Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice.
During the last week of classes, I subjected my undergraduate seminar on “Doing Transnational History” to reading excerpts from Ambrose Gonzales’ Black Border. This text is one of the worst examples of an occupational hazard for an historian who writes about the Black experience anywhere in the world during the early modern period. It is a time period in which texts written by Africans about their own experiences are few and far between. Thus, the overwhelming majority of historical sources are written by slave traders, explorers, and missionaries. Most of them have very derogatory things to say about African people especially their physical appearance, social and political structure, and religion.
My twenty plus years of researching, writing, and teaching about pre-colonial and West Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the African Diaspora had made me a reluctant yet de facto expert on racist material. Ambrose Gonzales’ work ranked among the most racist text that I have had the misfortune of reading in a career that has exposed me to many. To make matters even worse, I was inspired by a faculty seminar on a British actress who was famous during the Enlightenment period to have my students read Gullah Geechee folklore aloud in class and “in dialect”.
The class had been forewarned to be prepared. I thought I was prepared too.
The students had read about Gonzales when they read excerpts from Lorenzo Dow Turner’s landmark study, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, and articles by Salikoko Mufwene on the Gullah language and creolization. I rightly anticipated reading Gonzales’ racist theories on the origins of the Gullah language and the folktales he collected—with his fictionalized approximation of Gullah dialogue—would be more than they could stomach. Earlier in the semester, one of my students asked me to put a disclaimer on future readings about enslavement which contained violence—I responded the entire syllabi for most of my African and Diaspora classes would require disclaimers. For Gonzales, however, I gave in and posted a disclaimer about the reading as a Blackboard Announcement:
I have uploaded excerpts from Gonzales’ “The Black Border.” WARNING, it’s pretty awful (I’ve saved the worst for last!). But, we’ll get through it together on Monday. We will also read some Gullah language texts out loud, but not from Gonzales. I promise. Have a good weekend!
I thought I had done my due diligence until I settled in to review the readings and prepare for class. On the face of it, Gonzales’ racist rant was worse than I remembered, but about what I expected. He disparaged Western Africa as the “fetid armpit of the Dark Continent” from which “came the first black bondsmen to curse
the Western world.” In describing the peculiarity of a dialect on the West African Coast, which he identified as a precursor of the Gullah language, Gonzales quoted slave trader William Bosman describimg its speakers as “‘Qua-quas,’ because they gabbled like ducks.” He saved his worst diatribe for Africans enslaved in the Lowcountry who he described as “slovenly and careless of speech.” They “seized upon the peasant English” spoken by indentured servants and “wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well they could, and, enriched certain expressive African words.” Gonzales’ racist theory extended to enslaved Africans’ “flat noses and thick lips,” which acted as anatomical and physiological barriers to enslaved Africans learning to speak standard English:
….with characteristic laziness, these Gullah Negroes took short cuts to the ears of their auditors, using as few words as possible, sometimes making one gender serve for three, one tense for several, and totally disregarding singular and plural numbers.”
I felt a momentary pang of guilt for imposing Ambrose Gonzales on my students. I would have to find a way to turn this into a “teachable moment.”