Gendered Abolition

Matthew Duques

North Dakota State University

I taught Humanity in Algiers: Or, The Story of Azem near the end of a unit on early national literature in my undergraduate American Literature survey course. Prior to our discussion of HIA, we had read poems by Philip Freneau and Phillis Wheatley, tracts by Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Toussaint L’ouverture, and novels by Charles Brockden Brown (Edgar Huntly) and Hannah Foster (The Coquette). I provided students with background information about the Barbary Wars and the proliferation of early U.S. stories and dramas with captivity in northwestern Africa as their primary subjects. I asked them to write short responses about how HIA differs from one other text we had read in the class.

In one response, a student observed that Eliza Wharton, Foster’s protagonist, and Azem, HIA’s protagonist, similarly struggle for freedom from authorities. Another student compared the relationship between Omri and Azem to the relationship between Edgar and Clithero in Brown’s gothic novel. These comparisons helped highlight the positive commemorative ending of HIA in contrast to the tragic endings of Foster’s and Brown’s novels. But, students were also skeptical of the sentimental conclusion and the early abolitionist rhetoric underwriting it. In our class discussion, one of the first points that students debated was their frustration with the scheme proposed by Omri to liberate Azem. They wondered why Omri did not try to persuade Sequida and her family to secure Azem’s outright freedom but instead proposed a form of gradual emancipation through selected periods of enslavement with each family member. And students also noticed that even Azem’s legacy (the fruits of his successful trading with Natives) offered little more than exceptional cases of freedom for those living within an otherwise intact slave system. They also questioned why Selictor and Sequida did not help Azem achieve his freedom, particularly after they went to the effort to educate him. One student was confused as to why Sequida who, at the start of the tale, lamented the unjust confinement of her husband due to debt, became the most stringent advocate of Azem’s continued slavery after the death of her husband.

Drawing on this interesting observation about the character of Sequida, we spent some time discussing women’s roles in HIA. One student argued that the author of HIA presents women as objects of beauty and virtue and men as scholars, farmers, and traders. Another claimed that this binary does not characterize the entire story. We learn at the beginning of the tale that Sequida has been educated in Constantinople. Moreover, Azem’s mother figures prominently in the text as a visionary. However, this student also added that Azem’s mother does not interpret her own vision; instead, the male doctor and scholar, Omri, interprets it. This discussion of women’s roles prompted me to ask whether or not we think that the separation of women and men into different roles represents part of the story’s effort to prove that there is “humanity in Algiers,” or whether that separation reflects the story’s exoticizing of Algerian culture. This question did not generate as heated a discussion as the debate about women’s roles. My students assumed that the author had simply imposed prevailing early-nineteenth-century U.S. views of proper women’s roles onto its Algerian characters. This question did, however, lead us back to the issue of circum-Atlantic slavery insofar as it caused students to think about how the story’s explicit mission to provide evidence of “humanity in Algiers” contributes to its less-than-inspiring critique of slavery. Countering assumptions about the people northwestern Africa, and giving depth and complexity to their actions and relationships, we concluded, made it challenging to conceive of radically altering their economic system and their prevailing social hierarchies.

All the students seemed to agree that Humanity in Algiers is an important work to read in an early American literature survey course as well as in seminars on transatlantic and early U.S. literature. They admitted that this work of fiction drew their attention to a conflict and a part of the world about which they knew very little, if anything at all. One student also suggested that HIA made her think differently about slavery, which she argued represents a significant benefit since, in her view, the subject of U.S. and circum-Atlantic slavery often seemed hackneyed to students because they see repeated figures and narratives in high school and college curricula.

I plan to teach HIA again. Next time, I think I will encourage students to discuss the intriguing near-incest episode in the middle of the story, which we only briefly mentioned. I also think it would be rewarding to have the class do some exploring in the digital archives to see if they can discover more information about the roots of the fictitious place and character names, perhaps as part of a mini-research project on ethnographic descriptions of Northwest Africans and reactions to Barbary coast captivity in early-nineteenth-century U.S. periodicals.



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