Hermanns Lectures to Focus on Slave Narratives

Slave narratives and current archival research will be the central theme for the 2014 Hermanns Lecture Series this spring.

The annual Department of English event, slated for April 3 in the Central Library Sixth Floor Parlor, will feature speakers from across the country. The lecture series, “New Directions in African American Studies,” will include Katherine Clay Bassard (Virginia Commonwealth University), Margaret Brucia (Temple University), independent scholar Charla Bolton and UT Arlington Associate Professor Cedrick May (English).

“African American Studies is quickly becoming of interest to digital humanists,” said May. “The field had been stagnant for for decades leading up to the early 1980s, then there was an explosion of interest and research on authors like Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs. Something similar is happening today and more people are talking about slave narratives and slavery. Now researchers are uncovering new authors and documents and designing new methodologies that dovetail into digital humanities.”

Bassard is the author of two books, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing and Transforming Scriptures:  African American Women Writers and The Bible well as numerous articles on African American literature and black women writers. Her recent archival and critical work has been on the contemporary neo-slave narrative and the writings of 19th-century African American preacher Peter Randolph.

Brucia’s specialty is Augustan poetry and she has taught courses in Latin, mythology and classical antiquity for more than 30 years. She lives on Long Island, NY, not far from Lloyd Neck, the birthplace of Jupiter Hammon – the focus of her talk.

Bolton spent 32 years as an urban planner and cultural resources specialist with the Town of Huntington, Long Island, NY. While working for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, she began researching African American post-manumission settlement patterns in the Town of Huntington, focusing on the period from 1790 to 1860. She has presented and published several papers on her work, as well as research into Hammon and his family.

May, who specializes in early African American literature written prior to 1840, said the Hermanns lectures will use Jupiter Hammon as a springboard into other topics associated with slave narratives and experiences throughout the nation.

“We think of slavery as being a monolithic thing, but it took different forms in different parts of the country,” he said. “People don’t generally think of slavery in Texas when we talk about the slave period. There is other material we should be looking at so we can see the range of ways the institution [of slavery] operated throughout the country.

“The speakers for the Hermanns lectures are trying to humanize the people who were enslaved. They will put a human face on those who endured slavery, and work out the nuances that have been lost or not talked about.”

May said Hollywood and pop culture routinely remind the general public that the conversation on slavery must continue. He said recent films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” as well as “Roots” in the 1970s and “Amistad” in the late-1990s bring up the topic of slavery, but then the conversation is muted just as quickly.

“We’ve never really had a sustained post-Civil-War conversation about slavery in this country, and certainly not in the media,” he said. “We have these occasional movies or TV shows, which is good. But we need to continue to have this conversation with more examples of our shared history in pop culture.”

Especially when those films, TV shows and books move beyond a familiar storyline: in a recent column for the Dallas Morning News, May praised how “12 Years a Slave” shed light on the unbearable treatment of women and children in the era of American slavery. He said the film allows the audience to experience slavery as the main character does, as he observes and encounters it firsthand.

May said he hopes those attending the Hermanns will gain new insight and be able to look at the bigger picture of U.S. slavery and how it still impacts today’s society. He also said making a slight name change in referring to the historical works can help other gain new perspective.

“When we use the term ‘slave narrative’ we should really be referring to these type of works as ‘black autobiography’ or ‘African-American autobiography,’” he said. “The name emphasizes the humanity rather than the slave status. When we do that, we can highlight a larger body of historical life stories than we have in the past.”

The Hermanns Lecture Series, initially named the Katherine Anne Porter Memorial Lecture Series, began almost three decades ago. Rudolph Hermanns, a local horticultural salesman, was a German immigrant who lived UT Arlington. When he died in 1985, he left part of his estate to UT Arlington and the Rudolf Hermanns Endowment for Excellence was founded to enhance academic excellence as well as campus beautification.

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