Operating with the idea that learning from the past can prevent future mistakes, three students presented papers that examine racism in literature. It was part of a panel discussion entitled “The Origins of Race: Eighteenth-Century Perspectives” held on Jan. 12.
According to English professor Nathan Gorelick, who facilitated the panel, much of modern racism is an echo of previous racism. He invoked a famous quote from George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
In order to explore the mistakes of the past, the students reviewed 18th century literature.
These papers grew out of their participation in Dr. Gorelick’s Restoration and 18th Century British Literature course last semester. Haley Larson, one of the presenters, said that during the class, Professor Gorelick invited each of them to prepare their papers for oral presentation as part of the 17th Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration on campus.
Jeffrey Davis, who graduated in December, presented “Identity and Race in Olaudah Equiano’s An Interesting Narrative.” He focused mainly on Equiano, who wrote about his experience being a slave, receiving his freedom and attempting to integrate into white English society.
Davis described how Equiano, as a young child, played with a white girl his same age. When he saw his reflection, he was repulsed because his skin was darker than his playmate’s. As a result, he started washing his face vigorously, hoping to “wash away the darkness.”
Eventually, after obtaining his freedom, Equiano continued to attempt to be white, physically and socially.
Davis called this the white mask of conformity, and said that even though Equiano recognized the harm that whites were doing to his own people, the white mask was still “the mask he so desperately wished to bear.”
According to Davis, this desire to be white was a greater statement against slavery than Equiano’s account of the atrocities suffered at slaveholders’ hands. Davis explained that a society which made a black man hate his own skin should have reexamined itself.
Haley Larson, a senior English student, presented the next paper, entitled, “Defining the Human as Non-Animal.” Her paper explored three texts, the aforementioned An Interesting Narrative, as well as Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
In keeping with her title, Larson examined the way certain characters in these novels are treated as less than human. For example, Defoe’s character Friday, although constantly called a man by Robinson Crusoe, is nevertheless treated as less than human. Crusoe even calls him “My man,” implying ownership. Friday was more than an animal, for he could communicate with Crusoe, but less than a man, as Crusoe claimed ownership of him and scoffed at his attempts to reason.
To round out the presentations, Mary Lynn Hingano presented her piece, “The Sovereignty of Colors.” She also focused on the life story of Olaudah Equiano, but had quite a different take on the story.
While Davis and Larson focused on Equiano’s plight as a racially oppressed man, Hingano instead discussed how Equiano’s story is one of triumph over adversity, as he achieved freedom after being a slave his whole life. She even compared some of his words to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, citing them both as inspiring characters.
Although from three different perspectives with different theses and even different literary sources, all three papers described ways in which the study of 18th century literature helped them better understand the struggle against racism today.