Global Perspectives on Captivity and Slavery

Melissa Adams-Campbell

Northern Illinois University

First, thank you to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for inviting me to participate in Just Teach One. Humanity in Algiers easily fits into the larger themes of my upper-division undergraduate Early American Literature survey. I placed it as the last text in a unit on captivity narratives that also included works by Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, John Smith, Mary Rowlandson, and Briton Hammon.  Later in the semester, we will reconsider the captivity genre, in line with Gordon Sayre’s expanded approach (“Renegades”), as we explore Indian Removal as a captivity experience with Black Hawk’s Life of Black Hawk.

Humanity offers an entry point into many familiar topics in early American Literature courses: race, abolitionism, competing faith traditions, sentiment and the “designs” of sentimental fiction (Tompkins), while also bringing new methodologies and new geographies to the foreground. The novella begins with a frame story: a US man is released after nine years of Algerian slavery after performing a kind deed for a man who, unbeknownst to him, is in charge of a fund set aside for the annual release of a deserving slave.  The US narrator then relates the life history of Azem, the former slave who left his fortune to free other meritorious slaves.

Showing students how captivity narratives established binary identity categories before there was a US national identity is always productive; more exciting are the conversations where students discover how the text works against these polarizing purposes, documenting moments of transculturation, adaptation, and cultural exchange.  Teaching Humanity immediately shifted these conversations “beyond the binary” (Powell) as students grappled with the North African setting, the ambiguity of racial markers in the text, the relatively positive portrayal of Muslims in 1801, and the unsettling sense that at least some US citizens were highly critical of their new nation’s hypocrisies.

To get things started I asked students to do some pre-discussion writing focusing on what and how this text contributes to their conceptualization of early American literature and the captivity narrative.  Students suggested that this text jolted them from familiar narratives of race and faith ideologies in the early US.  Several discussed the impact of acknowledging slavery as a world phenomenon and thinking about the global and transnational connections forged in this period; others were fascinated by an earlier era of US abolitionism; many were curious about how this text deemphasized physical appearance and racial differences (we never know if Azem is black); still others recognized how Humanity challenges the narrative of Christian authority and Providence dominant in Rowlandson’s narrative.

I offered some brief contextual materials on the Barbary captivity genre, the Barbary Wars, and Jefferson’s establishing the Marine Corps before turning the discussion toward this text’s status as fiction. We explored questions such as:  What changes when a captivity narrative is fictionalized?  What is gained and lost in such a move? How does Humanity blend conventions of captivity and sentimental fiction?  I usually spend some time on sentimental literature and the politics of racial sentiment later in the semester, but when teaching Humanity I introduced these materials earlier in the course.  I offered students a brief summary of the aesthetics and ideological values attached to sentiment in this period and then asked students to work with a partner to identify a passage that “had designs” (Tompkins) when using sentimental language.  Students were quick to locate such passages and this led to a fruitful (and concrete) full-class discussion of the relationship between sentiment and abolitionist rhetoric. The exercise allowed students to consider those themes rerouted from North Africa back to the US and refracted through a larger constituency of racial groups across our unit of study.  Our discussion productively unsettled black and white (as well as red and white) binaries that students carry with them and certainly added to our growing sense that national identities are considerable more unstable than the course’s too easy title—‘early American’ literature—suggests.

While this text was certainly teachable in one class period (I had 75 minutes), I wish that we had had an extra day of discussion to think across the unit about the different experiences and ideological meanings attached to this expanded set of captivity texts.  Hopefully this will occur when we turn to Black Hawk later this semester.

Whether or not you choose to include Humanity in Algiers in a future course, I recommend participating in Just Teach One.  As my student, Dylan Rambow, observed, “It is important to occasionally introduce into the classroom texts that aren’t part of the typical canon….it keeps students aware that these handful of texts…aren’t the only ones written at that time.” Indeed!  Thanks to Duncan and Ed for allowing NIU students to join the fun.

Works Consulted:

Excellent visual images and accompanying contextual information are available from the University of Michigan’s Clements Library exhibit at:

Allison, Robert. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Baepler, Paul.  “The Barbary Captivity Narrative in Early America.” Early American Literature. 30.2 (1995), 95-120.

—, “The Barbary Captivity Narrative in American Culture.” Early American Literature. 39.2 (2004), 217-246.

Edwards, Brian T. “Disorienting Captivity: A Response to Gordon Sayre.” American Literary History 22.2 (2010), 360-367.

Sayre, Gordon. “Renegades from Barbary: The Transnational Turn in Captivity Studies.” American Literary History 22.2 (2010), 360-367.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


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