Sordoni Art Gallery hosts Art in Context lecture


Maddie Davis

Dr. Wenger discussed the importance of reading slave narratives.

On Sept. 18, Professor Diane Wenger presented her lecture, In Their Own Words: Recovering The History of Slavery Through Slave Narratives, in the Sordoni Art Gallery to help inform the campus about the history of slavery that was presented through William Earle Williams’ art in the gallery.

Wenger is a professor of history and the chair of Global Cultures: History, Languages and Philosophy. In her lecture Wenger presented to the audience the different ways the history of slavery had been viewed by historians.

Wenger explained that until the mid 20th century, historians focused on the accounts of wealthy plantation owners and slave masters to view slavery. This was due to society’s focus on white men and the lack of care to explore other viewpoints from women and men of other races. This meant that the personal stories of slaves were not published, or looked at, until much later.

“I think the legacy of the question of the assumed black inferiority is still coloring our society today. The experiences of Jim Crow and segregation impacted education. Today that still impacts people of color,” said Wenger.

This method of viewing history through a bias lens was problematic and caused a lasting impact on the history of slavery and the growth and position of people of color in the Americas.

“The study of history is an ongoing process that is shaped by the perceptions and interpretations of historians writing and working in a particular context.  Despite the good faith effort of most historians to be as objective as possible, it is still important to take into consideration how the historian’s viewpoints may be shaped by their situation and beliefs.  I think this is very important to keep in mind in the current climate of doubt about the trustworthiness of our information and news sources,” said Dr. Jonathan Kuiken, professor of history and global cultures.

Wenger then focused on the history of slavery, focusing on the transition from indentured servants to slavery, to the conflict between the north and the south’s views on slavery. Wenger quotes a historian who describes the southern way of life as “Not as a society with slaves, but a slave society.”

Wenger went into detail about how the 19th century brought a wealth of reform movements to the United States. Years after the narratives of slaves began to be written down in books by those who managed to survive slavery or escape from it. These personal accounts from freed blacks slowly shifted the view on slavery giving it a new perceptive.

Wenger details one of these accounts of a women who used the pen name Harriet Jacobs. The stories details the horrors of how Jacobs was assaulted by her slave master and her masters wife who was even harsher. Jacobs’ account details how she had children with a local white man, and how she survived her enslavement by hiding herself in a small crawl-space in an attic, an experience that left Jacobs crippled. In the end, Jacobs’ story is one in which she struggled and had to leave behind her children to escape the horrors of slavery.

This particular account garnered the interest of Dr. Mia Briceño, assistant p rofessor of communication studies. “I study communication and gender, and, for me, that means examining and analyzing the role that communication plays in the social construction of gender and also drawing conclusions about why that matters. Sitting in Dr. Wenger’s gallery talk, I began to think about the intersections of gender and race within the institution of slavery in the United States and the ways in which gendered expectations contributed to the material experiences of people who were enslaved, as relayed in first-person narratives of those individuals.

“The exploration of a topic like this can help us better understand how society is stratified, how shared cultural ideas and ideals have real consequences for or impacts on people’s lives, and perhaps, ultimately, how we can improve social institutions in the United States,” said Briceño.

Wenger also covered many other slave narratives and reliable historical books throughout the lecture.

“[The history of slavery, through a slave’s eyes] is not taught in history books. If we do not know our own history, we cannot work to better our present,” said Wenger.

The Stirring Song Sung Heroic exhibition will be at Sordoni Art Gallery until Oct. 7.