Just Teach One

Discovering Atlantic World reprint culture in the early African American literature survey

Laurel V. Hankins
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth

I taught Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo in the first half of an African American literature survey. The Account was our final text in the first unit of the course; this unit grouped texts around an Atlantic World theme and included Phillis Wheatley, Thomas Jefferson, and Olaudah Equiano. Our first few weeks of class served as an introduction to important ideas in the history of critical race theory and the literary traditions that emerged out of the black Atlantic. The Account is short but full of opportunities to discuss literary form and genre, theory, and history. I found it an ideal reading assignment for a 75-minute class meeting.

Part of the reason I was excited to teach this text is because both its publication history and its narrative strategies capture the complexity of eighteenth-century Atlantic world networks and conventions. Students did need quite a bit of background information on the Haitian revolution and the history of U.S.-Haiti relations, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that students came into the class excited to talk about the differences they had noticed between the editions. These differences were a wonderful point of entry for our conversation, as they allowed students to produce close readings that were attentive to language and also informed by the temporal and spatial context of the text’s long and varied circulation history. This opening conversation also allowed us to think about early U.S. periodical and reprint culture.

Given our previous discussions of Wheatley, Jefferson, and Equiano, students were well-primed to discuss the contradictions of Enlightenment rhetoric surrounding natural rights and the slave trade present in this text. They recognized the ways that this text’s construction of race is informed by the post-revolutionary politics of the early national period, particularly the hypersexualization of Makandal and the depoliticization of his rebellion. Students also complicated their own initial responses by digging into the text’s contradictions – its moments of sympathy for “the unhappy negroes” for example led to a spirited conversation about spectacle and sympathy that carried into our next unit on the abolitionist movement. Additionally, students linked the text’s fascination with African-Caribbean cultural practices to earlier discussions of the black Atlantic’s contact zones.

The Account remained a useful text for our class moving forward. Particularly when reading David Walker’s Appeal and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, the Account provided an important touchstone for understanding the perceptions of black masculinity and slave resistance that Walker and Douglass are responding to and that their readers would have been influenced by.

One sign of the positive student reaction to this text is the amount of student writing it generated. Six students chose to write their first response papers on the Account. Additionally, a student taking the course for honors credit developed a final research project comparing the portrayal of Haiti in the Account to Alejo Carpentier’s response to such exoticized portrayals in the contemporary novel The Kingdom of this World. A graduate student in our MAT program used the JTO website to develop several sample lesson plans for teaching the Account, The Factory Girl, and Humanity in Algiers to high school students.

This is my second time teaching a JTO text, and both experiences have demonstrated how much students appreciate the sense of discovery the project provides. The students’ interest in Duncan and Ed’s excellent footnotes is a perfect example of why it’s so fun to teach unfamiliar texts. Even if teaching a new text makes me a bit apprehensive, it usually results in a conversation full of productive surprises where students are more confident to take risks because they sense that we’re all in the same boat.

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