Slave narrative prompts dialogue on politics of friendship

In the lecture series “Centering the Lives of Black Women and Girls,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Jasmine Syedullah discusses the story of escaped slave and author Harriet Jacobs. Photo by Clark Xu/The Miscellany News

Scholars who study society from the perspective of those who have been historically discouraged or blocked from sharing their life experiences in public discussion can transform the familiar landscape of thought and feeling into a new world. Broadening to include the historical narratives of Black women, the Education Department, the Africana Studies Program and other offices presented a lecture on Dec. 1 from political theorist and Visiting Assistant Professor Jasmine Syedullah about the autobiographical fugitive slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs.

Syedullah’s lecture concluded the series entitled Centering the Lives of Black Women and Girls, which previously featured social justice educator Sheltreese McCoy, choral singer Ysaÿe Barnwell, science fiction critic Adrienne Brown and children book writer Andrea Pinkney. Discussing the past as a backdrop to social controversies posed by American politics, Syedullah explained, “We’re first introduced to the fugitive justice of Jacobs’ abolitionist politics in the twenty-first chapter of ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ written in 1861, the same year that this school was built, or opened. After years spent struggling to ward off unsolicited and aggressive requests for sexual submission from her master, struggles for sexual autonomy, what will eventually require her to struggle for something she calls akin to freedom, Jacobs introduces her readers to her moment of retreat.”

In order to elude discovery and recapture, Jacobs hides in the garret to a shed near her grandmother’s house for seven years. Syedullah interpreted Jacobs’ hiding place as an example of how marginalized individuals use institutional weaknesses to survive in the face of hostile dominant ideologies. She elaborated, “The lessons of the fugitive slave narrative of Jacobs challenges us to read modern freedom against itself, as a loophole in and of itself, as a site of both license and liability, a place some live in and some live on. We seek them out in search of a way around that which stands in the way of the only way we know how to live.”

Syedullah’s interpretation of Jacobs’ story as one of occupying institutional loopholes offers a strong historical framework for understanding trends in contemporary mass political movements, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Chris Dietz ’17 suggested, “Professor Syedullah also brought out elements of her story to do with resistance that focused on the tension between ‘outright refusal’ and ‘fugitive subversion.’ This difference, embodied in [Jacobs’] story, helped to complicate the dichotomy between a resistance that looks like pure revolution and other actions that are seen as upholding the status quo. This is a nuanced account of resistance that should be helpful for anyone interested in social justice.”

In its historical context, Jacobs’ work not only represented a challenge to the denial of literacy and political participation to slaves in captivity, but also advanced feminist and women’s rights issues. As she considered Jacobs’ work in a book review, journalist Victoria Segel wrote, “Harriet Jacobs’s account of her life as a North Carolina slave was one of many narratives printed to further the abolitionist cause. It was remarkable at the time, however, for bearing rare witness to the female experience of slavery, not only highlighting the threat of sexual exploitation but also appealing directly to female readers” (The Guardian, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl review – a true account that reads as a novel,” 01.16.16).

Syedullah was inspired to study Jacobs’ historical narrative by her friendships and close contact with individuals in the prison system. She recounted, “As a sophomore in college, I volunteered for SPACE, which is an acronym for Space in Prison for the Arts and Creative Expression. And we would team up and go inside to medium-security women’s prisons and facilitate creative writing workshops, poetry workshops with them.” Describing her experience in broad strokes, she continued, “I learned very quickly that their experiences and mine were not far apart; the things that really separated us were the privilege that I had gained access to through my education. I learned that separation in society left those without means of protection vulnerable to kinds of violence that I had never seen before, and left those incidents invisible to those with means to avoid them.”

Composed of volunteer college students and community fellows from Providence, Rhode Island, SPACE operates at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute where volunteers meet with current inmates from the men’s and women’s facilities to plan and conduct creative workshops. The literary production of the program is published biannually as a magazine, the content ranging from memoir and non-fiction essays to plays and poetry. Participants in the program determine the selection of genre as well as the structure and focus of the collaborative sessions (Brown University, “Swearer Center for Public Service,” 2016).

Syedullah’s talk and the lecture series as a whole also complemented an interdisciplinary course on issues in contemporary education led by Associate Professor of Education Colette Cann, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology Candice Swift, Associate Dean of Students Luis Inoa and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Samuel Speers. The course combined a wide range of readings with weekly workshops and group projects focused on topics such as race and ethnicity in the classroom. Dietz connected Syedullah’s lecture with the coursework, commenting, “In continuing to focus on issues of race, class and gender with this class, my eyes have continued to be opened to alternative ways of seeing the world, and certainly to realities that I don’t personally experience every day, though I am implicated in them. A set of questions this lecture asked me to grapple with: What did it mean, for example, for white plantation owners to feel ‘natural’ in their dominant position? What did it mean for [Jacobs] and her family to live under slavery? What is the continued legacy of that reality in the present?”

Urging her audience to grapple with difficult questions, Syedullah continued, “Meditating on the kind of freedom that Jacobs wrote in defense of those millions of enslaved women still in bondage requires more than a mastery of political theory. It required a less traditionally disciplined approach to the study of freedom, one that drew from the black radical tradition, black feminist theory, student struggles for ethnic studies.” Syedullah concluded, “I am interested in how we can make possible a new politics of friendship, a new practice of the political, a new way of being together in which we can imagine the value of freedom anew, not as an abstract set of ideals that conceal the consequences of our freedoms, but as a practice of mutual respect, restorative justice, reconciliation and repair.”

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