How to become free and how to tell the story of emancipation were the focus of a CAS faculty panel presentation on January 31, 2013. More than 150 people attended this opening event in Saint Joseph’s year-long reflection on the meaning and obligations of freedom as part of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
In the long history of people’s struggles for freedom, personal accounts of bondage and emancipation have figured prominently in the ways many have fought for their own individual emancipation, and through their stories, encouraged others. Whether in the abolitionist movement, the struggle for female liberation, the fight for civil rights, or the pursuit of salvation from personal sin and collective guilt, the “emancipation narrative” has proved a powerful weapon in identifying moral wrongs and mobilizing conscience and courage to challenge any authority that would oppress or repress any people’s right to be free.
The panel presentation, “Emancipation Narratives: A Panel Discussion on how Oppressed Peoples Have Used Personal Accounts to Find Freedom and Fight for it,” featured five CAS faculty: Dr. Aisha Lockridge – Department of English, Dr. Melissa Logue – Department of Sociology and Africana Studies Program, Dr. Jo Alyson Parker – Department of English, Dr. Katherine Sibley – Department of History, and Dr. Bruce Wells—Department of Theology and Religious Studies. The program began with a welcome and opening prayer offered by Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., University President. Dr. Randall Miller, Department of History, served as moderator.
As Dr. Miller noted in his introductory remarks, from the days of slavery through the era of Jim Crow and today, people have had to speak up—for themselves and for others—to make freedom possible.
Dr. Parker and Dr. Sibley highlighted the stories of Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Sojourner Truth. These women wanted freedom: to speak publicly about social causes in mixed audiences of men and women; to get an education beyond that available to women at the time; to vote and engage in civic matters; and, of course, to achieve equal treatment in marriage and in society.
Dr. Lockridge spoke about Harriet Jacobs, who wrote her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, under the pseudonym Linda Brent. At a time when most slaves were illiterate, her personal description of slavery’s atrocities in a self-published account was unprecedented. Jacobs recounts the relentless sexual advances of her owner; her relationship with a white lawyer, with whom she had two children; and her eventual escape from slavery. Jacobs’s narrative, Dr. Lockridge emphasized, undoes the myth of the civility of slave-owners.
Dr. Logue addressed the lingering impacts of slavery on a form of internalized oppression, manifested in the way that Black women choose to wear their hair and how those decisions affect their self-image and the way others regard them. Black hair texture and styles have served as visual demarcations of Black inferiority in relation to the standard that held white women up as the ideal. Although many Blacks in the U.S. continue to internalize this ideal, Dr. Logue pointed to how the stereotype has been challenged, emancipating Black women from these final vestiges of slavery.
Dr. Wells put the concept of freedom in the context of the famous Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible. Though it started out as a story celebrating political freedom, the story came to be used as a motivation for implementing certain social justice measures in ancient Israel. For example, it became the basis for the law that debts were to be cancelled and all debt slaves released every seven years. Thus, the Exodus tradition’s emphasis on emancipation was expanded to include freedom from economic or social constraints, thus enabling the Exodus story to continue to inspire the pursuit of justice in its many forms over the centuries up to this very day.
The program was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of Mission, and was part of the CAS Dean’s Colloquium Series.