Edited by Dr. Michelle D. Commander, Unsung is the first in a series of anthologies published in partnership with Penguin Classics.
To help slow the spread of COVID-19, people have spent more time indoors reconnecting with friends and relatives through Zoom or taking up new hobbies. Dr. Michelle D. Commander, Associate Director and Curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, used her time last year to work on two books.
Through a partnership with Penguin Classics, Dr. Commander edited the anthology Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery & Abolition, plus developed a reading list with the publisher. Additionally, she wrote Avidly Reads: Passages, which discusses modes of transportation such as the slave ship, train, automobile, and bus as a way to trace the journeys of her ancestors in her hometown in South Carolina.
Below, Dr. Commander discusses her projects, both of which were released this month. (Her comments have been lightly edited.)
How did you end up working on two book projects simultaneously?
This was absolutely by chance. As you might imagine, this has been a stressful, but rewarding time. Avidly Reads Passages began as a kernel of an idea after the publication of my first book, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic. In that book, I examined the longings of Black Americans for Africa and their various migrations and uses of their creativity to locate their imagined ancestral motherland.
Curious about my own family’s mobility or lack thereof, I tinkered with a book proposal for a while, and eventually finalized a contract from NYU Press in the summer of 2019. Around the same time, I conducted preliminary research and wrote the book proposal for Unsung. With the input of our former Schomburg Center Director Kevin Young, I revised and streamlined the proposal and we submitted this first title and Kevin’s wonderful idea for a new Schomburg series for consideration to Penguin Classics. The book and series were enthusiastically accepted by Penguin a few weeks later. I never imagined that I would have two books come out within weeks of each other, but here we are.
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What are some of your favorite texts in Unsung?
For the insight they provide about the dynamic nature of the abolitionist movement in the United States, I am especially fond of all of the women’s voices that I collected in the text, including the stirring oratory of Maria Stewart, the devasting accounts of slavery in Bethany Veney’s narrative, the precise and heartrending poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the entire children’s literature section, which demonstrates abolitionists’ determination to create anti-slavery futures.
Unsung makes a case for focusing on the histories of Black people as agents and architects of their own lives and ultimate liberation in the nineteenth century. While acknowledging the significance of white allies to the abolitionist cause, this volume intentionally places well-known documents by well-traveled and internationally-known abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass alongside lesser-known life stories and overlooked or previously uncelebrated accounts of the everyday lives and activism by Black individuals and other allies whose abolitionist agitation was central in the slavery era but has been mostly excised from today’s historical accounts.
I am intrigued by the project of challenging master accounts. We know that we will never know every aspect of slavery and abolition; yet, much remains that ought to be uncovered. This volume offers content that expands what we know about enslaved people and abolitionism. The project is true to Arturo Schomburg’s mission to counter-narrative; that is, to uncover a fuller, more accurate truth about the histories, cultures, struggles, contributions, and triumphs of people of African descent.
What are some of the things you discovered while editing Unsung?
This project has revealed to me the depth of Arturo Schomburg’s seed library of titles regarding transatlantic slavery and abolition. I researched and selected items to create the initial table of contents. What I realized as I reviewed the catalog records for these items is that many of them had been purchased by Schomburg himself.
He was committed to the study of slavery and this seed library, which he sold to the New York Public Library to establish what is now the Schomburg Center, featured many well-known and under-appreciated titles regarding American abolition. Subsequent curators have continued acquiring in a similar fashion.
Dr. Michelle D. Commander co-curated a reading list with Penguin Classics.
Why create a reading list to accompany the anthology? What more would you like readers to learn? Why these books?
The reading list, co-curated by Penguin Classics, is strategically compiled to suggest to readers what a “next read” could be. Often, we read a historical text and want to know what happened next. We might wonder what are the legacies of a horrific institution like transatlantic slavery or have questions about the kinds of cultural materials and social conditions that followed an era like Reconstruction.
The list contains fiction and nonfiction texts that historicize and imagine Black American humanity and culture—the struggles, triumphs, and moments of joy—in fascinating ways. The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers, for instance, would be fascinating to read alongside Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and Koritha Mitchell’s From Slave Cabins to the White House to get a sense of African American women’s determination to define themselves and thrive in the midst of unyielding gendered and racialized oppression in the United States during and since slavery.
You can find the full list here.
Passages is the second book that will be released by Dr. Commander in February 2021.
Avidly Reads: Passages is based on your family history. What did you learn about them that surprised you as you researched the book?
Avidly Reads Passages traces aspects of my maternal family’s lives in the Lower Richland area of South Carolina. Most of my family has lived their since slavery, and I grew up there—in the shadows of plantations.
While I learned many painful details about my family from the archives, enslavers’ estate records, death certificates, and family lore, I also came away from this project with firm evidence of my ancestors’ triumphs and desires to make better lives for their children and children’s children. It was no easy journey for them. In fact, my family’s presence on this land has often been filled with racism, heartbreak, and atrocity. The most surprising find was one of my third great-grandfathers’ shakily-written “X” in a Freedmen's Bureau document to affirm his agreement to work, live, and use the tools on a then-former slave plantation in exchange for a significant portion of the crop that he and his family would grow and harvest in the upcoming year. The document is dated January 1866.
What advice would you give people who are looking to learn more about transatlantic slavery or Black history?
Make great use of the Schomburg Center—we are home to more than 11 million items about Black peoples, histories, and cultures! While we are not open to researchers in our normal capacity right now, many of our resources are available, which you can learn more about on our home page. Also, we have fantastic education, public programs, and exhibitions teams. You may view past and upcoming programs from these teams on our Livestream account. In addition, be sure to check out our current exhibitions, which are now available for online viewing.
And finally, The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections offers an array of materials from the Lapidus Center’s slavery collection, the Schomburg Center, and the wider NYPL.
On February 16, 2021, the Schomburg Center held a virtual book launch of Unsung. The evening included a reading of essays, speeches, plays, and more. Watch on Livestream.
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