University of Kentucky
Thanks to Duncan and Ed for inviting me to participate in the Just Teach One project. This semester I taught Humanity in Algiers in a graduate seminar that explored “the Frontiers of 19th Century U.S. Culture,” a broad theme cooked up under duress and on the spot as our department scheduler waited patiently for me to come to a final decision on next year’s seminar topic. I had the vague notion of a sort of “mash up” inspired by two seminars that rocked my world in graduate school at the University of Arizona, one taught by Annette Kolodny, which focused on the geography of the North American continent and the dynamics of “internal colonization,” and the other taught by Colin Dayan, which fractured all preconceived notions of coherent national boundaries and joined the US and Haiti together in our study of the early United States.
I shared a version of this story with my students on the first day. We would be exploring U.S. culture during a period of rapid territorial and political expansion, I told them, when the United States more than doubled its physical size and its borders were constantly redrawn and Crevecoeur’s revolutionary 18th Century question of “What is an American?” gradually shifted onto a continental scale. For the North American context, we read Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok, Blackhawk’s Life of Blackhawk, George Lippard’s Bel’ of Eden Prairie, and Ned Buntline’s Magdalena, the Beautiful Mexican Maid, among a few others, and we also studied the paintings of George Catlin. When we shifted our focus to the global passages between the U.S., Haiti, and Africa, we read Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, Martin Delany’s Blake, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and Mary Denison’s The Prisoner of La Vintresse.
Humanity in Algiers fit nicely within this context…or at least that’s what Duncan promised me, since I had never before read the text. While one should look skeptically on any advice related to teaching or investment strategies, I have to say to you that the pairing of Secret History and Humanity in Algiers really got the seminar off to a flying start. For some context, we had spent two weeks doing a crash course in US American Studies since the “transnational turn” of the 1990s, reading cover-to-cover the wonderful call-and-response essays in the special issues of American Literary History (18.3) and Early American Literature (45.2), as well as some classic essays by Porter, Saldivar, and a few others. When it was time to read Secret History, everybody at the table had a much better sense of the “big picture,” of the new spatial frameworks that have changed the way scholars approach questions of nation and national identity. By holding off on the novels, we essentially created a common discourse for the seminar, which provided a helpful foundation for the entire semester.
Specifically, the local-global linkages in Humanity in Algiers, outlined by Duncan and Ed in the preface, fascinated my students. Azem’s stance on slavery, as one student pointed out, was particularly Baptist and rooted in the religious history of the tri-state area: faith in God’s providence and in the wisdom of gradualism. Nobody in the story actually advocates changing the laws of slavery, my student wrote in his blog, “and so it often goes with a providential framework that is prone to place more emphasis on faith than action.” A few other students also explored the linkages between local Baptist abolitionism and the African setting.
Taking a very different view, another student, an MA student with loads of potential, offered an ecocritical reading in his blog response. He writes that “Azem taps into an ecological network of relations by consciously and actively telling ‘the rocks his wishes.’ What would it mean for a slave to speak to rocks? What are the implications for a disenfranchised person to verbally address Nature?” Drawing upon the work of Jane Bennett, he taught all of us something profound about the desert setting where Azem seeks refuge, and answers. Azem retreats to an “unfrequented place” of nature, he writes, because such spaces embody a plasticity of potential power: “In this isolated space, Azem finds a channel for expressing his lovesickness without censorship; he is authorized to ‘lament aloud’ because he is the sole human figure occupying this marginalized space of nature.”
Based on my very positive experience this semester, and the thoughtfulness of my students’ responses, I’ll certainly teach Humanity in Algiers again.