It is no secret that slavery in America was abhorrent — people endured such abuses as beatings and were often thought of as less than human. When looking at prebellum slavery, artist Glenn Ligon found that he could tell the narratives of black women — stories of horrors endured under the whip, stories of rape — through the medium of his photo etchings. On February 21, 2014, I attended a lecture in Gettysburg College’s Mara Auditorium that spoke about Ligon’s art. Professors Kimberly Rae Conner, Crystal Feimster, and Scott Hancock were the key speakers for the lecture and all approached Ligon’s pieces with different and interesting interpretations.
The first speaker, Professor Kimberly Rae Connor, herself a Gettysburg College graduate (’79), talked about how she was inspired to look at poetry from African-Americans, which was a shift from her original focus of European literature, when she did her dissertation at the University of Virginia. While doing her research, she became extremely passionate about black history when she learned of some of the slave narratives she read. She also remarked on the progress of racial integration at Gettysburg College and the University of Virginia, and how in the 70s and 80s, minority recruitment was still very low at both of these schools. In other places outside of colleges and universities there were observable scars of the Civil War, as well. Professor Connor spoke about a visit to Monticello. During the tour, one of the guides referred to Thomas Jefferson’s slaves as “servants.” By changing the word, the tour guide bestowed upon the slaves a freedom and agency they did not possess under the south’s Peculiar Institution.
The next speaker, Professor Crystal Feimster, talked about her focus on racial and sexual violence against black women in the South. Professor Feimster had multiple primary sources for her focus on the narratives of these victimized women. Suzie King Taylor, born in Liberty County, Georgia, in 1848, learned how to read and write from her mother and grandmother. The luxury of literacy served to contrast the harsh reality of slavery. In one particular instance, Taylor described a slave auction and the heartbreak associated with watching families get torn apart and separated.
Professor Feimster went on to talk about how enslaved black women, before the Civil War, could not accuse a white man of rape or sexual violence. This made black women very aware of their sexual vulnerability. There were many legal questions about whether black women could even defend themselves against white rapists. In Missouri, a black slave girl named Celia was tried and found guilty of killing her white slave master after he raped her for over five years. Another woman, Margaret Gardner from Kentucky, was raped by her white master multiple times and then she tried to escape to Ohio where she was pursued by fugitive slave catchers. Before surrendering to them, she killed her two-year old daughter and injured her other children so they wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate as she did. Not only did these cases make visible the rape of black women, but they also addressed the question of black female identity.
Professor Scott Hancock was the last to speak. He brought to light how race relations have and have not improved in American society by using pop culture. The first example was a Saturday Night Live sketch about black history month that addressed slavery in a hilarious song/rap. Professor Hancock also addressed the rise of hip hop in the United States in the 1990s, as well as President Bill Clinton’s policy on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding homosexuals in the military. Race relations in the United States have been viewed as improving every decade, a notion greatly complicated and challenged by significant chasms within ethnic groups. Hancock alluded to a speech given by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, where the latter said that “Civil Rights was invented for the white man, not the black man.” The conclusion of the lecture made one truth evident: there is still progress to be made regarding race relations in the United States.
All information found within was from the Glenn Ligon lecture given at Gettysburg College on 21 February 2014.
“Susie King Taylor.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Online. Digital ID: cph 3a03575. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ61-1863.