The Weight of Words: New Course Tackles Writers’ Impact on Black History

In an online course, professor James Basker is hoping to bring new attention to anti-slavery writings in order to show the profound impact of literature on society. 

James Basker gives a guest lecture to high school students at Barnard College in New York City July 20, 2013.
James Basker gives a guest lecture to high school students at Barnard College in New York City July 20, 2013. Courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 

Literature—regardless of how it is delivered, whether in song, sermon, novel, short story, poem or essay—has the unique ability to inform, to uplift, and to shape our opinions and worldviews.

At least that’s how James Basker, the Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History at Barnard College at Columbia University, sees it. It’s a crucial point and question in his new online master’s course Amazing Grace: How Writers Helped End Slavery.

The course, which delves into American anti-slavery writings from the late 1600s to about the mid-1800s, when emancipation was finally granted, looks at how an entire public consciousness could change so completely in a relatively short period of time.

“If you look around in 1600 … you just won’t find anywhere in any developed society where anybody questions unfree labor,” Basker explained to The Root. “And 300 years later, if we jump to 1900, basically most of the world has come to assume that unfree labor is completely wrong and large parts of the world have succeeded in ending it, at least legally. So that’s a huge change in 300 years, which, in the longer sweep of history … is an amazing change.”

The course looks at both black and white writers—from the well-known, such as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass, to the lesser-known, including Samuel Sewall, a judge at the Salem witch trials, and David Walker, the first advocate of black nationalism—and even explores the anonymous yet equally important writers of love stories, songs and other literature who were opposed to the evils of the slave trade.

“For me the driving question is not just the little benchmarks, not when a law gets passed or a war got fought, but what were the underlying influences that changed people’s attitudes and woke them up morally and emotionally and eventually politically to the evils of slavery. That’s where I think the story gets told in these countless numbers of literary texts, sermons, slave narratives, pieces of fiction, poetry,” the professor said.

It was a project inspired in part by Basker’s own desire to bring these stories and their important historical context to the forefront, especially in a literary world where history is sort of, in his own words, “bleached out.”

“The presence of black experience had been minimized or almost eliminated,” he explained.

Of course, this is not necessarily true in the modern context—not when the Toni Morrisons and Maya Angelous are oft lauded—but as he said of his own literary community, “They weren’t looking at black experiences as … depicted by literature in the 1700s and early 1800s almost at all.”

Another goal of the course is to “get these stories back into the collective public memory and consciousness,” which Basker thinks will “restore a much healthier balance of history.”