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Prof. James Basker gives new life to historic antislavery texts

One hundred and fifty years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Prof. James G. Basker, Barnard College’s Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History and president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, has revived an essential American story with an anthology of antislavery writings spanning two centuries and every literary genre. Published by the Library of America, American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation captures the abolitionist movement in the words of more than 150 Americans—politicians, housewives, slaves, poets, war heroes, tradesmen, professors, and other men and women who challenged slavery through their writing. Here, Prof. Basker answers questions about the research process, the range of writers included in the book, and the relevance of art and letters in political and ideological revolutions.

In compiling this book, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Choosing the pieces for this 950-page volume was a tremendous challenge—I was sifting through nearly 2,000 texts amassed over 20 years of collecting slavery depictions in old texts. I wanted to include all genres: fiction, non-fiction, poems, sermons, plays, diatribes—the list goes on. There was nothing tentative or gradual about the emergence of antislavery writing, and I wanted to capture the breadth of that impassioned, deliberate sentiment—from fiery sermons and novels to abolitionist hymn books and chapbooks for children learning their ABCs. I wanted everything to be significant, and I wanted the final product to be representative in every way.

This book brings canonical writers into a new light, for example it includes Frederick Douglass’s only work of fiction. There is a poem by Emily Dickinson, whose poems are famously non-political, but here, she’s broken that tradition. We think of Louisa May Alcott as an author who writes for girls and young women, but here she’s created a “thriller” set at midnight: A slave owner is dying, an interracial romance is blossoming, and outside the house, slaves are organizing a rebellion. 

In addition to these well-known authors, there are also many pieces that are fascinating for other reasons. New England’s first antislavery pamphlet was written in 1700 by Samuel Sewell, a Harvard-educated Puritan and one of the judges in the Salem witch trials. Two of the book’s most interesting stories are by Anonymous, titled “A Dream” and “Another Dream.” Both see the resolution of slavery and the racial question as pivotal. In one, the narrator wakes up in a world following a race war, where black forces have won and Congress is meeting to decide what to do with the remaining whites—enslave them, send them back to Europe, or kill them all. The other story is at the opposite end of the spectrum: Slavery has ended, equality has been achieved, and into the room walks the first black president. It’s like a vision of Obama, written in 1831.

Can you talk a bit about the women authors and the authors who were born into slavery?
There are 34 female authors represented in the book, from a range of social backgrounds. The most obvious, of course, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the seminal novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. President Lincoln was said to have described her as “the little woman who made this great war.” But in reality, by the time Stowe came around, she was building on three generations of women who used their writing to advocate for social change. Women were fantastically important voices in the antislavery movement, and the antislavery movement was a significant entrée for women into the public sphere. As early as the 1600s, women were writing about the condition of women, long before Seneca Falls and the emergence of the women’s movement. In those intervening decades, as women were organizing and stepping into activist roles, there were platform decisions made to focus on slavery as an issue with more urgency than women’s rights.

The book also includes selections by 35 people born into slavery, chosen from hundreds. All tell dramatic stories and portray subtle acts of defiance, showing that the antislavery movement was rooted in the principled resistance of black people. There is a poetic dialogue called “The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant,” by a slave named Jupiter Hammon. In the poem’s alternating stanzas, the master requests the servant’s deference, and the servant replies that he’ll be obedient under the laws of the Lord. As a devout Christian, this was Hammon’s way of rebuking the system, by saying that God, not his master, had absolute control over him. 

Today, there are still authors and all kinds of artists who are both inspiring and documenting public opinion in the midst of political and ideological upheavals. In thinking about revolutionary times, what is the significance of literature and art?
There is no question that history is not determined by legislature, but by the collective imagination and shared attitude of people. Legislation and law are only the tail end of the process and the lowest common denominator—politicians don’t make things happen, people make politicians act. Art and writing shape the values that people hold, the way that they imagine the future, and the attitudes they have about their fellow citizens. The South was losing a battle of ideas by banning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, by making antislavery pamphlets illegal, by placing rewards on the heads of writers. In current times, governments continue to lash back at dissent in attempts to control or influence the public, but as Percy Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The overarching purpose of American Antislavery Writings is to bring the full spectrum of voices back into circulation. More than half of the pieces included have been out of print for 100 years. That is an entire century when those voices were not part of America’s narrative about slavery. This collection is not just for college students and scholars of American letters and history—there is material here that could be valuable for new readers, for grade-school students, and for high-school students. It would be my dream that pieces find their way into the way American history is taught at every level.

Read an interview with Prof. Basker in TIME magazine; also listen as he discusses American Antislavery Writers in a radio interview