SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, January 2021: Ajay Batra
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
When I started graduate school, some friends in upper years warned me that it’s common during coursework and exams for students to feel pulled toward earlier periods than the ones they originally intended to study. I felt this pull strongly. I planned to focus on the latter half of the nineteenth century; but, over time, I found that black Atlantic texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cast a special kind of light on the questions about race, subjection, and political economy that enduringly interest me. In particular, I credit David Kazanjian’s seminar on Marx and American Studies and Chi-ming Yang’s seminar on theories of Orientalism with showing me that literature and archival sources from the long eighteenth century are some of our greatest resources for examining the origins of—and sensing possibilities for remaking—the modern world.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
There’s a passage in James Redpath’s The Roving Editor (1856) where a once-enslaved, self-liberated man named Charlie describes how black workers in the Dismal Swamp went about their business. Most of them, Charlie says, were maroons who had sought refuge in the swamp. The rest were enslaved and freed people hiring their time. All of them worked together splitting tree trunks into shingles. For Charlie, their mundane acts of labor harbored something extraordinary: He says he never heard one worker speak disrespectfully to another; he lauds their unity of purpose; and he marvels at their readiness to be present for one another—to offer up a useful tool, or a helping hand. Finding plain speech insufficient to represent their harmony of body and mind, Charlie resorts to a rather memorable image: “all ’gree as if dey only had one head and one heart, with hunder legs and hunder hands.” Right now, this passage is my favorite early American text; and Charlie, though he dictated these words, is my favorite writer. Many aspects of the passage inspire me, but what I most admire is Charlie’s committed attentiveness to the trace of a distinct, quite beautiful communal ethos taking shape amid the drudgery. This attentiveness is something I aspire to emulate in my own writing and cultivate in my students.
What are you currently working on?
For the most part, I’ve been working on my dissertation, “Radiant Ephemera: Abolition in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery, 1785–1865,” which charts the visions of abolition that enslaved, freed, and fugitive black diasporans in the United States and the British Caribbean generated in their writings and in their everyday lives. My particular focus at this moment is revising my chapter on the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822, when as many as several thousand enslaved and once-enslaved people around Charleston, South Carolina, organized themselves into an insurrectionary force capable of overthrowing the region’s slave regime. The source base for this incident consists mostly of trial records, documents crafted by white investigators expressly to incriminate any black subjects suspected of plotting against them. My biggest challenge in writing the chapter has been finding ways to repurpose these sources in order to gain insights not into the nature or aims of the plot itself, but rather into the world the conspirators built in the course of their plotting. Enacting this shift in attention has required effort and patience—not to mention the helpful advice of historian friends—but my findings have been exciting: In Denmark’s conspiracy, as in some others, the work of plotting overlapped with the making of an alternative, communistic social order on the lowest of frequencies.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I currently am reading C. L. R. James’s Notes on Dialectics (1948) and Robert Nichols’s Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory (2020). I’m reading the former for a James-related side project, and I’m reading the latter to become more familiar with Indigenous critiques of private property and dispossession. This pairing was an accident, but a very happy one, to the degree that both books illustrate the potential for actually existing anti-colonial and anti-dispossessive movements to critically disrupt established theoretical paradigms. Writing of this kind—writing attentive to how our practices stand as theoretical interventions—is always a source of inspiration for me.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I want to shout out a few individuals whose work I find indispensable in the effort to understand how unfree subjects in the early Atlantic World envisioned liberation and conceptualized goodness: Elise Mitchell, Ana Schwartz, Tara Bynum, and Kristina Huang.
Ajay Batra is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.