(Image courtesy of–ok, just snatched from– Sophie Deal’s What I Learnt Today blog. Please check it out here–it’s cute!)

Aside from publishing, not perishing, and teaching, academics– that fancy name for college professors– are expected to talk. We talk to our students, our colleagues, to fellow scholars. We are supposed to be good at talking. However, unlike people like Bill Clinton and Toni Morrison, who can command over $100,000 in speaking fees for a single engagement (Clinton reportedly has received $795,000 for a single appearance!), most academics speak for free. And some academics you see popping up on various cable news shows and internet sites– Paul Krugman, Henry Louis Gates, Melissa Harris-Perry, to name a few– seem to be so eager to tell you what they think, about what they do and do not know about, that you think they’d be willing to pay you for the privilege.

I’m not one of those people. Mostly, I’m terrified of speaking in public. I’m much more comfortable writing, and having people read what I write. This blog, in fact, is part of my self-imposed regimen/therapy to get me more comfortable about telling other people what I’m thinking. (Thanks to all of you who indulge me in this.) And I think that writing this blog has actually helped me overcome some of my fears about talking about what I do, what I am trying to say, and what I think.

It may be because of this blog that I surfaced from my sabbatical to speak– briefly– I mean, really briefly– I mean, for ten minutes– to people on campus about my research. I did so when our university’s library solicited faculty to participate in their efforts to highlight faculty research. Seven of us were asked to speak for 10 minutes each, and the talks were open to the whole university community.

Even though I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about and preparing for this, I’m really glad that I did it. People seemed interested; they laughed when they were supposed to laugh. Several introduced themselves to me afterward and told me they now wanted to read my book. It actually ended up being quite … fun! I never thought I’d say that!

One thing that may seem counterintuitive to people not accustomed to public speaking is that it’s actually quite difficult to give a very short speech. Like me, you probably remember having to give a 2-minute or 5-minute speech for a required Public Speaking class in tenth grade and thinking it took an impossible number of words to fill the time. What you probably didn’t realize is that all those words were required because you were speaking at a gazillion miles per hour, and your heart was cracking your sternum because it was pounding so hard and you were choking from both a surfeit and absence of saliva and sweating in uncomfortable places and thinking about how you really need to pee and mostly, just wanting to die. If you didn’t feel this way in high school speech class, I very much envy you.

Ironically, of course, it seems that once one gets used to speaking, it gets harder and harder to rein oneself in. It gets easier to go on, and on, and on. (Powerpoint, it seems, has made the problem even worse.) When I first started teaching, I found it difficult to fill a 50-minute class, even when most of it was discussion. Now, my 75-minute classes constantly run over. So being asked to speak for only 10 minutes about my research, I realized, would be a real challenge.

I decided to write out my remarks so that I’d be sure to get in the points I wanted to make. And I realized that in doing so, I’d be able to share my talk with you on the blog. So, here is the talk I gave yesterday– it’s not about the comics book I’m working on right now, but the last book I published: Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. Enjoy!


Freedom’s Witness: or, The Book That Would Not Go Away

The words that became the book Freedom’s Witness first popped into my field of vision about ten years ago. Words like “timberhead,” “flim-flam,” “noddles.” Phrases like “Snake-hearted squatter-smatters.” “Hydrophobic dropsy-headed oligarchy.” Words in all capital letters and italics, for even greater emphasis.

These words did not appear in a speech by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or in a book by Lewis Carroll. I was seeing them in an 1865 issue of an African American church newspaper called the Christian Recorder. At the time, back in 2005, I was under a tight deadline. I’d been asked to write an essay on one of the first known African American novels, The Curse of Caste by Julia C. Collins, and the only available text of the novel was the one that had been serialized in the Christian Recorder. And the only version of the Christian Recorder that was available at the time was on microfilm. So I was reading all 25+ installments of Collins’s novel inch by inch, column by column, in very small, frequently illegible type, scrolling up and down the long columns that snaked down the dim screen of the microfilm reader.

The Curse of Caste, while a very interesting text to analyze, was not much fun to read. A classic “tragic mulatta” tale, it was sentimental, overwrought, and maudlin. My eye kept being drawn to those strange words and phrases appearing the next column over. As the weeks passed, I realized that the columns my eye kept catching on all had the same byline: the initials “H.M.T.” I tried to ignore H.M.T., but found it impossible.

I became fascinated by the story H.M.T. was telling from week to week—a story he was in the process of living, unlike the story Julia C. Collins was in the process of fabricating. He was in the Union Army, I learned, serving in Virginia, then North Carolina. He was on the battlefield, and rode a horse, but was unarmed. He was a preacher, it turned out: a chaplain for the newly formed black regiments of the Union army. As a chaplain, he dodged “cannon and grape” with the rest of the soldiers. He was afraid he would drown at sea. He worried for his life, and the lives of his “brave boys.” He consoled them as they lay dying, and wrote letters to their wives, their fathers, their mothers, if they didn’t make it—or even if they did.

He taught his soldiers how to read and collected hundreds, if not thousands, of books, bibles, and newspapers for them. He preached on the battlefield, in the homes of free blacks, in town courthouses—in the courthouses, much to the chagrin of defeated white southerners, who found the mere sight of him at the lectern “as much gospel as they could swallow in one week.” He described Jefferson Davis as a man of “bestial vices.” But he was also suspicious of Lincoln, describing his preliminary emancipation proclamation as “one of the most ingenious subterfuges to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country.” (He later changed his mind about Lincoln.) And always, always, he trumpeted the bravery of black soldiers, correcting the popular perception that African American soldiers would flee or simply surrender themselves in the face of battle.

After I finished the essay on The Curse of Caste, I moved on to other research projects. But I kept thinking about H.M.T., and periodically went back to the microfilm to find and read more of his columns. I deduced that the initials corresponded to the name Henry McNeal Turner. Once I knew who H.M.T. was, I was able to find out much more about this mysterious, charismatic writer. He was the pastor of the Israel A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C, and a rising star within the denomination. He had lobbied for the enlistment of black soldiers, and was one of the army’s most active recruiters. To recognize his efforts, he was named chaplain of the 1st U.S Colored Troops, becoming not just one of the first black chaplains in the U.S. Army, but one of its first black officers.

With the help of an undergraduate research assistant—Emily Oswald, class of 2006—I located and then transcribed all of Turner’s columns, totaling some 85,000-90,000 words. Turner’s use of initials, it turned out, was the only circumspect thing about him. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this material. I really knew nothing about the A.M.E. Church, and much of Turner’s writing concerned church governance, annual conferences, and debates on theological issues. But I thought that if Turner’s voice was able to reach me through the hazy blur of microfilm, it was a voice others would find worth hearing. His muscular, forceful, yet often colloquial language contrasted with both the sentimental outpourings of writers like Collins, and the finely honed rhetoric of Frederick Douglass. I wanted people to appreciate Turner as a prose stylist, not simply as an eyewitness.

I tentatively shopped a proposal to a few presses, where it generated some interest—as a history text. “You’ll need to get a historian to write the introduction,” I was told. “And he (yes, they all said ‘he’) will have to help you write the notes.” No kidding. Civil War history is so fraught with conflict—among historians, re-enactors, enthusiasts, and demagogues—I didn’t want to touch this with a twenty-foot pole. I asked a few historians I knew if they knew anyone who’d be interested. I got no leads. I even offered to give away the transcription files, but got no takers. Historians, I learned, aren’t naturally inclined to be editors.

So the manuscript sat. For years. Then came the Civil War sesquicentennial five years ago. The hoopla surrounding the 150th anniversary of the war finally got me motivated to do something. I decided to take on the historical research myself, and spent a year and a half learning about the various battles that took place on the Virginia front near the end of the war, about the debates surrounding the enlistment of black soldiers, about A.M.E. church hierarchy and church history, about Turner himself. I annotated the text and wrote an introduction that addressed Turner’s historical importance as well as his importance as a writer. This time, when I shopped the book proposal, publishers, as I predicted, wanted to take advantage of the sesquicentennial. I was able to get the book under contract with West Virginia University Press, the first place I tried. And West Virginia was able to find a Civil War historian where I could not; he (yes, it was a he after all—Aaron Sheehan-Dean, an endowed chair of Civil War history at West Virginia University) wrote a lovely preface that gave the book some historical cred. Freedom’s Witness finally appeared in spring 2013.

Now that the book has come out, I can finally put a big “THE END” on the Book That Would Not Go Away. I didn’t look for H.M.T.; often it seems that Turner came looking for me. But once he got his tenterhooks in, he never let go. Freedom’s Witness is an odd book in my scholarship, being somewhat out of field—my research specialization is in Progressive Era American literature and culture, and I certainly never had any interest in the Civil War before I edited this book. But it is most certainly the result of my research in periodicals. And I guess this is the last point that I’d like to make. We who study periodicals insist that magazines and newspapers are more than a collection of individual texts. An issue is an assemblage of interrelated texts, each providing part of the context within which the others are read; we like to say that “texts published in periodicals must be considered within their publication context.” Freedom’s Witness, in a sense, was an accidental result of a very conscious process. I found H.M.T. because I was trying to place Julia C. Collins’s The Curse of Caste within the context of The Christian Recorder. Unexpectedly, Turner, who provided a part of this publication context, came into view as a new text.

I think that our suspicion of religion, as well as our assumption that periodicals are purely ephemeral, have prevented us from recognizing the Christian Recorder as a rich vein of literary ore. We need to see publications like church newspapers as important outlets for creative expression, especially for marginalized populations that lacked access to mainstream publishing networks and lacked the capital to publish books on their own. The Christian Recorder published novels, not just by Collins, but by well-known African American writers including Frances Watkins Harper; they also published memoirs, speeches, sermons, short fiction, and poetry, all interspersed with “the news.” Taken together, these texts show us the richness and variety of African American (not to mention American) literary expression during a period once known almost solely for the slave narrative.

In the closing weeks of the war, Turner wrote, “I have seen war wonders.” I hope you’ll give Turner a chance to show these wonders to you for himself. The book is available for widespread course adoption. Tell your colleagues! Send a copy to a friend in honor of Black History Month! Like Freedom’s Witness’s Facebook page! Or borrow it from the library. Having wrested Turner from the pit of silence, I hope you’ll listen to what he has to say.

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