Wednesday, October 9, 2013

10 Questions With Abby Cooper

1. How did you first become interested in the history of American slavery?

My path was rather unorthodox. I was a theater major as an undergrad, and after college I took this job in Port Gibson, Mississippi—a place where they were still litigating the right to boycott in the Supreme Court into the 1980s, so the civil rights movement was hardly history. But the community had done a pathbreaking production of Romeo and Juliet in '89 that had opened up a dialogue about race and the town that they wanted to continue. So I was to work with local high school students workshopping their writing and leading acting exercises as a way to create a play reflecting on the community. The first week hit me hard—accents were thick and fast and I would go home and google "indefow" (in the fall) in hopes that I could return the next day and look like I understood what everyone was saying. By week two, I did understand. And we made a play—a really great one, and the talkback afterward was something to behold. It occurred to me that rather than studying theater itself, I was more interested in using theater as a medium. That it could be a force to wrench open larger questions and to help me hear voices I hadn’t heard before. The way these actors talked about religion—or rather, how they narrated experience through a religious lens. That became formative for my interest in religion and history.

2. How did you begin to connect your experience in Mississippi to the history of American slavery?

It was my experience in Mississippi that basically sent me back to school with a series of pressing questions. I taught theater in middle schools while I took classes at Barnard, and then did a Masters in American Religious History at Yale Divinity School. The classes I took—the professors I had—planted the seeds that really made me addicted to pursuing these questions of slavery, religion, modernity, and who gets to speak for what we study. Through the research (for my dissertation work on slave refugee camps in the Civil War), what drove me—it wasn't just the puzzle of: how do you square American freedom and democracy with empire and bondage?—but it was the voices of slaves, especially in interviews, that kept me hooked. That resonated loudly enough to motivate me to sift through the drier materials of state bureaucracy to make connections and form contexts. In interviews with former slaves, there's a cultural cadence that political narratives usually miss or misrepresent. Black southerners had ways of explaining local history that carried important explanatory power that, despite a generation of from-the-bottom-up social history, is still largely peripheral to the national story. There's always the perennial challenge of how do you uncover historically ignored cultures and subcultures. And so I stand in the tradition of the recoverers. Twelve teenagers in Mississippi may not be directly responsible for my dissertation—their impact is greater than that really, a less professional impact—, but they sparked in me a habit of mind that welcomes surprises. They definitely compelled me to take religion seriously in all its complexity.

3. You are currently teaching a course called “The Secret Lives of Slaves.” What is your course about?

There is a secret life of American slaves, it’s not easy to detect, but we’re going to try. There are fragments of slave voices we look at and listen to in class. What do we make of them? How do we get at this question of 19th century modern history that favors texts over other sources? You want to get at marginalized voices and in the study of slavery, many scholars would argue that we have hit a wall. That there was no way to resurrect these voices except through imagination. But I believe there are fragments worth finding. And historically informed imagination is what can connect the evidence. There are certain technologies that, for all their faults, give us new tools to find and combine qualitative data. You can see speech patterns, you can map migration patterns. At the very least they give us an important visual that can accompany other sources. At best it can totally change the way we think of slavery and the Civil War. We can learn about maroon communities and discern how they imagined a lived emancipation would play out. We can learn about black identity before they were defined by the Union army. How do we dig our trenches through source bases? I think there are productive ways to workshop these sources collaboratively. The idea of the class is to try.

4. What do you hope to impart to undergraduates?

The course allows me to expose students to the sources that have most influenced me, exploring textual and non-textual sources like sounds, images, artifacts, and "big question" readings linking slavery to questions of capitalism and economic development. The idea behind the class is to seek to reframe our historical understandings to give primacy to slaves' view and to challenge existing categories.

5. There have been a number of critically acclaimed films about slavery in the last few years including Django Unchained and the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave. What do those films miss about slavery?

On the occasions when I get to weigh in on this, I always feel tremendously privileged to be asked and simultaneously want to alert the person asking—You know I'm a historian, so there's only one way this can go. And then proceed to either correct the anachronisms or critique the melodrama, but what a killjoy. A filmmaker's job isn't history. It's creating a world of the film and striking a language that feels just foreign enough to be historical-ish—to have a mystique that lures us in, makes us curious— but usually not from actual archives because the language might alienate a modern audience and slave dialect is so politically loaded. I grapple with this constantly. My work is geared toward collecting and bringing to life fragments of everyday slave refugee life and then bringing them into the context of the world where small acts could have revolutionary consequences. Maybe some days I might fear the melodramatic image of films being far more indelible for my students than the rigorous analysis of the best monographs, but I should also recognize that there is something to be said for bringing slaves into the consciousness of popular culture.

I did see an interview on CBS that was more-or-less your classic Hollywood promo, and the questions were along the lines of "Ohmigd—playing a slave?!! playing a slaveholder?!!! What was that like?!!" to which there can only be one answer to both those questions—horrible. And so the message I get as a viewer is "phew! so glad I'm on the right side of history!" And there's a danger in smug moral distance.

6. Do they get anything right?

The Solomon Northup movie hasn't come out yet, so I'll hold off on a premature review. But any effort that acquaints public audiences with slaves as multi-dimensional people doing everyday things should get a tip of the hat for making the movie in the first place. American slavery simply isn't something Hollywood has much experience exploring. Tarantino, of course, is in another class altogether—you don't even imagine he has a historian somewhere on staff. Django Unchained, Inglorious Bastards—it's his own genre of fantasy against historical villainy—Nazis and slavery serve his purpose well. Moral complexity would spoil the fun of seeing blood spurt out of the bad guys. It's all about making revenge both lavish and casual, so the jokes land but you still recoil. He said once that if he ever makes a biopic, it will be on John Brown, but it would have to be the last film he makes. Shout out to Quentin—I would please like to be an adviser on that film.

7. What about the slave dialects used in these films?

So I work with slave dialects a lot—obliquely, through transcriptions of interviews but also through the recordings at the Library of Congress. You really have to read/hear them multiple times to get the language down. Dialects mark solidarity between different groups of former slaves, different regional affiliations. And careful listening to dialect can reveal not ignorance but something creative—multiple African languages that evolved into a patois forged specifically to differ from the master's English. When I write and when I am trying to synthesize and choose slave speakers, I give a lot of attention to questions of pitch.

Filmmakers do too but more for the world of the film and what audiences can relate to than to the balance of the documentary record. So I think the story goes that Tarantino passed up British actor Idris Elba for authentically-American-accented Jamie Foxx, a native Texan. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will be playing Solomon Northup, is British. These might be incidental, but it says something about how filmmakers think of their characters. And it even says something about how modern-day audiences will relate to these characters in their contexts. Solomon Northup was born in New York, not the slave south, his narrative is keen to note. Accents aren't everything, but they are something. We can say that slavery is illegitimate for everyone. But a drama can accentuate the point by creating a tension between coerced servitude and an accent you think is rather distinguished. An accent that immediately plucks a staccato "I don't want to survive, I want to live" with the convincing articulation of a New Yorker. This is very much in the style of the nineteenth-century slave narrative—which convinced its audience of slavery's evil by showing northerners how similar they were to the chattel that harvested their cotton. Which is a wise tactic. Through Northup, we meet others. I use slave narratives in my research because they often give telling and useful details of lives in slavery and passages into freedom, but what a day it will be when Fannie Berry of St. Petersburg, Virginia will be American Protagonist (for more on Fannie Berry, see Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves).

8. What other courses do you plan to teach going forward?

Next semester, I'm teaching a course called American Transformations: Perspectives on United States History and a course called The Social History of the Confederacy.

9. Do you have any hobbies?

Right now, moving my family into the area is my only hobby. My goal is to be non-GPS-dependent by November.

10. Are you prepared for the Massachusetts winter?
Why? Does it get cold here? Should I just get an IV of Airborne inserted now?


  1. Sounds great to me. Now I need to convince my kids to brave the cold to learn from a clearly inspired professor.

  2. Sounds great to me. Now I need to convince my kids to brave the cold to learn from a clearly inspired professor.