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Dr. Julia Eichelberger: Reconstruction’s Traces and Erasures in Gullah Narratives of Charleston

February 27, 2018 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Note: Registration is FREE but required.
Register here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1854529397955787/

In “Doctor to the Dead,” Charleston artist and writer John Bennett presented twenty-three stories based on oral narratives Bennett heard from African Americans during the first decade of the 1900s. Two of these tales are in Gullah; the rest are presented in standard English in a style reminiscent of European fairytales and myths.

On February 27, 2018, join Julia Eichelberger to explore the multiple meanings attached to these Gullah narratives in retellings that occurred from the nineteenth century to 1946, when Bennett finally persuaded a national publisher to issue the volume.

African Americans telling these tales in the first decade of the twentieth century would certainly be mindful of the many forms of white supremacist violence and intimidation African Americans experienced after the Civil War. In the minds of the original storytellers, any tales of encounters between African Americans and whites would be weighted with this knowledge. When they told these tales to Bennett at his request, however, their stories could have had a different emphasis, one that would please the white listener who, while interested and sympathetic, was also the employer of the tale-tellers or their family members. Bennett then presented the tales to audiences in 1908 who received them differently than he’d expected; white Charlestonians wrote to the newspaper complaining about sordid topics discussed in the presence of ladies (interracial sexual liaisons, dirty streets, etc.) To this audience, the tales confirmed their views of African Americans as primitive and immoral. And by 1946 when Bennett’s book was published, many readers were unaware of the realities of black life in nineteenth-century Charleston. The published narratives, presented in Bennett’s slightly archaic standard English, held different meanings and performed different cultural work.

In addition to the tales, Eichelberger will examine Bennett’s papers (in the SC Historical Society’s collection, housed in C of C’s Addlestone Library) to see if notes and drafts of the stories suggest how the original source material was acquired and modified. By comparing these tales with similar African American narratives collected by other folklorists–accounts of the Flying Africans escaping slavery, white ghosts frightening African Americans, and mermaids captured by whites—Eichelberger will examine whether the tales Bennett presented are consistent with others on a similar topic. The same tales that preserved African Americans’ memories of white terrorism and intimidation could, in later retellings to white audiences, erase those memories and replace them with “grotesque,” quaintly superstitious fantasies wherein whites bear little responsibility for black suffering.

The event is part of “Narrating Charleston on the Margins,” the spring 2018 Faculty Lecture Series exploring the oft-overlooked ways Charlestonians have defined themselves. The series is produced by the College of Charleston Friends of the Library and the Honors College.

FREE and open to the public. Registration is required.

Lunch will be provided.

Julia Eichelberger joined the College of Charleston English Department in 1992 and now directs the College’s interdisciplinary minor in Southern Studies. In addition to courses in Southern Studies and Southern literature, she has taught courses on African American literature, Jewish American writers, Charleston writers, twentieth-century fiction and poetry, and Mississippi writer Eudora Welty, as well as first-year writing. She has published essays in Mississippi Quarterly, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Southern Literary Journal, and the Eudora Welty Review, and most recently in the collection Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race, edited by Harriet Pollack (U of Georgia Press, 2013). Her first book, Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ellison, Morrison, Bellow, and Welty, was published by LSU Press. For her second book Tell About Night Flowers: Eudora Welty’s Gardening Letters, 1940-1949 (UP of Mississippi) she selected, edited, and annotated letters Welty wrote to two close friends who shared her love of gardening. Many letters were previously unpublished and discussed Welty’s work in progress. She co-edited Teaching the Works of Eudora Welty: Twenty-first Century Approaches (also from UP of MS). She was the winner of the Eudora Welty Society’s 2016 Phoenix Award for her scholarship on Welty. This talk reflects her work in progress on Charleston writer John Bennett, whose papers are housed in the South Carolina Historical Society.


February 27, 2018
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm


Addlestone Library, Room 227
205 Calhoun Street
Charleston, 29401 United States
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