SEA Scholar of the Month, June 2023: John Saillant
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
My core field is Black religion. There are few faculty positions in this. At Western Michigan University I have a joint appointment in English and History. I interviewed, in the 1990s, at WMU for a position in Comparative Religion. Another candidate was hired but the school offered me an alternate job. Early American literature has been most meaningful for me within a body of sources in eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century African Atlantic Christianity. My interests grew in the classrooms of great teachers when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. These were early Americanists with interests in religion—Joseph Conforti, William McLoughlin, Gordon Wood, who would become my director. My teacher in African American literature at both undergraduate and graduate levels was Michael Harper, who would become poet laureate of Rhode Island. Joanne Pope Melish was accomplishing superlative work, which would become influential, when we were graduate students together. When I was a postdoc in the 1990s, when the market was hard and on its way to being even harder today, some early Americanists scraped together temporary opportunities for me—Joyce Appleby, H. L. Gates, Ronald Hoffman, Pauline Maier, Phillip Richards. I owe them my livelihood. They were willing to take a chance on the subject I was pursuing.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This is a hard question because context matters. For my own imagination and work process, I love eighteenth-century Black-authored religiously-inspired manuscripts like those by Lemuel Haynes and by covenanted bodies like the Jamaican Ethiopian Baptists. Their biblical literacy, theological complexity, and Africanist hermeticism, all of which were elemental in their abolitionism, are challenging to work out. They have a message for the public today. At the same time, I find profanity interesting. I published an article recently in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies on Ignatius Sancho’s dirty jokes and double-entendres within a system of gift exchange. I teach Michigan History too, though state history is more a toolkit than the history of a particular state. Here, for the early period, maps, copper, trees, water, and swamps all in effect have textual qualities in class.
What are you currently working on?
I’m trying to craft a history of early Black Baptists, beginning in the 1760s. This is a puzzle I’m assembling, I hope, over time. Along the way, I became transfixed by Trinidad while studying Black Baptists who fled there after the War of 1812. I published an article on African-born mutineers in Trinidad in the CLR James Journal, and I have work on Trinidad in progress. I recently received grants from the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Women’s History Project to research a Black woman who joined the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island, with her children, in 1812, right before a sea journey that could have been perilous in wartime. I’ve become interested in James W. C. Pennington’s theological education at Yale, which he tried to replicate later in his life by becoming the teacher. Finally, I’m envisioning ways to make my work resonate with the public, particularly as we approach 250 years of the Declaration of Independence, which was universalized by African Americans after decades of constitutive theologizing about what universalization could be in a postslavery society. Theology articulated an answer that hadn’t been conceptualized before.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Hartford’s Ann Plato and the Native Borders of Identity (2015), by Ron Welburn of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ann Plato was a member of Pennington’s congregation in Hartford, and he wrote an introduction for her book. It’s crucial for Black religion that as an author and a member of Pennington’s congregation she was, as Welburn argues, Missinnuouk. I’ve recently read Daniel Sherrell’s Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World (2021), which my son lent me. Aside from the importance of climate change for humanity, it will change our field. The world’s flow of refugees—we have significant communities resettled here in Kalamazoo because of demand for slaughterhouse labor—may also change our field in the next few decades with the infusion of a new kind of scholar. I’ll omit titles since I follow not scholarship but news, which suggests that climate change has pushed refugees from home.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Jonathan Elmore of Savannah State University. He’s co-authored An Introduction to African and Afro-Diasporic Peoples and Influences in British Literature and Culture before the Industrial Revolution (2021), with Jenni Halpin. He also writes on climate change and modern literary arts. This is work students need. It makes no sense to name individual scholars without considering their institutional context in a wide sense. News in late 2022 that Savannah State is prepared to eliminate its humanities programs reflects the major injustice within US higher education. In a state studded with wealthy institutions, Savannah State, “the university by the sea,” in an ecologically sensitive and historically significant coastal environment, has been so starved of funds that it can’t maintain its enrollment by supporting and improving its programs. This is happening throughout the US. A solution demands substantial rethinking. We aren’t close yet. I speak as an AAUP dues-payer as well as former officer of our local and department chair. Unions are not helping us in this, even in states like Michigan where we can bargain collectively, because locals are defined as small in scope, ambition, and authority. On the one hand, no single collective bargaining unit can address the problems we’re facing. On the other hand, there is something worth striving for in higher education separate from the status quo.
John Saillant is Professor of English and History at Western Michigan University.