Why is African American literature being studied

America between slavery and democracy - Hannah Spahn examines African American literature in the 19th century

An equestrian statue divided the USA in the summer of 2017. It is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, and shows General Robert E. Lee, who led the Southern Army in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). In the conflict between the conservative South and the more liberal North over the abolition of slavery, Lee won numerous battles. For many, he is still considered a war hero today. When the Charlottesville City Council decided to remove the monument, several thousand right-wing extremists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Alt-Right movement - accompanied by violent riots - demonstrated against the decision.

The Americanist Dr. Hannah Spahn researches. They lead to a centuries-old dichotomy in American history. In Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the United States, founded the University of Virginia in 1819. Jefferson was the country's third president and was instrumental in drafting the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal," he said. "Jefferson embodies a central contradiction in the Enlightenment," says Spahn. “As a philosopher and statesman, he stood between slavery and freedom.” Jefferson spoke out against slavery, but was one of the greatest slave owners in his home state, Virginia. Over 200 slaves worked for him at the same time.

In her doctoral thesis, the Americanist dealt with this equally important and ambiguous figure in American history. She has been fascinated by the USA ever since she was at college. “Modern democracy came into being here. American culture can be seen in many ways as a pioneering culture of modernity - and that also and especially applies to African-American culture. "

African American writers saw Europe as a positive counter-image to the US

The contrast to slavery, to which parts of the American population clung to for a long time, couldn't be greater. In her habilitation project “Cosmopolitanism and Character in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature”, Spahn examines African American literature in the “long” 19th century - from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the United States' entry into the First World War in 1917. “Many of the authors have the opposite Experience slavery and freedom firsthand, ”says the Americanist. The writers whose work she examines include such colorful personalities as Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith, Eliza Potter, William Wells Brown, Frances Harper, Charles Chesnutt, Anna Julia Cooper, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Many of them traveled to Europe at that time.

The New Yorker James McCune Smith (1813-1865) went to Glasgow, Scotland, to study medicine in the 1830s. Although New York abolished slavery in 1827, he was unable to study in the United States. At the University of Glasgow he was the first African American to receive a degree in medicine, among other things. McCune Smith was not only a doctor and pharmacist, but also the author of numerous philosophical essays. He painted a positive picture of Scotland in his writings. Eliza Potter (1820-1893), also born in New York, traveled to France as an employee of a white family, where she trained as a hairdresser. "In her autobiography she shows herself to be an independent, self-confident woman - and an advocate of European culture," says Spahn. “She adapted the Parisian chic. Her customers were wealthy members of the American upper class, about whose provinciality she made one or two derisive judgments in her memoir. "

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) also moved to Europe. He attended lectures at the then Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin. He later became the first African American to obtain a PhD from Harvard University with a thesis on the transatlantic slave trade. At that time, his image of Europe was also largely positive. “For many African Americans, Europe was the positive counter-foil to the USA,” explains Spahn. Inspired by this “European Dream”, many authors were even enthusiastic about the English aristocracy. The United Kingdom had pioneered the fight against slavery and officially banned slavery in 1833.

The authors deal with the legacy of the Enlightenment

In the United States, 19th century laws for African Americans varied from state to state. Blacks in the southern United States were largely forbidden from attending school, studying, voting or publishing their own texts. In the north it looked different in many places. A bourgeois culture by and for Afro-Americans was able to develop here. In New York, for example, many slaves who had fled had settled. Even if small, there was an African American middle class with its own schools, reading circles and salons. Magazines emerged in which authors such as McCune Smith published. “His review of 'Moby Dick' was one of the first to show the philosophical scope of the novel,” explains Spahn.

The life paths of the authors examined by the literary scholar reveal a very unique concept of cosmopolitanism, of cosmopolitanism, which shaped the thinking of the Enlightenment. African-American intellectuals like McCune Smith looked at the long-term effects of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular and designed a cosmopolitan triangle between America, Europe and Africa. "Many African-American authors showed a special feeling for the complex legacy of the Enlightenment, which was characterized on the one hand by cosmopolitan ideas and on the other hand an ambivalent relationship to slavery."

It was also about African-American identity, or - in the wording of the time - about "character". “From the point of view of many African Americans, the term character had emancipatory potential,” says the Americanist. “He partly referred to educational positions.” In the 19th century, however, “identity” often had a negative connotation, for example, for escaped slaves becoming aware of their identity meant serious legal problems. In contrast, “character” could stand for a development from the object status of the slave to a bourgeois subject. As in the case of Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803), who became the political “character” of 19th century Afro-American literature: the son of a slave family rose to be the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the first independent state in the Caribbean Founded. In her work, Spahn examines such conceptions of character in politics, philosophy and literature.

African American literature is a controversial field

Research disputes what African-American literature actually is. Is it about topics, genres or the ethnicity of the authors? The difficulty of such classifications becomes clear with authors such as Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932). "Chesnutt looked like a 'white' American with a mustache," explains Spahn. But in the USA there was the so-called one-drop rule: "A drop of black blood" or an ancestor of African descent defined a person as "black". This construction is followed by the genre of the passing novel, which Chesnutt perfected in works such as “The House Behind the Cedars”: An Afro-American character goes through as “white”, so to speak, and thus questions a construction of “race” that of passing novel is sometimes also assumed.

Some researchers claim that there has been no African American literature since the legal equality of African Americans in the 1960s. A thesis that Hannah Spahn contradicts. Legal equality does not necessarily go hand in hand with social equality: The disproportionately high proportion of African-Americans in prisons shows that this has not yet been achieved. Apart from that, it is not clear why, in contrast to other literatures, the question of lack of equality is raised to the necessary criterion for African-American literature at all.

There is no consensus even on the “classic” genre of 19th century Afro-American literature, the slave narrative or the autobiography of escaped slaves. Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) wrote a sensational text of this kind in 1789, the “Strange Life Story of the Slave Olaudah Equiano”, the narration of his personal journey to freedom. The genre later found imitators even among white Americans posing as ex-slaves. The interest in this type of text, which has continued to this day, was most recently demonstrated by the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup (1808–1863) with the title "Twelve Years a Slave" - ​​an autobiographical text, which in large parts, however, shows the enslavement of a free African American the north described.

It is Spahn's concern to show how diverse the forms and topics of African-American literature are. While some were in favor of nonviolent abolition, others fought for an immediate end to slavery, if necessary by force. Equally controversial, contemporaries discussed the question of whether slave owners should receive compensation after the slaves have been released. Such discussions did not end until 1865 with the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery throughout the United States.

But the inequality of treatment was not off the table: until the 1950s of the following century, the racial laws separated the American population. And the current statue dispute shows that the oppression continues to this day.

The scientist

Dr. Hannah Spahn studied American studies, history, French and German literature and did his doctorate at the Free University of Berlin. She has been working at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam since 2013.


The project

In her habilitation, the Americanist Hannah Spahn examines the intellectual historical development of the term “character” in 19th century Afro-American literature. Your research project "Cosmopolitanism and Character in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature"Has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 2017.


Text: Jana Scholz
Posted online: Alina Grünky
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