Subjects-in-time: slavery and African-American women’s autobiographies ALISON EAS TO N
I shall, of course, start autobiographically. In 1981-2 I was on a teaching exchange at the University of Texas at Austin.
After initial shocks of difference and some mutual amusement, my students apparently settled quite happily, and I felt confident with pupils so hungry for knowledge and willing to engage in a critical dialogue on the making of American culture. The course, though it predated the multicultural debates on the curriculum, at least employed perspectives of gender, race and class, and while there weren’t many African-American students in a university which had desegregated only in the 1960s, there were five in my section of fifty students (the rest were white or Chicano). I had taught European-Americans before, but never black Americans, nor for that matter Latinos. So, as I launched into an analysis of poems from the Harlem Renaissance (the great cultural flowering of the early decades of the twentieth century), I faltered inwardly: I was no longer a white Scotswoman, I was simply white, and my carefully acquired knowledge was about to be tested. I asked the African-American students to read out the poems in the class: ‘I don’t sound very black,’ one demurred – ‘A lot blacker than me,’ I responded, without admitting that I didn’t quite know what she meant. I began exploring the images of an ancient tribal African world in the poems – a reconstituted identification for black Americans that had been politically necessary to legitimate a nascent black culture in twentieth-century racist society but that had inevitably an element of the imaginary. This is not to say that great African civilisations had not existed in the past, but rather that the radical discontinuities of black history in the Americas made direct transmission impossible. Aware that all this might sound like negative criticism, I was proceeding cautiously with my analysis when one of my black students broke in with, ‘I know what you mean. It’s taken years for me to accept that slavery is my past.’