Voices Unheard: An Interview with Jack Shuler

The Power of Stories to Redefine American History

In 2008, the American populace elected an African-American man to lead the nation. Forty-five years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous March on Washington, his dream was finally a reality. Or was it? U.C. Berkeley historian David Holinger purported that this was the beginning of a new era—a “post-racial American experience.” By electing a person of color to be President of the United States, we became colorblind overnight. Be it incarceration or education level, income, net worth, career success, or health care outcomes, the numbers simply do not support any claims heralding a post-racial society. These gaps are a direct result of white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege; and the fact that these privileges even exist negates the entire premise of a post-racial America.

Jack Shuler, author and professor at Dennison College, addresses this discrepancy both in the classroom and in his three books: Calling out Liberty: The Stono Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights; Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town; and The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose. In each book, he takes something we think we know and reframes it. Shuler sheds light on to how history affects different Americans.

Below, we spoke with Jack Schuler about his most recent publication, The Thirteenth Turn which critically analyzes the symbolism and material history of the noose in American culture.

How did you become interested in historical events, especially race relations in America?

I was looking at the first book [Calling out Liberty] this morning and when I was writing…well I was writing a dissertation and then I revised it into a book and what was really interesting to me was could I pinpoint the moment where my writing really changed; where I really changed the focus of my writing. And actually I figured it out. This morning, I actually found the moment in that book where it changed, where my voice changed. And that has basically changed the way I viewed myself as a writer and as a scholar completely.

All three of your books focus on race relations in America and how racial minorities shaped dominant narratives. How did you, a professor of English with an English degree, become interested in these more historical topics?

I’m in literary studies, which means I can write about basically anything that was written down. So if something is written down, it’s a text; it can be read like a text; it can be analyzed like a text. So where I was starting in the first book at least was a text that claimed that the slaves that were rebelling in Stono in 1739 were shouting the word “Liberty!” and now maybe they weren’t shouting “Liberty!” but what was interesting to me was that it was recorded as such, right? So they’re shouting the word “Liberty!” and then this story gets recorded in four or five newspapers and journals around the world. That means we’re attaching this idea—this word right—‘liberty’ to this discourse of human rights to these enslaved African-Americans. To me, that transforms the origins of human rights. And so that’s kind of where I started thinking about and trying to account for not only the different narratives of the nation’s history but also trying to account for that past because I didn’t know that past. I didn’t understand that past. I had been taught one version of that past so what I was trying to do with that book was sort of rethink that history, rethink those origins of human rights. That it wasn’t a small cutlery of gentlemen with fluffy wigs in Paris but it was actually people who were engaging with the Atlantic World in the eighteenth century, who had something different to say about what the Atlantic World should be doing and should be about. So I mean, writing that book, one of the things that happened in revising that dissertation into a book was actually going to the place where the rebellion had happened and when I went there, I felt the history, I felt the moment in a way I had never felt it before. And I felt also…well I mean I met people who really saw that story as being significant in their lives in some way, shape, or form. An event that happened in 1739, still resonated with people in this community and so for me, you know, that was the beginning of the process I’ve been participating in since then which is to write about some event, right? Some event, and to look at it from as many angles as I can as a scholar, using archives, but also going to the place where the event happened. Going to the place, seeing how people are responding to the history, understanding it from their perspective. I don’t know if that answers you question, but it just sort of takes me along the path to the next book and the next book and the next book. That’s sort of how I became interested. I don’t think that my background in English literature, American literature prohibits me from being able to write about history.

Oh definitely not. Literature is an example…well, it’s like the noose. Both are concrete and tangible examples of material culture.

And the noose resonates within the literature. We have this whole genre of literature that is just so woefully under-discussed and researched which is the execution sermon and the criminal biography and all sorts of those things. And those things are really important because, out of the execution sermon, out of the criminal biography comes, you know, crime literature and the whole crime genre…the detective story and all those sorts of things that are so important to pop culture but have also done a lot of damage. These stories have been problematic in the past in terms of shaping our understanding of certain groups in this country, criminalizing African-American men especially. Well and even criminalizing Irish-Americans in the late eighteenth century literature. So when I teach that stuff, I say that it’s not a stretch to look at this criminal biography in the eighteenth century in comparison to, say, COPS. So the book about the noose is not all about looking at the literature, but the literature is a part of it because people wrote about these things. They wrote about executions, they wrote about crime, they wrote about lynchings.

Yes and that definitely feeds into the idea that you’re looking at events that are very far in the past [i.e. the Stono Rebellion]. The Orangeburg Massacre comes to mind as something I would categorize as more recent at least. And I think those two events are very similar. Did you consciously pick these two strikingly similar events draw parallels across time to the African-American experience?

Yeah, I mean, in the same way I would see a parallel between those events and what’s going on in this country in the last half year, right? But the reason I wrote about the Orangeburg Massacre is because it’s something that happened in my hometown and something that I’ve always wanted to write about; something I’ve always wanted to learn more about; something I felt I needed to address. It’s a book I kind of felt compelled to write. Well, I think everything I’ve written thus far I’ve felt compelled to write, but that book especially. It was sort of the elephant in the room and still is in my hometown. It was an event that wasn’t being talked about. You know, what’s really cool about having a project or having to research on something is that it gives you an opportunity to talk to people that you wouldn’t normally talk to. So, when I read the book on Orangeburg [see The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson] and it opened up whole parts of my community that, as a kid, I didn’t know.

I can relate, being from Minnesota and not hearing about the US-Dakota War of 1862 until I went away to college…in Iowa.

I didn’t know these people or hadn’t talked to them in this way before, at least about this event. But because I come in with a notebook and a pen and a recorder, I can ask these things and I can talk about these things because people know what my agenda is. And so with the noose, it was one opportunity like that after another. And that’s just all that it kind of was, just this opportunity to talk to different people. And that, for me, that’s what makes history come alive, what makes the events come alive. I mean, yeah the Orangeburg Massacre is recent, but it happened a long enough time ago. And yet it still resonates with people just like the Stono Rebellion still resonates. The death of Hannah Occuish [youngest recorded victim of the noose in US history] in New London, Connecticut in1786 still resonates with people. The event becomes more than just that moment. It becomes something that people carry in their bodily archives.

Your most recent book looks at the history of a material object rather than the implications of a specific event. How was working with material culture similar and/or different than working with narratives of events?

I had to think of the knot as a person. In fact, at one point, I was going to call it a biography of the knot or something like that. And I think I do say something along those lines in the introduction, “it’s a biography of sorts,” right? So, in a sense it become ‘this person lived from the Iron Age to the present.’ And so what does this person see and experience and participate in and do? Really that was my lens; that was what I was trying to think about. Some people have said to me, ‘well hanging and lynching are two different things so how can you talk about them in the same breath?’ but that’s not the point. The point is the knot. I’m writing a book about the knot. How can we trace the knot over time? Not actually just the hanging, but the knot. And so that completely changes your perspective because this thing is traveling from place to place; it’s never completely situated. But I’m obsessed with place, obviously, and I write about places. I enjoy writing about places. I enjoy going to places and seeing them and describing them and thinking about them, thinking about the historical resonances there. Writing about place is just a way to get the reader on your team, so that’s really all that’s happening there. The resonance of the place matters sure, but you’re right, ultimately it’s about the knot. It’s about that material thing as it travels through time. And also what I thought was particularly interesting was the ways in which people attached memories to these objects. There are so many stories. Every time I give a talk on the book somewhere or an article comes up somewhere, I get stories all the time from people about ‘oh but why didn’t you write about this knot or that knot or this museum or that lynching or whatever.’ Because you could, you could include it. But if I was to do that, if I was to write The History rather than A History, then it would take thousands of years.

Yes, well that’s the whole point of history; it’s all about the historian and their framing of a particular person, place, thing, event.

Definitely. And the thing is there are museums all around this country that have hangman’s knots from this hanging or that hanging or this, that and the other. But that tells me something. It tells me something about our culture. We have this idea that we’re sort of modern and amazing, but we still cling to these almost medieval notions about objects containing some sort of power or whatever.

Like the Catholic Church and holy relics.

Exactly! And it’s not our culture, by the way. It’s not just a Western-American-European cultural phenomenon. In the book, I talk about the Dakota culture as placing spiritual value on these knots. It’s interesting that humans as a whole do that to objects. The meaning and significance is different in different cultures, but really still it’s just…it’s just a rope.

Yeah, you find relics in any given culture so it becomes much more a look into human nature as a whole.

Oh yeah totally. Well there’s a book by [John Putnam] Demos called Circles and Lines and it’s a really cool book that talks about how in early America there’s a shift from thinking about time as a cycle into thinking of time as linear. And the people who believe in time as cycle are more connected to the natural world and to the seasons and all of those sorts of things. That’s how people tended to think about life in colonial and early America. And then there’s this shift to thinking of time as moving linearly; that we are progressing. What happens, I think too, is that we think that we don’t believe in ghosts and spirits and the supernatural. So when I say something like ‘the resonance of an event or a place,’ some scholars are going to be like ‘that’s a lot of oooooo. That’s a little too much.’ But why not? People do. People do feel that. You can’t tell me when you’re in a space where something really important has happened you don’t feel some sort of resonance. I think that’s an experience that connects us to the past. It makes us think about cycles. It makes us think about seasons. It reminds us that we aren’t moving “forward, into the future” or whatever crap we say to ourselves. I believe that. I believe I’m just as connected to my great-great grandparents as I am to say my parents.

They are a part of you; a part of your story just like Orangeburg is a part of your story. Why do you think these stories are important? Why do you think they have been obscured from popular American culture?

I think the whole point of writing that book was to account for this history that I was ignorant of. So, in that context, they are important because they give us an alternative view…well not so much alternative as a more realistic and rounded view of who we are as a nation. And I think they’re important because, if we don’t look at them directly—if we don’t look at the lynching photograph or don’t understand what slavery really meant or don’t look at the ledgers that slavers kept—if we don’t do that work, then we don’t really understand the human consequence of those actions. And regardless, those actions still have contemporary resonances. You know, people don’t want to look at this stuff because it’s ugly. I mean, I can even just say if I write an article that’s sort of funny and fluffy and entertaining and I post it on Facebook, my friends will ‘like’ it and comment or whatever, but if I post, for example because this just happened, this article I just wrote for Salon; it’s not happy…actually in some ways it kind of is. Bee Thompkins is an interesting person, but it is intense. It’s no joke. Even my own friends were like ‘ehhhh, what do I do with this? Do I like it? What do I say?’ How do you respond, right? But I think the stories are disturbing and I think they show us something about ourselves and remind us of something that’s deep within us and our past and in our present and it’s something we definitely don’t want to look at.

In what ways do you think these stories are (or are not) quintessentially “American”? What qualifies as an “American story”? How does race factor into defining what it means to be an American?

The book about the Stono Rebellion, the whole point was that the eighteenth century was important to understanding how race develops as a concept, right? Here we are, making decisions left and right. Individual people are making decisions about who gets to be in and who gets to be out. I mean, this actually starts in the seventeenth century with slave laws that say ‘if your mother is enslaved then you’re enslaved.’ So the pattern starts there and we can then trace that through the eighteenth century. And then in the eighteenth century, the whole Enlightenment notion of categorizing things and rationalizing things and we start to see that happening with race. So, I think in The Thirteenth Turn, what I tried to show was just how ‘look, there’s a really close line we can draw between this pattern of criminalizing black people in the eighteenth century in those criminal biographies to lynching.’ There is a line there. We can draw it. We can see it happening. There is a pattern. And it’s pervasive in all of American culture. From the very beginning. Who gets to be in. Who gets to be out. And that’s sort of what I wanted. What I really hope people understand, at least from the chapters on lynching in The Thirteenth Turn, is that, when people get pissed off about things that are happening now, it’s because there is a history of this, there’s a pattern, and we’re not really doing anything about it. I think I said yesterday in my talk that we’re like goldfish in these bowls and we swim around and we’re like ‘oh look, it’s nice, the water’s nice here…OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! I’M IN A BOWL! OH MYGOD!…and then oh look the water’s nice here, I’m in this bowl and…OH MY GOD! I’M IN A BOWL!’ Every three seconds we just completely forget it. We say we’re going to address racism as an issue in this country, we say we’re going to talk about how we’re going to repair the past and we never do it. We’ve said it again and again and again. Barack Obama said it when he came into office and here we are. We still haven’t actually had that conversation. And so we can the conversations about policing or—well one of the real issues we need to talk about in the country is incarceration—but behind all of that is the conversation about…well about how racist we are as a nation. And so I, as a writer and as a teacher, I am always telling students, “I’m a racist. I’m a white male. I’m a racist.” And they are always confused as to what I even mean. Well, I’ve benefitted from all of these things and so that’s a starting point, but that isn’t the work.

Where do you think we are now in terms of race relations here in America? What still needs to be done or addressed? Is the fact that these histories are an intrinsic part of the American experience part and parcel of why we still have race problems and perhaps always will?

It’s no secret that the problems are deeply embedded in the structure. They’re embedded in how we teach history, right? So that’s the thing that I can contribute as a writer. But how do you get change to happen to the structure? Those are really big questions, but I don’t necessarily think I’m the person with the answers…I just don’t…I can work in my little corner of the world, but I don’t want to say that there’s no way to get out of this. I don’t know, I believe…maybe I just want to say that I’m thirty-eight years old. And in those thirty-eight years that I’ve been alive, I have seen differences in the ways that people think about, talk about race. Your generation thinks about race in a different way than my generation and so that gives me hope. But I definitely think this whole idea that we’re past racialization is crap. Even the fact that the term ‘post-racial society’ even exists makes me want to vomit. And I like to use every opportunity I have to say that’s totally not true. Everyone knows that, right? I don’t know who actually believes that. But I do think that if you take along perspective…like I never thought we would be this far along that the death penalty would actually be on the way out. And I’m really excited for that possibility. But, at the same time, it’s happening not because of some dramatic moral shift. The numbers still tell us that it’s about sixty percent of people in this country that still advocate the death penalty. And so, things are changing in terms of how race is lived and experienced, and people are able to talk about things more and we’re addressing things more, but this hasn’t happened—I don’t think—because of some dramatic moral shift. I just don’t think so. I think there’s still a lot of work to do and a lot of interrogation, on a lot of levels.

I think this past year especially…like you were saying, the fish bowl’s been rocked in that popular culture and the media has focused and shown a lot in terms of heating racial tensions. I can think of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown/Ferguson…

Yeah, but, I’m white and I’m assuming you’re identifying with that as well? Yeah, and so who was it really rocked for?

It was rocked for us, exactly. Those types of things happen all of the time and it’s just coming to view for us as a nation now. Arbitrarily.

 Exactly. Was it Common who said at the Oscars that there are more people incarcerated than enslaved?[1]

I think so.

And it’s true! I mean it’s kind of a weird comparison to make, but it’s true. And we’ve got this whole generation of people…well I can just think of in South Carolina, my home state, of black men who are disenfranchised…for drugs…just for stupid stuff. Why did this happen? How did we get to this place? Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, gives us this idea that this didn’t come from nowhere. This happened because of decisions, decisions that people made, mostly white men in Congress or legislating…well not just in Congress, but it is people making decisions. You can watch people making decisions across time, which is what is interesting about historical writing. You can point out these decisions that people make over time and these decisions have huge implications. Everyone was freaking out about crack in the 1980s, so we make these laws and this is what happens. This is what you get.

[1] It was actually John Legend who said, “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

 

Jack Shuler is John Christine Warner professor and associate professor of English at Denison University. He holds a Ph.D. in English *Graduate Center, CUNY) and an MFA in Poetry (Brooklyn College). The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose is his third published book, Calling out Liberty: The Stono Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights and Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town being the other two. All three focus on race-relations in American History. He has also had articles published elsewhere.

 

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