A visiting lecturer discussed how three books shed light on the way 19th-century black thinkers thought of American culture and themselves.
Stephan Hall, who spoke at the Grace Allen Reading Room in the Library on Monday, discussed the ways in which black intellectuals – specifically renowned abolitionist writer William Wells Brown – described history after the Revolutionary War.
Brown, said Hall, was a fugitive of slavery who spent much of his life in anti-slavery groups in Europe and the United States. He was a civilizationist, meaning he welcomed Western values and tradition and believed in education and temperance. Brown viewed historically black universities like Howard as “harbingers of light for our people,” said Hall.
During his lecture, Hall provided analyses of three of Brown’s books, The Black Man, Rising Son and The Negro in the American Rebellion.
In The Black Man, Brown wrote biographical sketches of prominent black revolutionaries, mainly from Haiti. Brown drew great inspiration from the successful slave revolt in Haiti and admired the sacrifice and valor of Haiti’s founders, Hall said.
In The Rising Son, Brown mapped the post-revolutionary Haitian nation, praising the governmental structure of Haiti. Brown also wrote about Africa in Rising Son. Brown devoted most of the book to West Africa, which he said did not embrace civilization.
Brown lamented the fact that slavery, human sacrifice and bloodletting continued to thrive as practices in West Africa in the 19th century. Brown praised British education and medicine, and disliked the traditional medicine then practiced in West Africa, Hall said. Brown praised the work of missionaries in West Africa, calling them “agents of civilization.”
In The Negro in the American Rebellion, Brown examined black participation in the American Revolution. Black soldiers dealt with long hours, low pay, inadequate training and inadequate clothing. Brown highlighted the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864, in which almost half of the all-black regiment was massacred after they surrendered to the Confederates, exemplifying the obstacles faced by black soldiers. Despite their mistreatment, Brown thought blacks were eager to prove themselves on the battlefield, Hall said.
Hall described Brown’s work as “thinking about how to think about African American historical production.”
Hall aims to think more critically about how works like Brown’s serve as historical – not just literary – documents about the past, giving an accurate account of what happened as well as how people like Brown thought about ideas such as slavery and freedom.
Christine Gibson can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.