Getting Students Excited About Early American Literature?, Part 2

If, after the last post, you are still thinking about various ways to connect what students read in Early American literature survey courses to their day-to-day lives, I have a few more examples of contemporary cultural products that either draw inspiration or allude to texts that students would read in these courses. Over the past few years, of course, there have been adaptations of Antebellum history and literature in the form of movies like 12 Years a Slave (2014) and The Birth of a Nation (2016) along with television shows like Underground. These products, like neo-slave narratives during the late 1960s through the present, draw upon historical texts to comment upon the present. It is not my purpose in this post to discuss these adaptations and productions. However, while the last post focused on “prominent” authors that students would find in Early American literature courses, I want to highlight some ways to introduce students to authors that F.O. Matthiessen did not include as pillars of American literature from 1830 through the Civil War in his 1941 book.

liberator-masthead

Another example to use with students is Titus Andronicus’s “A More Perfect Union” from their 2010 album The Monitor. Patrick Stickles’s lyrics reference Jefferson Davis, John Brown, and other Civil War people and events. As well, the title takes alludes to Barack Obama’s speech from the 2008 election season. For an Early American literature survey course, though, the two most prominent aspects of the song occur at the beginning and the end. The song starts with a a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum speech where the future sixteenth president predicts that slavery and other issues will be the possible cause of America’s downfall, not outside forces. Along with this image, Stickles concludes the song with a quote from William Lloyd Garrison’s “To the Public” from the inaugural issue of The Liberator.

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.

Even though Stickles deploys quotes and images from advocates of emancipation during the Antebellum period, the song does not touch on issues of race and problems surrounding current racial discourse. Instead, it chronicles Stickles’ journey for the two years leading up to the album’s release and the personal struggles he encountered. In the classroom, have students think about what it means that a writer chose to include excerpts from Lincoln and Garrison, along with imagery from the Civil War, to express his personal life.

While “A More Perfect Union” takes images and quotes and places them in a personal context for Stickles’s personal journey, other artists do they same thing with the image of slavery, specifically drawing on the image of slavery and authors and activists to relate Antebellum slavery to the current political climate. Howard Rambsy, II and Jeremiah Carter write about this in  “‘I own my own masters’: Rap Music and Slavery References” (2015) with numerous hip hop artists from Eric B. and Rakim to Kendrick Lamar.  Today, I want to focus on a couple of examples that do not appear in their article.

Busdriver’s “Black Labor (as understood by Equiano)” (2015), a song that tackles issues of the ways blacks are presented in Hollywood and the idea of respectability politics,  references Olaudah Equiano in the title as well as in the first couple of lines. The first line of the first verse simply states, “Equiano, a great leader.” What does this mean? Was Equaiano a “great leader”? He did have a hand in ending the slave trade in Britain. Having students think about why Busdriver would pull on Equiano as a reference in a song that deals with the exploitation of African American artists is interesting. Is he saying that Equiano should be consider a model, or is he being sarcastic when he follows the first line with

I got a start in Hollywood impersonating Jesus, playing Weezer

And now he stars in motion pictures for white slavers

The main feature but he’s Saint Peter, so benevolent

What do these lines have to do with Equiano, if anything? Rather than answering these questions at the beginning of the semester, ask students to think about them and then revisit them at the end of the course. Then, students will be better prepared to interrogate Busdriver’s uses of Equiano in the song.

Another example to use with students during the first week of class is Lecrae’s “Freedom” (2016), a song that deals with what it means to actually be “free.” The first verse references slavery in relation to the fiction of the American Dream. In the second verse, Lecrae pulls at more specific literary and historical references, alluding to Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln. Lecrae specifically draws a correlation to himself and Kunta Kinte from Haley’s novel. He opens verse two with,

I’m out here chasin’ this freedom

They out here choppin’ my feet off

And if they catch me I’m Toby, but I ain’t ’bout to believe it

King Kunta, king of coonin’, or Kenan & Kel

Rather rot in a jail cell than be up in hell

Rather than believing that he is something that other say he is, Lecrae wants to be who he actually is. In many ways, this opening makes me think of David Walker’s assertions of being a man in his 1829 Appeal. While this reference to Kunta Kinta does not appear in an Early American literature survey necessarily, it is worth pointing out to students that the themes that they will encounter, specifically in texts by authors such as Walker, Harriett Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and others, appear in contemporary cultural productions.

Even though I am not going to write about them today, there are other songs and videos that you could use in the first few days of class to introduce students to Early American literature. Along with the ones I have already written about, I plan to use the “Melting Pot” video from Schoolhouse Rock to help explain J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s image of American as the melting pot from Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and Brother Ali’s “The Travelers” (2009) to compliment Equiano’s chapter on the Middle Passage from his Narrative.

As usual, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below what types of current media you use to get your students interested in Early American literature.

 

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