In her own academic career, English professor and PhD candidate Allison Harris has spent a significant amount of time in archives, using records dating back to the historical periods she’s studying to support research and to breathe life into her writing. Taking her African-American Literature students to the archives for a project focused on the era of slavery, however, was an idea actually inspired in a cemetery, miles away from the archives.
“I was walking there with a friend and we were thinking about the lives of the people buried there and the legal and social constructions of personhood beyond death,” Harris explains. It was in the midst of gravestones, many inscribed with only a name and a range of dates, that she thought about how the briefest details of a person’s life can evoke wonder about a long ago experience. “Together we brainstormed ways that students could use creative writing to engage with these constructions of personhood.”
After the students enrolled in Harris’s course visited UM Special Collections’ Slave Documents Collection in the fall 2015 semester, they created stories based on real individuals from history referenced in letters by plantation owners, bills of sale, and other legal and personal documents preserved from the pre-Civil War era. The eight short stories, together known as the Slave Narrative project, are told from the perspective of slaves documented in the records.
“Part of the goal of the assignment was to make the documents come to life through plot and conflict. But more importantly, they were to give their characters a rich and vibrant interiority that explored the emotional and spiritual limitations and silences of these archives,” Harris says.
Visit the Slave Narrative Project
The Slave Narrative project, now permanently preserved and available to the public in UM Libraries Scholarly Repository, features the following short stories:
by Nathaniel Bradley
English Literature major (2018) from Aurora, Colorado
Her Taste of Freedom
by Orlandra Dickens
Sociology and Criminology major (December 2016) from Wilson, North Carolina
The Hill, Named after some White Man
by O’Shane Elliot
Political Science major (Spring 2016) from St. Petersburg, Florida
by Marcus Hines
Computer Science major (2017) from Los Angeles, California
Betsey Simons: Freedom at What Cost?
by Anthony Maristany
Neuroscience major (May 2017) from Miami, Florida
Earth and Ashes
by Michele Mobley
General Studies major (2017) from Wilmington, Delaware
A Narrative of the Torments and Unlikely Freedom of a Child Slave
by Hanna Taylor
Undecided major (2019) from San Rafael, California
Nameless People, Keep Trekking
by Brandi Webster
Sociology major (2017) from Naranja, Florida