SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, August 2022: Mary Caton Lingold
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I came to the field because of the questions that I wanted to be able to answer. I wanted to understand how American racism came to be, and I wanted to understand how the historical imagination shapes what we consider to be possible in the past. This led me to begin peeling back the layers, focusing on texts and contexts from earlier and earlier periods. In graduate school, I began to read extensively in the genre of colonial-era travel writing. I was struck by how much I could learn from these works about whiteness, colonization, slavery, and Black and Indigenous cultural histories. My work now focuses on the lives of enslaved and free Africans in Atlantic Africa and the Caribbean during the rise of plantation slavery, in the 17th and 18th centuries. I am thankful for the capaciousness of literary study, which allows me to pursue questions of history and culture that would be impossible to undertake in other fields.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
One early American text continues to capture my attention, and it is really a text within a text. Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to the Islands (1707) contains musical notation that derives from performances by enslaved Africans living in Jamaica in 1687-1688. These transcriptions were written by a mysterious man named Mr. Baptiste, who as I argue in a recent article about his biography, was probably a free person of color. The notation offers a rare glimpse into the musical world of Atlantic Africans, enslaved and free, who ultimately revolutionized global music and helped to found one of, if not the most prominent art forms of the early Americas. In addition to writing articles about the musical text, I co-created a website (www.musicalpassage.org) that brings the pieces to life and tries to make the history surrounding them more accessible to musicians, students, and scholars. My collaborators (Laurent Dubois and David Garner) and I always hoped that the website would make it possible for musicians, students, and other scholars to explore this history, and in recent years performances in Jamaica, the U.S., and the U.K. are revitalizing the legacy of the enslaved musicians whose performances inspired the pieces. Chinna Smith and Inna da Yard from Jamaica explored the pieces in 2017 and recently Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma drew from the historical text in an original piece by Giddens.
What are you currently working on?
I have just finished the manuscript of my first solo-authored book, “Sound Legacy: Music and Slavery in an African Atlantic world.” The project centers on the musical lives of Atlantic Africans during the rise of plantation slavery, roughly from 1600-1800. Early chapters focus on music on the Atlantic coasts of Africa, and the rest of the book looks to the greater Caribbean and North America. Throughout I draw heavily from travel accounts like Hans Sloane’s narrative to show how central musical performances were to life across the Atlantic world. It became formulaic within the genre to portray musical performances extensively and there is a wealth of material to draw from. Yet these works were written by outsiders who did not understand nor appreciate what they heard, so I combine methods from sound studies and literary studies to interpret these texts for what they can teach us about performance traditions of Atlantic Africans. I also study musical instruments crafted by enslaved artisans, archival manuscripts, and musical performances to uncover the early history of Black music in the Americas. The project has morphed into a cultural history of music and sound, but it emerged from a desire to center African thought and expression in a literary study of early America.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I have been reading a lot about the Afro-Iberian Atlantic world, especially in the eras prior to and overlapping with British settlement in the Americas. Wonderful work coming out of multiple fields is illuminating the influence of Africans on culture, politics, and economic trade far earlier and more extensively than a strictly Anglocentric approach would. (I am thinking of recent and forthcoming work by Herman Bennett, Cécile Fromont, Nick Jones, Cassander Smith, David Wheat, Miguel Valerio, Lisa Voigt, Jeroen Dewulf, and many others.) This scholarship shows the vast influences of Atlantic Africans in the early modern period, and has helped to shift my thinking about the emergence of whiteness, antiblackness, and slavery.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many! Building on my answer to the previous question, I’d like to highlight Cassander Smith as a scholar whose work has charted a path for my own. Her book Black Africans in the British Imagination fills such an important gap by establishing a bridge between Iberia, Africa, and the early Americas in the context of Anglophone Atlantic literature. Her work helped open space for me to center Africa and Africans in my own book project. Also, I recently had the chance to work closely with Cassie in her role as President of the Early Caribbean Society and I grew to respect her leadership as much as her scholarship. She is doing so much to grow and enhance the institutions that shape our disciplines and our profession, which can also be seen in her field-building co-edited volumes, Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies (with Nick Jones and Miles Grier), and The Earliest African American Literatures (with Zachary Hutchins).
Mary Caton Lingold is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.