Re-Reading Nineteenth-Century Archives
Lesson Plan Production Details
Over the last decade, digital technologies have provided instructors in Victorian studies with a rich and remarkably global pool of nineteenth-century archival materials for classroom teaching. Yet the rapid recovery of these materials has also raised questions about how our students might navigate the imperialist, racist, sexist, and homophobic strains that invariably shape them. Scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, for instance, have highlighted how captive and oppressed peoples in the nineteenth-century are only knowable to us today through the very archival documents that reinforced their bondage, such as slave “property” ledgers or derogatory diary descriptions that slave owners wrote.
This lesson plan invites students to explore how two contemporary books — Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals and Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads – work within and against these archival documents in order to offer another picture of captive and oppressed lives and experiences in the nineteenth-century. The learning goal is to explore how both writers re-cast the erasures or dehumanizing representations of captive and oppressed peoples in nineteenth-century archival materials, ranging from figures such as Gladys Bentley, Jeanne Duval, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ida D. Wells, to “minor” or unnamed individuals.
In the process, this plan invites students to explore the narrative techniques that Hartman and Hopkinson use (such as critical fabulation and speculative fiction), and to consider the role that genre, queerness, and the writer’s positionality play in Hartman and Hopkinson’s books. It also encourages students to engage with Black studies, Caribbean studies, and African-American studies. Instructors in these fields, and transatlantic nineteenth century studies, American studies, or narrative theory may also find this plan helpful. The plan at present is flexible, leaving room for instructors to adapt it for their own needs and stressing areas that could be scaled up into a full course or scaled down into units within a larger course. Suggested assignments include the standard academic essay, a reflective essay, and, by way of Katherine McKittrick, a “demonic” mapping project.
Summaries and Critical Frameworks
Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Hartman's book depicts the lives and experiences of Black and queer individuals in the United States in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, within and against the archival documents that record their presence. It re-reads historical materials like photographs, ledgers, and police reports to show how iconic Black figures W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida D. Wells, and Gladys Bentley, as well as scores of ordinary, everyday Black figures invented new ways of living, loving, and surviving in a nation that was predisposed to treating them with suspicion and hostility after the abolishment of slavery.
Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads. Warner Books, 2003.
Hopkinso's book draws from historical documents in order to reimagine the lives and experiences of three women in the Black diaspora — Mer, an eighteenth-century slave in St. Domingue, Jeanne Duval, a Haitian actress and mistress of French Decadent poet Charles Baudelaire, and Thais, a fourth century prostitute-turned-saint in Alexandria, Egypt. It bends the restrictions of time and space, moving from one figure to another non-linearly through the perspective of a goddess, Lasirén (a water spirit who plays a role in several myths and spiritual systems of the African diaspora).
These frameworks should be used to support the discussions suggested and the assignments in subsequent sections.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1-14, and “A Note On Method.” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. xiii-xv.
In these pieces, Hartman outlines how critical fabulation aims to “liberate [captive and oppressed peoples] from the obscene descriptions [in archival documents] that first introduced them to us” (“Venus,” 6), to generate a “different set of descriptions from this archive [. . . and] imagine what could have been” (7). Expanding on this narrative strategy in Wayward, she explains that her technique of “close narration,” attempts to place “the voice of the narrator and character in inseparable relation so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange [her] text” (“A Note,” xiii-xiv).
Rutledge, Gregory E., and Nalo Hopkinson. “Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson.” African American Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 1999, pp. 589-601.
In this wide-ranging interview, Hopkinson outlines what, for her, constitutes speculative fiction (and the interrelated genres of science fiction and fantasy). For Hopkinson, speculative fiction is not just wishful thinking but a genre that allows “black people [to] reimagine [their] futures [. . . so that] we can then begin to see our way clear to creating them” (593). She also explores the relationship between speculative fiction and realism in ways that implicitly place pressure on the mid-Victorian realist novel. As she puts it, “a guy in a realist fiction isn’t a “guy” [. . . ] It’s a fabulation onto which the author has crafted the illusion that you’re perceiving a human” (597).
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Ten Speed Press, 2007, pp. 53-59.
Lorde explains that western society has “vilified, abused, and devalued” (53) eroticism, and argues that we must recuperate it. Lorde urges us to see eroticism as a “life-force” (55) that exists beyond the confines of the bedroom: it is the “sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, [which] forms a bridge between the sharers [. . .] and lessens the threat of difference” (56). It is also a revolutionary affect that involves the empower us to “demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of” (57).
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65-81.
This is a necessary text, but it is also more densely articulated than the texts above, so it will be up to the instructor to decide how to navigate it based on the level of the course that they are teaching. Here, Spillers outlines how enslavement produced conditions (eg. rape, the removal of mother from child, the displacement of the Black father by the white slave master), that complicated the normative gendering – what Spillers coins as an “un-gendering” – of Black men and women, and disrupted how familial bonds in Black families were subsequently forged. Perhaps what is most important to this lesson plan is Spiller’s suggestion that Black women have the potential create a different social subject outside of “the traditional symbolics of female gender [. . . and in the process] rewrite after all a radically different text for female empowerment” (80).
Instructors should note that the historical documents that Hartman and Hopkinson rely on are themselves included in the books, so students can engage directly with them as they read. A scaled-up version of this lesson plan might supplement Hartman and Hopkinson’s books with some digital archival materials about the era, and draw on some of the starting points listed in Sophia Hsu’s lesson plan, “Archival Erasure and the Aftermath of Slavery.”
- Mitchell, Robin. Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France. University of Georgia Press, 2020.
Mitchell’s text is especially pertinent to understanding Duval’s role in Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads, and Georgia UP has recently released its own resource about teaching Mitchell’s text.
- Muñoz, José Esteban. The Sense of Brown. Duke UP, 2020.
Discussion Questions, Key Passages, and Activities
After students have familiarized themselves with the key terms in the critical frameworks outlined above, there are a few starting points that instructors could use for classroom discussions or activities.
This line of discussion invites students to explore how Hartman and Hopkinson use specific narrative techniques to engage with the limits of nineteenth-century archive materials in their books, and the similarities and differences between these techniques.
- What is close narration and critical fabulation? How do these play themselves in Hartman’s Wayward, especially in sections such as a “A Minor Figure” (24-35), where Hartman grapples with a coercive photograph of a naked and unnamed Black girl? How does Hartman textually – and visually – re-position the girl against the white gaze that has been imposed on her through the photograph, to “catch a glimpse of [another] life” (30)?
- How does speculation play itself out in Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads? For instance, how does Hopkinson engage with the relationship between the canonical French Decadent poet Charles Baudelaire and his Haitian muse, Jeanne Duval? What does she do with the existing letters and poems that Baudelaire wrote about her, some of which are interleaved within Hopkinson’s book? (Instructors who are teaching topics about late nineteenth-century Decadence and Aestheticism might scale up this question into a course unit that examines additional letters and poems that Baudelaire wrote, as well as various sketches and paintings of Duval that Baudelaire and Edouard Manet produced.)
- What are the similarities and differences between Hartman and Hopkinson’s narrative techniques? What do they make possible, and what are their limits?
A scaled up version of this discussion might go on to explore the advantages and limits of a text that focuses on a single historical period such as Hartman’s, and a transhistorical novel such as Hopkinson’s, and how these temporal choices shape the way each text narrates itself. For example, what narrative role does Ezili (the time-travelling goddess that inhabits Mer, Duval, and Thais’s consciousness) plays in The Salt Roads? Why does it matter that Hopkinson connects the three Black women through Ezili, rather than relying, say, on an unnamed third-person omniscient narrator? Conversely, who is the self-conscious “I” in Hartman’s book? When does the narrative “I” surface and recede in the book, and what does its presence do?
This line of discussion invites students to explore how the books depict queer desire and/or eroticism. All the women in these novels generate rich moments of radical pleasure in their lives by holding one another – in every sense of that verb.
- What does queerness make possible in both texts? Conversely, what are the limits of queerness?
- What does each novel suggest about the relationship between sexual liberation and liberation from racial oppression?
- In what ways might we read Hartman and Hopkinson as “queering” established historical narratives about the nineteenth-century, or existing archival documents?
Passages that lend themselves well to all the questions above include Wayward’s “An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom” (46-75) and “The Beauty of the Chorus” (288-343). “Manual for General Housework” (77-80) and “Wayward: A Short Entry On the Possible” (227-228) also provide opportunities for discussing what relationship each of these concepts – the manual and the wayward – have to queerness and eroticism more broadly. In The Salt Roads, these questions lend themselves best to Hopkinson’s depictions of the amorous entanglements between Mer, Tipingee, and Patrice throughout the book, as well as the manifold meanings embedded in the motif of salt in the book.
This line of discussion invites students to consider how Hartman and Hopkinson play with the presumed division between history and fiction.
- How have Hartman and Hopkinson’s books shifted the way you think of “history” and “fiction,” and why? Do you think it is important to maintain a separation between what we think of as history and fiction? What does history – however you define it – show us something that fiction cannot? Conversely, what does fiction – however you define it – how us something that history cannot?
- How have readers classified Hartman and Hopkinson’s books, and what are the advantages and limits of these genre classifications? For example, Google Books classifies Hartman’s Wayward as a "biography" and Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads as "historical fiction" (even though Hopkinson prefers the term “speculative fiction”). What do these genre labels suggest about the role of fact and fiction in both books? Are these labels sufficient – and, if not, how might we re-label them? Do you think the authors of these books would agree with the labels that have been provided for their work?
A scaled up version of discussion might invite students to explore academic and non-academic book reviews and the publishing blurbs about each of these books, and trace how these materials have classified Hartman and Hopkinson’s books as well.
This line of discussion centers the writer’s positionality as essential to understanding the particular context that enabled both writers to produce these books.
- Are critical fabulation and speculative fiction narrative strategies that all writers can, or should, practice? What conditions were necessary in order for writers such as Hartman and Hopkinson to produce their books?
- What contexts and protocols were necessary to Hartman and Hopkinson for shaping an ethical execution of these strategies in their books, and why do these contexts matter?
- Could readers consider these books on their own as representations of captive and oppressed lives in the nineteenth century, or should other materials – whether fictional or nonfictional – supplement these books? If so, what kinds and why?
If instructors prefer to set a standard academic essay as an assignment, then they might invite students to draw connections between both books by scaling up any one of the discussion questions in the lesson plan. The deeply creative nature of both books also raises the possibility of inviting students to experiment with the narrative techniques that Hartman and Hopkinson use – but it is important to pause and consider the questions of positionality raised above.
Hartman and Hopkinson’s books both necessitated years of research, revision, and close engagement with archival materials. This is more time and effort than any classroom unit or semester course could reasonably offer. The writing process for both writers was careful and long because – as their scholarly articles and interviews make clear – they were both aware of the ethical responsibility that comes with telling stories, particularly stories about those who were unable to leave behind a record of their experiences, or whose records were erased.
Instead of asking students to write a critical fabulation or speculative fiction of their own, then, it is perhaps more appropriate to invite them to engage with archival materials (either the materials provided in both books, or another set of materials chosen by the instructor), and to reflect on their limits. This engagement might take on the form of a reflective essay or a mapping assignment.
Students could analyze about how captive and oppressed lives are represented in a particular archival document, and then reflect on the kinds of questions or inquiries that one would have to pursue in order to construct the kind of critical fabulation or speculative fiction that Hartman and Hopkinson have produced. This assignment would be most appropriate for introductory-level undergraduate courses.
Students could map out the spaces in Hartman and Hopkinson’s books by way of Katherine McKittrick’s work on Black women’s geographies in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (2006). This assignment would be most appropriate for advanced-level undergraduate courses or graduate courses.
McKittrick argues that nineteenth-century imperial conquests resulted in a dominant geographical framework that has arranged the planet and its spaces from a “seemingly stable white, heterosexual, classed vantage point” (xv), with the nation and its presumably natural and fixed national boundaries being one example. Racism is maintained in part by this geographical domination – or, as she puts it, “how we organize, build, and imagine our surroundings” (xiv); Black women, for instance, are often perceived as “not belonging” to a space because of one has come to imagine that space. Yet as McKittrick argues, Black women have critiqued this vantage point by producing new ways to think about space and new geographical formations in the vein of what she calls, by way of Sylvia Wynter, the “demonic” – a term that, in part, refers to something or someone that lies “outside the [established] boundaries of reason” (xxv) or knowledge.
With this in mind, instructors might invite students to “map” out Hartman and Hopkinson’s books by focusing on what we might call the “demonic” sites in these books. Such an assignment would not necessarily require digital mapping software or visual illustrations. Rather, it would invite students to analyze how various figures in Hartman and Hopkinson’s books organize, build, and imagine the spaces that they lived in. What would another “map” of the nineteenth-century look like based on how Hartman and Hopkinson have engaged with the century’s archival materials? Why do they focus on spaces such as Alexandrian brothels, Haitian plantations, Harlem music halls, Philadelphian “ghettos,” rather than the Romantic countryside and Dickensian London – spaces that are typically regarded as the nineteenth-century’s quintessential literary and historical backdrops? How do the various figures in both their books organize, build, or imagine their spaces, and why does this matter?
The first section in chapter two of McKittrick’s book, which focuses on how the garret in Harriet Jacobs’s (Linda Brent) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) makes available a “place for Brent to articulate her lived experiences and emancipatory desires, without losing sight of the dehumanizing forces of slavery” (41), is a concrete example of the demonic “mapping” analysis that students could produce. To prepare for the assignment, students should read that section in addition to the introduction of McKittrick’s book.
Many thanks to Ryan Fong, Diana Rose Newby, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, and Emma Soberano for their feedback.
Cherrie Kwok is a Elizabeth Arendall Tilney and Schuyler Merritt Tilney Predoctoral Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia (UVa). In 2022, she received UVa's Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award in the Arts and Humanities for her teaching record and for establishing an antiracist pedagogy working group. She was the lead developer for “Undisciplining the Dramatic Monologue,” a lesson plan published in 2021 by Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom. She has also published some of her pedagogical approaches in The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy(JITP), which focus on her early experiences teaching in undergraduate composition classrooms. Her current dissertation research examines how African-American, Caribbean, Asian, and Indigenous writers engaged with an artistic style called Decadence during, and beyond, the nineteenth century. She published an early journal article from this project in Volupté: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, and received the 2021 British Association of Decadence Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize. In addition to serving Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom as an Associate Editor, she is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London.Pronouns:she/her.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Turner, J. M. W. The Slave Ship. Oil on canvas, 1840. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Public domain in the USA because it is a faithful photographic reproduction of a work that was published before 1928.
Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)
Cherrie Kwok, dev. “Re-Reading Nineteenth-Century Archives.” Diana Rose Newby, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, and Emma Soberano, collab. peer revs.; Ryan D. Fong, les. plan clust. dev./copyed. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2024, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/contemporary_re-reading_nineteenth_century_archives.html.