Essays on Teaching the American Literatures
Recovering the Colonial, Beginning Again:
by Carla Mulford
(from the Heath Anthology Newsletter)
Among the many comments received about the early selections collected in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, the plaintive comment, even from early Americanists, about the number of so-called new writers represented there strikes me as most honest and forthright. Indeed, more than a few colleagues in the field have privately admitted that getting over the feeling of stupidity or ignorance is perhaps the biggest hurdle to preparing to teach these early writings. This is a feeling shared by the Heath editors. We feel insecure about seeing names of so many writers about whom we learned nothing when in graduate school and about whom we've learned little since. We remain constrained by our former experiences of success in an academic culture that accepted our white dominant texts, our discursive structures of proto-nationalism, our defensive insistence upon aesthetics and literariness. To some extent, it might be said that in attempting to reconstruct ourselves as teachers of multicultural early American materials we are metaphorically placed in the position of being others in our own land, of having to learn a language (and thus a way of thinking) that is different, new, and, for many faculty, alienating of our former selves. My hope is that this feeling of being colonized by newer forms of academic discourse and cultural interest will tend toward gradual and useful shifts in our practices as teachers and scholars in the field.
If we specialists find ourselves somewhat baffled by the materials now available to us, we have only a partial sense of how our students feel when they face texts that aren't from the twentieth century. Fortunately, teachers who use The Heath Anthology have a great number of texts and nearly twice the number of pages on early materials when compared to any other two-volume anthology from which to choose selections for reading. Indeed, when teaching these materials, we are faced with the prospect of making our own anthology (our own canon) for students, since most classes cannot afford the time required to cover all of the early materials available in the anthology. We have a variety of options for selection in our mini-anthology. Working thematically, we can cover traditional Anglo-American issues, starting with Capt. John Smith, moving to the Puritans, and going into the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment by way of William Byrd. We can devise a syllabus around transnational issues by comparing Spanish writings with English writings with French writings at the outset, setting the stage for taking up the development of colonialism by discussing with students the Anglo-American colonial system, only one outcome of which was the American Revolution. We can survey the troubled relations between civil authority and religious authority in the writings of Spanish and English settlers as a precedent for the conflictedness in the discourse of nation-making and, later, abolition. We can treat women's studies, with the excellent selections by women writers afforded us. We can talk albeit to a lesser extent than with the other options about class systems, as represented by the wonderfully rich problem in hierarchy represented in the selections from the Virginia colony (Frethorne, Wingfield, and Smith), the Puritans (Bradford/Morton, Winthrop/Hutchinson), William Byrd, Sarah Kemble Knight, John Leacock.
When I teach early American writings to undergraduates, I am teaching in a 200-level survey course of 25 students (maximum; there is a significant amount of writing expected), many of them sophomores but some of them juniors and seniors. The syllabus for the course is designed in such a way as to meet the university-mandated requirements for diversity enhancement in lower division courses. My own teaching style implements a cultural studies model, primarily because I feel most comfortable with the ways in which this model permits the examination of multicultural issues. This is not to suggest that multiculturalism cannot be treated in a more literary -centered format; it means merely that this way of teaching happens to suit my interest at this time. I attempt to treat as many as possible of the issues in culture which I just named along with several others as we move through the survey. This is difficult to do, for it means that students, in addition to being asked to learn the materials, are shifting interpretive modes frequently. For some students, the shifts are troubling; these students seek consistency and closure above all else. For other students, the shifting perspectives are helpful, for such shifts illustrate the very constructedness of the stories we tell which, cumulatively, become institutionalized as history. Interestingly, because all of the materials are generally unknown to the students, they are remarkably free of existing prejudices which mark our own anxieties as teachers. Having little prior knowledge of the Mayflower Compact beyond what they might have learned as third or fourth graders about The First Thanksgiving, the students can at times seem bemused by my insistence that the Constitution of the United States is strikingly different in the separation of Church and State from the compact originally prepossessing those who came to shore to establish a form of English Commonwealth at Plymouth. They can be mystified, too, at the occasional vehemence that slips into my speaking voice as I talk about how the first so-called thanksgiving was an offering by Native Americans according to their systems of shared provisions, in the Indian form of common wealth, and not an open invitation for multi-million dollar landgrabs. For the students I am seeing with more frequency in the classroom, the world they have studied and currently witness has a different character than the one that exists in my memory of it.
I'll pause here to point out that I think it important that those of us who have been in the profession ten years or more keep in mind that our students might not have learned the same canon as we have, that they haven't necessarily experienced the same exclusivities in texts and methods we have, and that they can sometimes view with dubiousness our charges about the closed nature of institutionalized study. At my institution, students can take courses in jazz, gay and lesbian studies, and African American studies; it is sometimes difficult for my white, middle-class students to recognize that, after the Civil Rights era of the late sixties and early seventies, societal inequities are not solved and are in some ways more insidious than they were before. It is, I guess, that they have little history institutionalized history or any other history and less ability to differentiate some of the issues I (because of my own sense of history) want to spend time differentiating for them. Interestingly, like David Bergman, who wrote in the last Heath Newsletter about teaching gay and lesbian studies, I have found that my students willingly enter into the discussion of issues in multiculturalism so long as I non-dogmatically conduct the discussion enabling all points of view to be heard.1
In other words, if students are baffled by the materials presented to them for the first time, they can also be baffled by my vestiges of feeling colonized by Anglo-oriented institutionalization of history. To some extent, then, my own first tasks relate to assessing, as quickly as possible, the students' attitudes, experiences, and beliefs about the materials we are about to study. It might be useful if I mentioned briefly some of the issues that come up for us in class while showing how I address two key themes that arise throughout the semester: language use and aesthetics. I'll then turn to some examples of the ways in which students' assumptions about power relations are called into question when they consider the linguistic rendering of the power relations between the so-called conquerors and the so-called conquered. In exploring these issues, I'm hoping to show why I find multicultural approaches rewarding and necessary in my teaching practices.
As the students and I begin to approach the materials Native American creation stories, Anglo-American discovery texts, and Villagra's History of New Mexico I like to take some time out for discussion of key conceptual issues that will continue to come up during the semester, the issues of language (simply, the way we say things) and aesthetics (the way we sometimes study texts). Issues in language and aesthetics come up frequently, especially at the outset, as we talk about translation (and the power relation the translator holds over the text, whether it is Native American or Spanish or French),2 about linguistic implementation of power structures (as in the Europeans' inability or unwillingness to negotiate in Native languages), and about the institutionalization of white-culture-dominant attitudes through the vehicle of an aesthetics that privileges some writings above others.3
On some occasions we have had highly charged and on all occasions we have had very helpful discussions about the extent to which certain attitudes about language and aesthetics have constructed us as readers. This usually occurs from the outset, when we treat Native American materials. Students are puzzled at the extent to which all of the English-class-like (and cultural) formulations about both language and aesthetics they have learned cannot serve them in a discussion and evaluation of Native American creation stories.4 With the Spanish texts, those who have studied Homer and Virgil are fascinated by and feel more comfortable with Villagra's attempts to configure the takeover of Native lands in heroic terms. By contrast, for others, first attempts to differentiate fact from fiction in Villagra's poem are soon given up as they examine the extent to which the text complicates, in the effectually favorable (though certainly colonizing) representations of Gicombo and Luzcoija. Their easy assessment that the Spanish were bad colonizers who were totally uncomprehending of the peoples whose lands and persons they dominated is likewise complicated by the selections from Cabeza de Vaca, for the Spanish empire and by those of Roger Williams and Samuel Sewall for the British empire.5 In treating the conflicts between John Smith and Edward Wingfield, students can come to see the extent to which class-driven attitudes could obsess (as evident in the language of) both writers. By the time we get to Cotton Mather, students come to terms with the extent to which aesthetic norms are relative to the communities in which they emerge: they are puzzled as to how Mather's Ciceronian prose could ever have been a mark of high aesthetics.
Before turning to the means by which I explore with students their cultural assumptions about colonizers and colonized, I'd like to suggest some methods I have found useful in my efforts to provide an imaginative experiential framework for these early materials. Of course, power relations within communities are not transferable across time the students cannot feel events as colonists and colonized might have but students can be asked to enter imaginatively into the experience of earlier peoples. In my classes, they seem to have appreciated being asked to do so. These are rather simple classroom practices that have enabled me to suggest to students the power relations in which we all are working, despite our self-aggrandizing assumption that we in the twentieth century are more advanced because of progress and thus more free of ideology than the peoples we are studying. I use two techniques to try to help students realize, first, how hard it might have been for the English settlers and, second, how difficult it was (and is) for members of non-dominant groups (whether they are ethnically or racially or by class differentiated) to speak.
Depending on how conversation in class has been going about the settlement at Jamestown, it can be hard to get students to recognize the difficulties that the Jamestown settlers faced when the men sent as governors became unable to control the unstable situation and/or became ill or died. It took me some time to figure out a way to make students feel what it must have been like for the relatively elite people to come to terms with the loss of the marks of social place to which they had been accustomed in England. Sometimes it is that students want to say that these settlers somehow deserved what they got because they were trying to take over Indian lands and peoples. This is one way to look at the materials, of course, but it is a rather narrow way that doesn't go far in elucidating the complexity of linguistic and social relations that, once contact occurs, eventuate.
I try to complicate this notion by forcing the students to examine their own assumptions about hierarchy. On the second day on which we are examining the Virginia situation typically the day we will discuss the anthology excerpts by Smith, Frethorne, and Wingfield I take ten to fifteen minutes to create a conflict in the students' internalizations of social place and classroom space.6 I'll arrive at class early, take a notebook and a book or two, and place them in a seat toward the back of the room but not in the last row and not along either aisle in the classroom (i.e., somewhere in the middle of their seats, toward the back). If students who arrive early ask what I'm doing, I say simply that I'm saving that seat for a visitor. When class finally gets going and students begin, sometimes condescendingly, to comment (they invariably comment) upon the high level of anxiety evidenced by the Virginia selections, I'll say something like, I'd like to discuss for a moment what it might have been like for those who came to Virginia. That's all I say. I mutely turn, with a blank facial expression, and walk to the seat I have saved for myself. I continue not to speak, having reached my seat, and I look down at my hands on the desk, if need be. Invariably, the students in the seats nearest to where I sit will move away slightly, not grant me eye contact if I seek it, and evidence clear signs of worry that their presumed leader (me) happens to be crazy. I continue the silence as they nervously laugh, roll their eyes, and ask in look and word, What's going on here? I will begin speaking only after at least two students speak out to try to provide calm to the chaos. I have had to wait awhile in some classes, but eventually the students who speak up will begin a conversation with the other students (if I've made absolutely clear, sometimes by looking up and shrugging my shoulders, that I do not intend to speak) about what I'm trying to do. They quickly thereafter articulate in one way or another what has been my central point: that we are all constructed by socialized, hierarchized, normative behaviors, the absence of which can produce chaos, terrific anxiety, and fear, regardless of class, race, or ethnic background. We talk about how hard it is for us to accept my role reversals; I mention to them that it's hard to me, too, to pick up my things and walk to seat myself among them, because my presence among them creates something like an us (students) and her (me) situation. With this exercise, they begin to be less judgmental of the white elites who came to settle in the colonies. They begin, too, to recognize how strikingly difficult it might have been for someone from a non-dominant group (a friendly Indian, or an indentured servant like Frethorne) to have experienced the crumbling of the power elite.
My attempts to get students to recognize the problems inherent in settlement for whites are counter-balanced by an attempt to enable them to see what it might be like for members of the non-dominant groups of the early Americas, particularly Native Americans and African Americans. As I've said, most of my students are, like me, white. About a third of the way into the semester (usually about two to three weeks after the exercise just mentioned), I will for two or three class days create artificial demarcations in the classroom, so that certain students (those who are sitting in the first two rows, or those with red clothing on, or those with brown hair, or men, or women) will be the only students permitted to speak, all during class. After two or three days, the frustration of the students is real, and it is manifest in clear signals of annoyance fidgeting or else total stillness, absence of eye contact with anyone in the room, pinched looks in my direction, sighs signalling unhappy compliance. When we break the artificial codes, the students find that the exercise has illustrated a few things, not the least of which is the frustration with an unjust oppression that creates arbitrary and alienating lines between who can speak and who cannot, who will be recognized and who will not. It is a potentially risky method, but it has worked for me. Two days of this are usually sufficient; on the third day, about a third of the way in, it's best to break the facade and let students talk about it. By the third day, the students vociferously complain about the situation, and they usually begin to recognize the extent to which the demarcations place a burden not only upon those oppressed who are not permitted to speak and who remain unrecognized by the one in power (me) but also upon those who are permitted to speak. In my best classes, the students have begun to articulate some of the problems of racism and sexism and homophobia, especially in the context of nationalist colonial endeavors like those of, say, Spain or England. For me, the most important experiential concept I'd like them to take away (aside from what I would have them learn about the early literature itself) is the extent to which oppression conditions both the dominant groups and the groups dominated.
In another context and speaking about literature of later eras, Toni Morrison has metaphorically called the narrowness of our conceptualizations about the effects of such cultural conditioning upon the study of American literature a form of playing in the dark. 7 For Morrison, as for Orlando Patterson and Valentin Mudimbe, among others, cultural definitions of self and nation, so long presumed to have been white and apart from questions of race/ethnicity, are illusory if not conceived reflexively as a function of racial/ethnic differentiation8 Morrison identifies this as the pattern of thinking about racialism in terms of its consequences on the victim of always defining it asymmetrically from the perspective of its impact on the object of racist policy and attitudes. 9 Put another way, the conception of double consciousness articulated by W.E.B. DuBois suggests the self-consciousness of the racialized subject and the lack of self-consciousness on the part of a racist society. In classes where students have been most thoughtful on these issues, some have talked clearly about and found places in texts (Roger Williams and William Byrd work well here, as does Sarah Kemble Knight) that evidence the anxieties of such cultural dominance. They recognize and want to discuss the burdens that dominance places not just on the groups demarcated as outside the circle but upon those who are supposedly free to speak and act.
It is in this dimension of the power relations between peoples that I have had the most interesting classes, especially when the relations are discussed in terms of language-power. By discussing the function of language in implementing power relations, I'll return to some examples of how we treat the complicated situation of the colonizers and colonized. With Morrison, Mudimbe, Patterson, and Foucault before them, I have come to think that the will to power for the most part unconsciously enables (especially white middle class) people to make certain key assumptions that keep themselves empowered, at least in an imaginative identity, while they comfortably assume that others are disempowered. Yet, as Foucault has suggested, power is not merely negating, repressing, prohibitive. Working from the critical commonplace that power resides in language itself, I try to show students during the course of the semester how texts emanating from presumed dominated groups don't necessarily speak of oppression alone.
The first chance we speak about this occurs when we discuss the Mayan chant They came from the east when they arrived in The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayal (1:7). The chant can be read as a record not just of European takeover of Native American lands and peoples but of a Mayan takeover admittedly, an accommodation to an unsolicited circumstance of a linguistic system and thus a culture not its own. My aim is to show students that relational power in a contact situation usually works two ways, not just from the conquerors to the conquered, X to Y always and evermore because of the sword and gun.10 In my best classes, we talk about the marvelous intercultural drama being enacted in the language itself:
They came from the east when they arrived
By examining the words used,11 we talk about how this chant might be said to record colonial domination in such a way as to mediate total disempower-ment. The chant reveals a Mayan culture that perhaps out of necessity accepted a true god, the God of the Spanish colonizers, but it reveals a culture as well that would record, in its own way, a cultural memory of an epoch that had no church dues, no individual strife, no vexation. I encourage my students to recognize the resilience in these spoken/written words, for I still think that, during the period of contact between one technically empowered group and a group empowered without instruments, a liminal era of cultural interplay might have emerged such that the material power relations of the sword or gun (or Patriot missile) was (is) linguistically mediated by the assumed-to-be-conquered. In other words, I still think and I encourage my students to imagine that the group materially overpowered finds other, resilient ways of mitigating an otherwise psychologically disastrous potential cultural loss.
The overall point I would like students to consider a point we discuss off and on all semester is that, in the absence of technological might, overpowered peoples in non-technologically driven cultural economies can come to terms with their situations through cultural resistances imbricated in the complicated but potentially emancipating vehicle of language. This is the point Henry Louis Gates makes when he discusses the extent to which Africans' abilities to write and think as evidenced, say, in Phillis Wheatley's poetry or Benjamin Bannecker's many scientific and literary talents became a preoccupation of politicians and philosophers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.12 To examine early American materials in the absence of an examination of the cultures of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans, it seems to me, is to skew literary evidence toward philosophy, political science, and the arts, without considering the oppositional situation (vis à vis the cultures of persons of color) which these areas of inquiry hold within the white constructions of racialized normative standards. In other words, without examining the seeming absence of race in a social formation which depended upon a racialized hierarchical structure, we are, as I see it, merely skimming the surface of the evidence set before us about past eras.
In this context I have found it useful, when examining the mystifying complexity of Enlightenment philosophy, to introduce, after talking with students about the attractiveness of Enlightenment optimism its figures of progress, liberty, equality before the law, its promise of individual rights and concomitant responsibilities the writings of Phillis Wheatley and Samson Occom. We reach these two writers by way of Crevecoeur, where the last letter from the American Farmer frames the anxieties and complexities which we examine. Two key passages (among others) from Wheatley and Occom suggest the extent to which the preoccupations of the era were the preoccupations of those marginalized and silenced at a time when liberty for all was proclaimed as an end to revolution. Below is a passage from a letter dated February 11, 1774, which Phillis Wheatley sent to Samson Occom:
[I]n every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same principle lives in us. God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honour upon all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the calamities of their fellow creatures. This I desire not for their hurt, but to convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct, whose words and actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it requires the penetration of a philosopher to determine. (1:1066)
Wheatley here expressed attitudes similar to those of Morrison, Patterson, and others of this century that the culture in which whites have been ruling is remarkably blind to its own assumptions of otherness, the forced alienation of whole groups of peoples, upon which the social formation is based.13 In 1774, Wheatley underscored the prejudice and oppression that enlightened optimism mystified for whites (and, in the minds of many United States citizens, continues to mask).
Where Wheatley spoke to the philosophical issue of liberty and oppression, Occom spoke to the economic effect of white cultural bias when, in his personal narrative dated September 17, 1768, he created a rhetorical question the answer to which he undoubtedly knew as he called himself a poor Indian about the strikingly lower wages he was receiving, compared to a white missionary:
Now you See what difference they made between me and other missionaries; they gave me 180 Pounds for 12 years Service, which they gave for one years Services in another Mission. In my Service, (I speak like a fool, but I am Constrained) I was my own Interpreter. I was both a School master and Minister to the Indians, yea I was their Ear, Eye & Hand, as Well as Mouth. . . . [W]hat can be the Reason they use me after this manner? (1:946-47)
Like Wheatley, Occom registers a recognition of inequity, of a double standard, one for whites and one for others. Clearly, the American expectations about individualism, liberty, and equality were recognized by members of the non-dominant groups as for whites only.
When asked to examine these selections, students readily understand the political import of what Wheatley and Occom are saying. What they struggle to recognize is the sense of community which white-cultural isolation and alienation produced in these two writers and the potentially subversive speaking acts in which the two were engaging in their private writings and more importantly in the writings for the public. That is, these two selections suggest to students that Wheatley and Occom, though they complained to each other about racism, seemed to accept their places in the white-structured social order, places that left them below whites, even if both writers see problems which whites either don't see or else gloss over. It can be more difficult for students especially white students to acknowledge that publication (more frequent for Wheatley than for Occom) and/or speaking engagements provided both writers an emancipating vehicle in which they could, in veiled form, speak their minds. Wheatley might have called herself an Ethiop in her poems, but the term probably had markedly different implications for her white readers than it did for those readers in the racialized, non-dominant group who read in the term an insistent insertion of herself and her blackness as subject of the poems she was writing. Indeed, in the poem, To the University of Cambridge, in New England, (1: 1059-60) and also in the poem to the Earl of Dartmouth (1: 1053-54), Wheatley might seem to be speaking of her transformation from pagan to Christian, but central to her authorization as speaker is her African origin.
Likewise, Occom might have called himself a poor Indian and Moses Paul his poor unhappy Brother ; he might have, reinforcing whites' stereotypical attitudes about Indians, dwelled upon Paul's drunkenness and spiritual death; he might have subserviently addressed the white ministers attending Paul's execution as reverend gentlemen and fathers in Israel. But in insisting upon the Indianness of Moses Paul and the poorness of the Indian condition, in castigating Indian women particularly (for they had a central role in raising Indian children in the social structures whites promoted), in referring again and again to his own speaking situation before his God and the people gathered there, and in reminding the audience at the very end of a long sermon of the woe denounced in sacred writ against men who put their bottles to their neighbours mouth to make them drunk, Occom centered the Indian subject in the sermon, vilifying, for Indians present, the whites who devilishly put the bottle to their neighbors' mouths and so triumphantly might have come to watch the spectacle of a Mohegan preacher speak at the execution of a fellow Indian who killed a white man. If whites might have felt a self-satisfied sense of white justice in watching the scene, Native Americans at the scene might have felt an equal sense of self-righteousness in the castigation of whites who made the conditions for Indians what they were. Speech acts for Native Americans and African Americans might have had the negative effect of self-abnegation in that members of these groups had to bow before the pressure of white dominance, but speaking to whites also must have had the very positive effect of cultural assertion, the positive personal insertion of racial identity which signifyin(g) could bring.14
Once students come to realize the double consciousness of writers like Wheatley and Occom, they can see the ways in which members of non-dominant groups transform the experience of alienation into one of subversive connectedness with each other. My students tend to want to discuss the alienation effect that oppression has on whites, too. This is where readings in writers like William Byrd, Sarah Kemble Knight, Crevecoeur, Thomas Jefferson, and some others can be particularly useful in the classroom. I'll discuss Jefferson here, for the complications which Jefferson's writings raise for students are most elucidating of the general point I've been making.
When we look at Jefferson's writings in the context of the effects on whites of slavery, students are interested to see Jefferson explicitly address the issues we have theorized. Take, for instance, the selection from Notes on the State of Virginia (Query 18), where Jefferson acknowledged that The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions. . . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances (1:908). He said there, too, that There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. Jefferson addressed the terrible sense of self-loathing which the holding of slaves caused for whites. The complex sense of the negative effects of slave-holding are registered here in a particularly clear fashion. For most students, these statements represent Jefferson-the-abolitionist talking, a representation which fits into what they've already learned, in a positive and nationalist historical construction, about Jefferson's interest in seeing gradual emancipation take place. When asked to examine the impulses behind the request for gradual emancipation, students are, after some discussion, generally able to acknowledge that such interest probably came about not so much, necessarily, from Jefferson's enlightened and altruistic sense that Africans are equal to whites but from a worry about what slave-holding was doing to white slave-holders.
This is, in my view, an important distinction for students to recognize, and it provides a useful context for Jefferson's famous praise of Indian oratory and denigration of Phillis Wheatley in the Notes, in Query 14. Indians, Jefferson asserted, astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory, but blacks cannot utter a thought above the level of plain narration (1:903). Thus it is, in Jefferson's view, that Phillis Wheatley's poetry is below the dignity of criticism (1:904). Students are fascinated by the clear anxiety with which Jefferson addresses the problem that the excellence of Wheatley's poetry raises for his views on race. Blacks should be emancipated not because they speak and write like geniuses and thus are equal, students note, but because slavery has a negative effect upon white culture. In this context, students begin to understand the pains at which Jefferson attempted to represent, in the drafted Declaration of Independence, the view (stricken out of the published Declaration) that slavery as a system was foisted by the British crown upon supposedly unwilling colonists. I have had most interesting classes in these matters, when students discuss how the Enlightenment configuration of (unracialized) slavery in the Middle Ages, to religion, in the eighteenth century, to British rule seems to have been a masked discussion about how not to end up like the African slaves in the colonies. The revolutionary calls for freedom from tyranny, the insistence upon the colonists' being a natally free people, the provocative and inspiring assumption that there are certain inalienable rights accorded to human beings all have a different ring to them in the remembered social context of enslaved blacks living among and indeed defining the cultural formation for whites. As my students point out, Jefferson's positions about abolition seem to be less a set of arguments about freeing African and African American slaves than they are about not having whites be slaves, whether to Britain or to their own social formation.
For those who might feel doubtful or uncertain about entering these matters in the classroom, I can only say that my experiences with students and these materials have been provocative, culturally informed, and instructive in literary terms both for my students and for me. I have found no better context in which to address the obsessive interest in the artificiality of neoclassical poetry and the obvious need for narration (in the popularity of novelistic discourse) in the late eighteenth century, as, post-Revolution, white Americans were grappling with the loss of British national colonial identity and the necessity of averting social chaos. Once they understand the anxiety that lack of place might have presented to whites, students are less surprised at the vehemence with which federal policy was discussed and scientific racism implemented. They are also more self-conscious about how these policies have brought them a legacy of problems which we all, now, must face.
On occasion I have been asked by students and one or two colleagues whether treating the writers in this way doesn't totally obliterate the concept of national identity, taking away the inspiration that having national heroes might provide young people. This is a good question, one I think about often. It is true that the social formation my students experience provides them fewer assurances than I had as a young person: they fear the loss of personal security and safety, the threat of international warfare over race, religion, or oil, the threat of uncontrollable diseases and environmental catastrophes, the absence of jobs at the end of their degree paths. I have, on occasion, had students ask what good it does to see their national heroes compromised, their own optimism called into question. When the questions arise, I wait for other students to talk. What eventually comes out is a sometimes highly charged but always fruitful discussion about the legacy of Enlightenment which constructs us all. As one student, with self-conscious optimism, put it, Maybe it's time to try to begin again.
In The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau phrases explicitly some of the questions about culture that I have been articulating. In deCerteau's words, [H]istoriography stages the conditions of possibility of production, and it is itself the subject on which it endlessly writes. 15 It seems appropriate to me, then, that in this present era of recognition that the United States is multicultural we are examining the colonial past in terms of the heretofore unexamined cultures marginalized by white dominance. We are, it seems to me, at the moment of what deCerteau would have called a breakage, where the process of interpretation has itself been broken up, called into question by shards of an unrecognized, even repressed past that has resisted entombment: [W]hatever this new understanding of the past holds to be irrelevant shards created by the selection of materials, remainders left aside by an explication comes back, despite everything, on the edges of discourse or in its rifts and crannies: 'resistances,' 'survivals,' or delays discreetly perturb the pretty order of a line of 'progress' or a system of interpretation. There are lapses . . . [which] symbolize a return of the repressed, that is, a return of what, at a given moment, has become unthinkable in order for a new identity to become thinkable. 16
The shards of the repressed past were always there vide both Wheatley's and Morrison's statements, Occom's self-questioning, and Thomas Jefferson's anti-African and pro-abolitionist assertions. It seems that these shards have, by now, evoked sufficient resistance to the system of interpretation that has dominated. This moment in which we are poised, it seems to me, is a moment when no longer like Thomas Jefferson before us who even as he was measuring and uncovering Indian burial mounds insisted that Indians had no monuments17 we can begin to decolonize ourselves from the written stories of the past and re-think ourselves anew in a more self-conscious historiographical and intercultural present. Many of my students seem to think this possible.
1 David Bergman, The Gay and Lesbian Presence in American Literature, Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter, No. 10 (Fall 1993): 5. This is what, in another context, Gerald Graff (sometimes with Gregory Jay) has called teaching the conflicts. See Graff's Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
2 There are a number of studies of the politics of translation currently available. With regard to Native American materials, I'd recommend two collections, one edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), and one by Swann alone, On the Translation of Native American Literatures (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).
3 See Mulford, Seated amid the Rainbow: On Teaching Early American Writings, American Literature 65 (1993): 342-48.
4 When discussing Native American materials in my classes, I try to work through, using student contributions, what we call the beginning of an articulation of Native American aesthetics, derived from the readings we are covering in class. This is an interesting exercise that I could explain here further, but it seems to me more useful, however, to work through the other matters I discuss below, especially given the fact that Andrew Wiget's essay on teaching Native literatures has appeared in The Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter, No. 9 (Spring 1993). See also Wiget's provocative essay, Reading Against the Grain: Origin Stories and American Literary History, American Literary History 2 (1991): 209-31. Let me mention two other books, for background reading: Gordon Brotherston's Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas through Their Literature (New York and Cambridge, Engl.: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and, for Native Southwest studies, the excellent book by Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).
5 I discuss a little further the process of overcoming easy cultural assumptions in Seated amid the Rainbow.
6 I am aware that this exercise might sound a little naive as a teaching method with college students. Doubters might find it interesting to know that I have used the method to wonderfully useful effect in my graduate classrooms, too. The only problem with it is that the method cannot be used too often, for the consternation it raises for the students does get reported to other students in other classes; it wouldn't work as a method were students in succeeding classes anticipating the situation I create.