Christopher Hager Awarded National Endowment for the Humanities Grant.
HARTFORD, Conn. – Only about 10 percent of the slaves during the Civil War era in the United States were literate, primarily because most Southern states had stringent anti-literacy laws. That has led to the mistaken notion that slaves and former slaves rarely wrote anything of value, and that there is little to be learned from what they did write.
Christopher Hager, an assistant professor of English, believes differently. Through his preliminary research, Hager, whose graduate work at Northwestern University concentrated on 19th century American literature in relation to slavery and the Civil War, says there is much to be learned from the diaries, journals, letters and other forms of writing that “marginally literate former slaves” penned during the years of emancipation.
Hager’s award is significant because the amount of the award is among the highest, reinforcing the notion that there is great interest in what Hager calls “this largely neglected moment in the history of African-American writing.”
“If we want to understand the transition from slavery to freedom, we have to understand what people thought, not only what they wrote but how they used their new skill,” he said.
In his proposal to the NEH, Hager points out that since the 1970s, scholars have dismissed the earlier presumption that it was impossible to understand slavery and emancipation from the perspective of slaves and former slaves because most of them could not write and left no reliable records.
“The emancipation of American slaves was not only a social and political revolution but also a singular moment in the history of written expression,” Hager said. “Untold thousands of African Americans who had been deprived of literacy gained unprecedented access to education at the same time they achieved their freedom.”
In fact, many of the documents that Hager will examine were written by black men who had enlisted in the Union Army. That’s where many received their first formal education.
Hager, who teaches upper-level courses in American literature, 1865-1945, at Trinity, said he has already uncovered materials that are surprising for the revelations they contain. For example, a man named John Washington wrote a memoir in 1873, but also wrote while still a slave, clearly demonstrating his literary ambition. Washington learned to read secretly, in part by reading Harpers Magazine.
Then there was a potter who wrote lines of poetry in the clay pots that he crafted before they were fired in kilns.
Hager said some of the materials he will be examining have been archived in universities and libraries, but others have been uncovered through “strokes of good fortune.” In some cases, descendents of the former slaves discovered the documents in attics and other locations.
In terms of completing his book, Hager has already gathered and transcribed most of his primary texts. They were written during or soon after the Civil War, and they range from a one-paragraph letter to a 100-page memoir.
“Upon publication,” Hager said in his proposal, “the book promises to interest scholars in the fields of African American Studies, 19th-century American literature, and the history of slavery and emancipation.”
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