SEA Scholar of the Month for August 2018: Cassander Smith
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
How did I make my way to early American literature? Serendipitously…. I started out in an MFA program with the idea that I would become a great novelist. To fulfill course requirements, in my very first semester of graduate school, I signed up for a class about Zora Neale Hurston. Since I had to take literature courses, I wanted to study black literary history. The course was canceled a few days before classes started, and I was scrambling to find another course. I looked through the catalogue and saw a course with “Captivity Narrative” in the title. I assumed the class would be about Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives. That was the only form of captivity I knew about in early America. Imagine my shock, then, when I got into the class and the professor started throwing out names like Cabeza de Vaca and Mary Rowlandson. And she was so absolutely enthusiastic. I didn’t know what in the world she was talking about, but the passion was contagious. I listened; I learned. A lot. All her enthusiasm seeped right into my bones. Ironically, the first thing I published as a scholar was an essay about Cabeza de Vaca.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
My favorite early American texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s captivity narrative and Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of Barbados. They are go-to texts for me whenever I want to think through issues of mediation and authorship or answer questions about how/why black Africans matter in the shaping of early American literature. It’s not just about how these two writers represent the black African (and Native) figures that populate their texts; it’s also about how they don’t.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working my way through my second book, which is about respectability politics in an early black Atlantic. My goal is to historicize respectability politics so that we understand it not as a relatively recent socio-political strategy, but as a centuries-old coping mechanism employed by black African communities that in turn shaped early Atlantic literature and politics, especially emancipation and back-to-Africa movements. I am working on several other projects, including a digital edition of Thomas Gage’s travel narrative, The English-American, which I am co-editing with Kristina Bross. I also am co-editing two essay volumes. One stages a conversation between Black Studies and Early Modern Studies; the other addresses the challenges of teaching about race and ethnicity in the United States during our current political moment. Both volumes are due out at the end of this year.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Right now, I am re-reading Wheatley’s volume of poetry and her letters for a chapter in my current book project. She has always been one of my favorite writers, and I am excited to finally have reached a point where I think I have something compelling enough to add to Wheatley studies. When I was ten, I learned who she was and did my first book report on her poetry and then wrote my own (very crude) poems based on her life story. She was inspiration for my creative and intellectual pursuits. One of my greatest joys is introducing students to her poetry and walking them through the story about how she published her first volume against overwhelming odds. Today, we use the phrase ‘black girl magic’ to celebrate the achievements and tenacious spirit of black girls and women. Wheatley is an early American form of ‘black girl magic.’
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many scholars in the field who inspire me, and they are at every professional rank. I am inspired by their collegiality and generosity. One of the things I love most about SEA is the level of camaraderie among scholars. It is one of the few spaces where a shy, introvert like me can interact with a minimum level of anxiety. Many of those who immediately come to mind as especially collegial have already been named in this forum. I won’t attempt to list names here except for one, Kristina Bross. She was the first person to hip me to the wonders of early American literary studies and, more important, showed me that there was a space in the field for me to develop my interests in black folk in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cassander L. Smith is Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama.