired me to continue down this path, and given me a taste of how I can integrate these skills into my future as a researcher.

Detective Girl

Me in the archives.

Yet another hat I wore this semester was that of a detective. From the moment I stepped into the archive at UT-Arlington, I became a sleuth. First, in finding materials to work with. It took a lot of explaining, questioning, cajoling, and patience to emerge with the single box containing the Gaffney family papers. Then, once I had the papers in hand, I only had a few moments to get over the excitement of discovery before I realized that each letter I read raised more and more questions. Where was Mrs. Gaffney from? What was her relationship with her husband like? When and how did he die? How old were her children? How many children did she actually have? (There were conflicting reports.) Did she own slaves? Was she wealthy before she came to Texas? What kind of education did she have, and why? And on and on and on.

Some of these answers came as I pieced together historical information, and others as I revisited, reviewed, and transcribed the letters themselves. Still more came when I dug into old census records via TCU’s subscription to Ancestry.com. For the first time, I understood what a wormhole genealogical research can be! Still, I found answers – and raised some new questions – that helped me get a better understanding of the woman Mrs. Gaffney was. Gradually, my narrative morphed – I learned that the Gaffneys were not lower class Southerners looking for a better life; Peter Gaffney’s family was actually very wealthy. But I learned that his wife Martha had little education and came from a family of more modest means.

So, having done some detective work, I switched that hat for one of a storyteller. I began to tell the story of Martha Gaffney, nee Martha Whitecotton, who married into a family of means, followed her husband west, and had to manage a massive plantation on her own. In my research, I uncovered the story of a woman who might have felt out of her depth and in over her head – but who rose to the challenge in order to support her family.

Dobby the House-Elf

Dobby the House Elf (From Harry Potter) wearing lots of hats.

Ultimately, it was in this final project that all of these skills came together, that I got to wear all of my hats at once. I was a literature student, bringing my knowledge of history, minorities, life writing, women’s writing, and slavery to the Gaffney correspondence. I was a computer geek, constantly tweaking my WordPress site via themes, plug-ins, CSS, HTML, post and page layouts, and so on. I was a detective, using the massive print and digital resources available to me to puzzle out the story of Mrs. Gaffney. And finally, I was a storyteller, constructing a loose narrative around the details I discovered – in the hopes that someone else can be inspired to take on those different hats, too, and pursue the Gaffney papers even further.

William Apess, Digitization, Storytelling, and the Passage of Time

Storytelling then: “Storytelling” by Albert Grossvater, 1884

We are all storytellers.

In the last month, our focus in Dr. May’s Early Minority Literature course has shifted to life writing, with three autobiographies and a travel diary. We followed the spiritual transformation of an indentured servant and Quaker, Elizabeth Ashbridge; we shadowed William Apess, a Native American, as he overcame abuse and other challenges to become a devoted Methodist preacher. We trailed intrepid businesswoman Sarah Kemble Knight as she journeyed solo through Connecticut, and we traveled with cross-dressing female soldier Mary Ann Talbot across the Atlantic (and back).

As different as these four works are, they have two things in common: first, that they represent “forgotten” voices of literary history. As the work of minorities, their writings have been overshadowed by canonical white, male voices of early America. Second, all four of these pieces construct a cohesive narrative out of many life experiences -– a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with obstacles and triumphs, with lessons learned and experience gained.

What’s so extraordinary about “constructing a narrative”? In the most straightforward sense, “constructing a narrative” is simply “telling a story” – and is there anything that groundbreaking about storytelling in itself? Maybe not, but as a literary scholar, it’s hard not to believe wholeheartedly in the power of storytelling. Storytelling – among other things – makes us human. (And I’d be willing to bet there are some psychologists who would back me up on that.) The ability to tell stories – to take a series of events and give them meaning by shaping them into, say, Acts One, Two, and Three (along with many other storytelling traditions) – that ability is all but universal, and over time it has given us the ability to do everything from tell jokes to feel compassion to disseminate world religions.
Continue reading

“Obeying Freely”: Finding the Nuance in Jupiter Hammon’s Achievements

Henry Louis Stephens, untitled watercolor (1863). From Wikimedia Commons.

As an Hispanic woman, I am often reminded – and often conscious of the fact – that if I had been born just a few decades earlier, I would probably not be where I am today: pursuing my PhD in English literature at a private university. Or maybe, more specifically, that I would not be welcome where I am today, thanks to my skin color, my heritage, and my gender.

That kind of overt discrimination is a reality that seems very distant, a problem of a less-enlightened past, but I need only look at my grandmother – a clever, well-read woman with little formal education – to feel the immediacy of those limits and the power they hold even today. This semester, we’ve read two early American writers, Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, who faced and surpassed limits far beyond those I can conceive. If achieving higher education is a challenge for people who struggle against discrimination, then what is literary publication for African American slaves who were considered, legally and socially, no better than livestock? How did they manage to write and publish when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds? Continue reading

Private Words for Public Consumption: The Audience for Madam Knight’s Journal

If she had lived today, Sarah Kemble Knight would have made a great travel blogger. Or maybe a cultural anthropologist. Smart, intrepid, and sharply observant, her account of a five-month journey from Boston to New York would no doubt have made prime entertainment, the kind that gets quoted and shared on social media. She probably would have even loved Twitter, with its ability to give pithy, real-time updates on daily experiences and encounters.


The approximate route of Sarah Kemble Knight. From the National Center for Humanities.

Even without this technology, though, Knight’s 1704 diary gives us a colorful account of her travel from Boston to New York, with frank, honest, and spot-on descriptions of the strange people she meets, the (gross) food she encounters, and the unruly and dangerous wilderness that surrounds her. She has an eye for detail, for characterization, from the seventy-year-old woman with the intellect of a seventeen year old, to the rude lady whose jewelry can’t mask her lack of manners, to the young man who prays for his aunt to die so he can pay his debts. Knight captures them all with sharp wit and humor – and no small amount of bias. Without censoring her judgments, she reports on the fashions poor and rich people wear, the food they eat, the quarrels they have. She describes sights and sounds of the city, the architecture of buildings, the popular pasttimes of city-dwellers, and the diversity she (sometimes reluctantly) encounters in New York and Connecticut, from slaves to Native Americans to the Dutch.

Even for this contemporary reader, her observations made me laugh and cringe and nod, which raises one burning question for me: was her audience really an audience of one? And what does the answer tell us about Sarah Kemble Knight and women’s diary writing of this era?

On the one hand, putting one’s thoughts in writing creates the risk that those thoughts will be read and seen by someone other than the author. Writing itself carries the possibility of being a public act, and the public nature of writing was often and for centuries at odds with expectations of women, who were generally confined to domesticity and service to husband and family. Knight’s diary wasn’t published until 1825, nearly 100 years after her death, but it’s clear that she didn’t live a private life, for Knight was a shrewd and profit-minded businesswoman. She owned an inn and a tavern and dealt in land speculation (DeLuca). Her diary itself reveals a woman highly independent and self-sufficient, capable of securing safe passage for a five-month, round trip journey from Boston to New York.

Details of her life, then, and the simple fact that she wrote, would suggest that she might well have imagined her words reaching the public. This idea is supported by the fact that much of her diary reads as informative, with rich details catalogued, rather than as purely narrative or even reflective. It is telling that Knight writes very little that is self-reflective or personal: with small exceptions that reveal her personality, biases, and judgments, her diary is simply a frank account of her travels, in which Knight is primarily an observer of events.

So to what extent is this diary a public or private document? And how does that impact the written self preserved (or presented) in its pages? We know that audience, whether singular or plural, public or private, impacts how and what we write. Knight, though she doesn’t acknowledge an audience explicitly, displays an awareness of public expectations for female writers. Upon coming to a story about Native Americans in New Haven, Knight refrains from talking of “trivial matters, of which some have been told me, but are not proper to be Related by a Female pen” (Knight, para. 37). Clearly, Knight has at least considered the possibility that her words are not simply for herself.

And finally, of course, there’s her poetry. The only early American female poet I’m familiar with (so far!) is Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan who was careful to apologize profusely for her own verses, assuring the reader that she did not neglect her duties as a Puritan wife and mother in order to write, and explaining that her female pen is not worthy of lofty subjects such as history. Knight makes no such apologies, basing her poems on her own frustrations, fears, and encounters, and not confining her subject matter to domesticity. She mines her own life, with its rich variety of experiences, for raw material – but because she writes in her own diary, she need not make excuses for her work.

It is curious that Knight would write so publicly in a personal diary. In a strange way, the diary form might have been a safe place for an ambitious woman writer like Knight to exercise her skills, free from the baggage of societal scrutiny or retribution.

Brooks writes historical fiction set in early America.

Last semester, I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction author Geraldine Brooks, whose work often features women and minorities of early America. She said that the number one complaint she receives from readers is that her characters are anachronistically frustrated with the status quo, with the boundaries of their roles as women, slaves, or Native Americans. Her response was that she has done the research, and the reality she finds in personal diaries and letters is that women and minorities were no less frustrated, vocal, diverse, or opinionated than they are today – they simply lacked the education and power to make their voices heard. Sarah Kemble Knight, whose voice is so strong and tangible in her diary, seems like a perfect example of this phenomenon: yet another example of the undercurrent of voices in early America that we are just beginning to rediscover.