In 2011, English Professor Cedrick May and a graduate student uncovered an unpublished poem written by a Long Island slave in the Yale University archives. The discovery was part of an ongoing digital humanities project May oversees: archiving and preserving historical literary remnants on his website, transatlanticwriting.com. College of Liberal Arts communication intern Charlotte Whitely sat down with May to explore more about his research and efforts to bring the past into the future.
Q: When you say “transatlantic literature,” what do you mean?
A: Mainly, I’m focusing on literature that comes out of the 17th and 18th centuries … conversations that were going on across the Atlantic. You have some African American writers in British North-America, but they’re getting published in England. You also have Afro-British writers who are being read over in the Colonies. There are also a lot of writers in England and Europe who are writing about the pros and cons of slavery [and that] influence is being felt in the Americas. The writing coming out at the time is nonfiction as well as fiction.
Q: What drew your interest to this literary genre?
A: When I started to look into early American literature as a graduate student, I found Phillis Wheatley. I was interested at looking at her poetry along with her life story. I ended up doing a lot of archival research to have a fuller understanding of the relationships she had formed in America and those in England who were helping her get her work published. It was these conversations between individuals that got me interested. I’m looking at some writers who are poets, and individuals who are writing sermons, autobiographies, pamphlets and letters. There is a whole range of writing that is happening at this period, which is important for the sense of cultural identity that is forming during this time.
Q: As you look through various archives, what have you uncovered?
A: I teach a graduate course in archival research, where we take a look at some early black autobiographical writing. Then we transition to going through archives in the libraries and universities around Texas, to see what kind of records there are about slavery in Texas. The discovery of the Jupiter Hammon poem in 2011 was incredibly rare, and that’s one thing that I’ve continued to work on and am exploring in a couple of books.
The work that I’ve been doing with my graduate students this semester has been phenomenal. They have been uncovering documents, such as bills of sales of slaves as well as receipts and letters written by Texas slave owners. This is a range of documents that give a really interesting insight into 17th and 18th century slave life. The texts are mainly from the master’s perspective, but you can dig a lot of interesting material out of that. You can draw from that a picture of what the life of a slave was like.
One of things that tend to get lost in narratives about slaves nowadays is the plight of women and children; a lot of these bills of sales are of women and children and their prices. In class, we often discuss the difference in prices between people due to gender, age and other factors. I didn’t expect there would be that much material in the UT Arlington special collections, as we don’t advertise that kind of material. I think a lot of people will really be surprised by how much material there is here as well as other in Texas schools. We came across a number of receipts and scraps of paper that are significant.
For instance, a student found some little strips of paper that were receipts of a family travelling around Louisiana. These receipts included services rendered to each individual, including the servants. It would say how much it would cost to house and feed each person. The prices were all different, but they would all be consistent with the individual. That gives a real insight into what was going on in the daily life of people with slaves who travelled. I think that those little strips of paper are real gems as you don’t see these kinds of documents very often. In most people’s minds the really important stuff is the literature and the personal accounts. I see it differently; I see meaning in letters and receipts. I want to find the mundane things, because it is those mundane things that show us the lived experience, so we can have a better understanding of what the hour-to-hour life would have been.
Q: What effect has archival research had on your students?
A: My students have been really surprised with these special collections. On the one hand, they have spoken about being very excited to find these materials. But they also have that excitement tempered by the fact of what they are reading. These are really important documents, which can be really disturbing documents, too. One of my students was initially surprised at how business-like a lot of the documents were. He expected the language to reflect this overt evil, because this is what has been implanted in our minds from popular culture. But what he actually saw in these bills of sale was very plain and legalistic language. It wasn’t what he had expected it to be. Students get a real education in doing this type of work, because it is different from the narrative that you will see in history books, particularly those in high school. In some ways, I think those books are a bit too concerned with hiding some of the realities of history, which is why it was important for students to see these documents in person.
Q: Why is it important to digitize archives?
A: What I’m doing is collecting these works and getting them together for the digital form, scanning them. The hardest thing is simply getting access to the documents. Most the materials that I usually deal with are in New England, and so being in Texas makes it difficult to work with these items. This is one of the reasons to have this material digitized: to put it into an online archive where other researchers can get hold of it. My graduate students parley their findings onto an early transatlantic writing site to give context to these items that they’ve been working on. I think we really need to teach our students to do original kinds of research as well as reading from textbooks.
It’s great to put everything digitally online, as it allows anyone who is interested to look at the materials. But there is also a problem with digital materials: when you digitize something, information is always lost. Meaning that as much information you’re getting from a scanned image, you’re also losing information from it. What type of paper is it on? Are there stray marks that aren’t showing up? Can you find watermarks? As much as we need to be looking at digital archives, it would be really good to start doing more original archival research with our students.