American History

Representing and Resisting Violence: African Americans, North African "Pirates," & Violence in the Early Republic, SHEAR 2014

SHEARWelcome to part 1 of my recap of the 2014 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference. The conference took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between July 17 and July 20.


“Representing and Resisting Violence: African Americans, North African “Pirates,” and Violence in the Early Republic”

Chair: James Brewer Stewart (Macalaster College)


Kathleen Kennedy (Missouri State University), “Trauma and Narratives of Slavery”

Kelly A. Ryan (Indiana University Southeast), “Seeking Justice: African American Resistance to Violence in the Northeast, 1780-1830”

Jason Zeledon (University of California-Santa Barbara), “American Manhood and the Barbary Pirates: Gender, Sodomy, and Women’s Rights during the Algerian Captivity Crisis”

Comment: Nikki Taylor (Texas Southern University, Houston)


Panel Summary

"Trauma and Narratives of Slavery"

Kathleen Kennedy explored how historians can use the narratives of slave men to explore the psychological trauma of slavery.

Kennedy began her paper with the story of Henry Bibb, a former slave who discussed being the father of slaves. Bibb fathered a daughter and swears that it will be the only child he ever fathers into slavery.

For Bibb the word “father” was “obnoxious.” Early American men defined their masculinity by their ability to provide for and protect their wives and children. Slave husbands and fathers could not protect their families because they had no rights over them; they had to watch while overseers and masters abused their wives and children.

Family of Slaves in Georgia 1850Kennedy contends that historians can use statements of grief by slave fathers to better understand slave grief and the violence of slavery. However, Kennedy warns that African-American writers did not always bear all in their narratives.

Former slaves like Henry “Box” Brown understood that their readers had expectations for what a slave narrative should read like. Readers expected to read about some of the blood and torture of slavery, but they did not want to read about the mental traumas that slavery inflicted. Therefore, writers like Brown could not represent the pain that they suffered as fathers—the pain of having to watch their wives and children beaten, raped, or sold.

Historians must also read slave narratives with an eye to what they do not say. Grief is the act of remembering while trauma is the act of forgetting. Trauma represents an inability to articulate true feelings, which is an endemic problem in all slave narratives.

Gender also played a role in how slaves experienced slavery and its traumas. Kennedy illustrated this point by examining the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and her brother James. Harriet discussed how she was not allowed to attend the funeral of her father Elijah. She remembered him as a man who taught her dignity. On the other hand, James describes Elijah as a man, but not a man. Elijah Jacobs had no authority. James Jacobs’ narrative also shows how enslaved men struggled with their conceptions of manhood.

Kennedy opted to skip over how enslaved people thought of their white fathers in order to use her last few minutes to discuss how enslaved men saw their role as fathers. Kennedy has found that slave men often talked about their decision not to become fathers or how they lived as fathers without authority; fatherhood brought slave men great joy, but this joy was tempered with great anxiety.

Former slave writers spoke about their children because they wanted their audience to know that they loved them. Today, the notion of parental love seems obvious, but in the 1840s and 1850s, these former slaves needed to make that point clear: To love is to be human.

Kennedy concluded her paper with a problem: Historians need to figure out whether slave men were really men. She suggested that we need to look for something other then progressive narratives because the trauma of slavery continued into the former slaves’ freedom. Freedom was not a happy ending, there was no happy ending to slavery. She suggests accounting as a way that historians might be able to better account for the trauma and grief.


"Seeking Justice: African American Resistance to Violence in the Northeast, 1780-1830"

LadyJusticeImageKelly A. Ryan: African Americans used the judiciary to advocate for their safety and security and to lay claim to, promote, and defend their rights as citizens.

Ryan contends that her investigation reveals another aspect of the burgeoning civil rights movement that emerged after the Civil War.

Ryan acknowledged the difficulties of investigating African American use of the judicial system. Many crimes went unreported and it can be hard for historians to identify race in legal records. With that said, Ryan has found many cases where African Americans brought suit against white defendants or cases where white plaintiffs brought suits against other whites for the injustices they perpetrated against African Americans.

African Americans wanted to bear witness in court. The act of testifying gave blacks a sense of their citizenship rights and as such they wanted to appear as respectable witnesses, especially against whites. Ryan reminded the audience that African-American witnesses faced ramifications for their testimony. White defendants or their friends might retaliate against black witnesses and their families.

Ryan found that whites played an important role in African-American court cases, especially in lawsuits brought to the court by African-American defendants. In many cases, the indictment records kept only white testimony. In some places blacks could not bring suits in their own names, so whites had to bring them to court on their behalf. This made it important for African Americans to identify white allies; African Americans were fully aware of the world they lived in and the reality of its discriminations.


"American Manhood and the Barbary Pirates: Gender, Sodomy, and Women's Rights during the Algerian Captivity Crisis"

Barbary PirateJason Zeledon contends that the legacy of the Barbary Conflict extends well beyond the various military skirmishes. The conflict shaped the way Americans saw themselves and North Africa.

Zeledon’s paper focused on 2 key ways that the Barbary Conflicts shaped American identity:

First, the conflict shaped and hindered the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Second, literature about the Barbary states shaped the United States’ diplomatic response to the conflict.

American literature about the Barbary states and captivity narratives portrayed Algerian men as sexually adventurous, men who preferred having sex with other men. This meant that American sailors not only faced hard, manual labor, but sexual abuse and exploitation if captured by the pirates.

The American view of Algerian men as “sexually adventurous” also led Americans to believe that the pirates could be defeated easily because Algerian men were lazy and inferior to American men.

American literature about the Barbary Conflict also hindered the American women’s rights movement.

American narratives about Algerians described Algerian men as cruel and abusive toward Algerian women. Algerian men never allowed their women to eat with them because they felt them inferior. They also believed that women lacked souls.

When American men read these narratives they praised their treatment of their American wives and daughters. Therefore, American men saw no need to help women promote their rights; compared to Algerian women, American women had a lot of rights and freedom.


Panel Comment

Nikki Taylor offered the official comment for the papers. She stated that the 3 papers raised many points that historians need to consider.

Kathleen Kennedy’s work shows us that we often try to define black manhood in terms of white manhood. White manhood does not adequately define or explain black manhood during the period of slavery. Taylor would like to see historians expand their definitions of manhood so we can more accurately describe the masculinity of African American slave men .

Kelly A. Ryan’s work illuminates the new study of African-American criminality. Taylor would like Ryan and other historians who work in this new field to answer several questions: 1. What triggered anti-black collisions where whites attacked blacks? 2. To what extent did African Americans experience success in their use of the justice system? 3. Who were the white witnesses? Why did they stand up for their black neighbors? Were they really black allies? And did they lose some of their whiteness by standing up for blacks?

Jason Zeledon raises excellent points about how early Americans perceived Algerian men and women. However, Taylor wants Zeledon to think more about the gendered natures of Barbary Warfare rhetoric. Specifically, Taylor asked Zeledon to consider how stereotypes are constructed and to do more to illustrate his thesis about women’s rights.


ThinkWhat Do You Think?

What do you think are the most interesting points raised by these papers?


Writing American History Outside of the Academy

Writing-History Have you ever wondered what it takes to write a great history book for a popular audience?

This year’s American Historical Association conference hosted several panels about writing history. I attended 3: “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right: The Art and Craft of the Obituary,” “Writing History for the Public,” and “Writing American History Outside the Academy.”

All of these panels contained helpful information, tips, and suggestions for historians who want to write for a general audience.

Today, I offer a recap of “Writing American History Outside of the Academy,” which provided advice on how historians can make their writing more enjoyable for a non-academic audience.

You can find my summaries of “The Art of the Obituary” and “Writing History for the Public” on John Fea’s blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.”

Biggest Takeaways: Historians need to learn the conventions of nuance and complex storytelling from novelists. As humanists, historians have a duty to portray the complexity of human life. Historians need decent writer websites.


Panel Summary

“Writing American History Outside of the Academy,” explored “the act of writing and how history gets done.” Unfortunately, bad weather limited the 5-person panel to chair Joseph Kip KosekAdam Goodheart, and Louisa ThomasMegan Marshall e-mailed her comments, which Thomas read.

An historian, essayist, and journalist, Adam Goodheart writes for National GeographicOutsideSmithsonianThe Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. He also wrote [amazon_link id="1400032199" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]1861: The Civil War Awakening[/amazon_link], “a gripping and original account of how the Civil War began.”

Once upon a timeGoodheart believes that historians should simplify their analysis, but embrace complexity in their storytelling when they write for a general audience.

Goodheart urged historians to read and study works of fiction. Novels often feel more life-like than history books because they present nuance and complexity. Historians could produce more life-like histories if they used these novelistic conventions.

Goodheart drove his point home with a quote from author Philip Roth: “As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being.”

According to Goodheart, there is no reason a 300-page history book cannot show nuance and contradiction. Historians are humanists and humanists have a mission to show the world the complexities of human beings.

Finally, Goodheart asked the audience to be concise and not to get hung up on “simplification.” Historians already simplify; the historian’s focus on argument represents a form of simplification. Additionally, historians simplify history again when they choose which facts to leave out of their monographs.

Stranded in Boston by the“Blizzard of January 2014,” Megan Marshall e-mailed comments for the audience. Louisa Thomas read them.

Marshall believes that anyone can write history and her experience proves her point. Marshall is not a trained historian, but she has written 2 historical works, both biographies and the first, [amazon_link id="0618711694" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]The Peabody Sisters[/amazon_link], won several awards, including the 2005 Francis Parkman Prize for the best-written work of American history.

1804_Ralph_Eleaser_Whiteside_Earl_Family_Portrait_National_Gallery_of_ArtMarshall also questioned the historian’s reliance on argument, which she feels limits them when they write. Instead of focusing on argument, Marshall wants historians to write more about the people, places, and times they admire. She would also like historians to write more biographies because the narrative art of the genre would teach historians how to write exciting, well-written history books.

Like Marshall, Louisa Thomas is not a trained historian. After completing her B.A. in English at Harvard, she worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker. Thomas credits this work with giving her the experience she needed to research and write her book, [amazon_link id="B007HW6AOE" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I[/amazon_link].

Thomas reiterated the need for historians to study fiction. Historians need to give readers a reason to turn the page, something many fiction writers do well.

Thomas stated that good history starts with the impulse to be close to people of another time. Like historians, readers also want to get to know the people of the past. Historians need to understand and talk about human beings as they are—emotional, conflicted, and contradictory creatures—if they want to reach a large audience.


Audience Q & A

Washington Irving, 1809

Questions from the audience encouraged Goodheart and Thomas to provide more practical information about publishing and how to write for a general audience.

The Q&A discussion fell into 3 categories: Writing, Publishing, and Marketing



• Historians need to write more about people than about their arguments. Historians can make arguments through their narratives without having to focus on a thesis statement.

• Footnotes: Thomas commented that academic historians use footnotes to highlight their sources. Trade authors use them as a place to present the historiography for those who wish to consult it.

• Goodheart suggested that historians approach writing as if they were foreign correspondents in a foreign past. This approach will help historians write for their readers and help them describe the “obvious” information that isn’t obvious to most readers.



Should you publish with an academic or popular press?

• Thomas: If you are looking for an academic job, go with an academic press.

• Goodheart: Be strategic and go with the press that caters to the audience you wish to reach.

• Wendy Strothman (Literary Agent): If you are looking for a tenure-track job publish with a good university press. University presses are more forgiving when book sales are low; bad sales figures will haunt you when you publish with popular presses.

• Strothman advised the audience to make sure they keep the option to their film rights.


Marketing/Writer Platform

Looking for a Literary Agent?

  • Strothman: Agents will Google search you so create or update your writer website. Your website should contain PDFs and links to your articles as agents want to see your sources and expertise.

Tips and Tricks for Marketing Your Book

  • Be ready the moment your book comes out. Most live or die in the first few weeks after publication.
  •  Call in every favor and connection you have to get word out about your new book.
  • Never say “No” to promotion. Go to the small bookstores and sell 15 copies.
  • Consider investing in promoted Facebook posts or sponsored tweets.
  • Be prepared to be depressed by book sales. Even if others review your work, you might not be happy with your sales numbers.
  • Strothman: Tell agents how you will help them market your book, do not tell them about the market for your book. Also, you need a decent website.


time-to-shareWhat Do You Think?

What do you think about the advice these authors offered?

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