I conceptualized this assignment while walking through a cemetery with a friend. We were thinking about the lives of the people buried there and the legal and social constructions of personhood beyond death. Together we brainstormed ways that students could use creative writing to engage with these constructions of personhood.
We began the semester in my African American literature course with Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. In the chapter called “The Dead Book,” Hartman uses the Middle Passage to work through those same legal and social constructions of personhood, or non-personhood, for African slaves. She takes a single line from a court case in which a white slave ship captain is charged with murder after one of the slaves on board dies and extrapolates a narrative of the life of the dead girl and those involved in her death. She reconstructs the girl’s death by imagining the various angles of those involved — the actual sight lines of the white crew members on the ship and the biases and purposes of the white politicians who use the girl’s death to advocate for abolition. This work of creative excavation, both unearthing the tiny kernel of Truth from the legal document (that the girl was killed) and constructing a truth about her life (the possible circumstances of her death) exemplified the methodology for my students’ creative writing assignment.
The students were asked to imagine a life for the people referenced in the archival document through any medium of creative writing. Part of the goal of the assignment was to make the documents come to life through plot and conflict. But more importantly, they were to give their characters a rich and vibrant interiority that explored the emotional and spiritual limitations and silences of these archives.
This would be the first trip to the archive for the entire class, and they were amazed that they could interact so closely with the documents. Although tentative at first, the students, many of whom were not humanities majors, embraced the assignment, and their analyses often deconstructed the power structures that the documents represented. Most of the class of predominantly black students wrote first-person narratives, placing themselves in the role of the slave. While discussing the tropes of slave narratives, we spent a lot of time talking about the rhetorical strategies that developed empathy within the audience. These students internalized that empathy by writing from the point of view of the oppressed. This assignment achieved three goals: introducing students to the rich possibility of archival research; teaching them the tropes of the slave narrative; and, most importantly, allowing them to develop, on their own terms, an understanding of the oppressions that frame American history, letters, and politics.
Brandi Webster’s lyrical prose and use of vernacular in the first person narration develops a heart-wrenching narrative of suffering and loss when a female slave is torn from her family and sexually assaulted. O’Shane Elliot takes a surprising twist at the end of his short story, thwarting the reader’s expectation of resolution in an escape narrative. Hanna Taylor deftly uses the metaphor of a tree to illustrate the violence of slavery, hearkening to the Linden tree in Hannah Craft’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Michele Mobley interestingly takes the point of view of the slave owner’s wife dealing with a moral crisis in the loss of some slaves to suicide. Nate Bradley uses elements of post-modernism, in a style similar to Octavia Butler, in which a slave is transported through time and into another’s consciousness. Anthony Maristany’s young female protagonist holds on to hope for reunion with her family after her manumission. Orlandra Dickens subverts constructions of slave labor by giving her character the ability to work as a street performer, using entertainment rather than physical labor to make money. Marcus Hines undermines the benevolence of a Master/slave contract by using violence and rage to coerce compliance from the owner.
Each of these students tells a different tale of slavery and freedom, wrested from the silence of the archive and, now, preserved in the digital archive of UM’s Scholarly Repository.