The original concept for this project was to write a script that reimagined the scene of Cassy and Emmeline’s escape from Legree’s plantation. The script, as I imagined it, was such: garret spaces across the South are psychically connected. Its (fugitive) inhabitants telepathically communicate a plan to stage a rebellion. With Legree’s haunted garret at the epicenter of attack, the plan is total annihilation of the Legree plantation, with the other plantations to follow. Total annihilation of the Legree plantation and all of the surrounding plantations would not only liberate the enslaved from forced (physical and sexual) labor, but would liberate the “ghosts of slavery” who walk/haunt the plantation grounds. In this mid-nineteenth century world, death does not guarantee freedom so long as the institution of slavery remains. Moreover, Cassy, Emmeline, and other enslaved people can communicate with the “ghosts of slavery”; their wisdom is crucial for the successful execution of the rebellion.
Originally, I had revisited Saidiya Hartman’s, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America and Avery Gordon’s, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination to think through the ways in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin and subsequent adaptations of the novel, “Tom shows,” spectacularized fugitivity from slavery and black death for social, political, and economic capital gain. While my script played with the idea of total annihilation of slavery, I intentionally did not approach absolute Abolition–– the End of the (antiblack) World as such–– to highlight the ways in which, as Hartman argues, emancipation extended the afterlife of slavery. Nevertheless, I was confronted with the possibility that my project romanticized that which it attempted to deconstruct and expose as violently romantic–– the spectacle of haunting and fugitivity.
Therefore, I have adjusted my project to one that stays with the original text. Using what I know about the original text and 19th century adaptations of the text, I’ve begun experimenting with blackout poetry. Blackout poetry is a kind of elementary poetic form that “blacks out” words and phrases in a given passage to find new meaning in the text. It is so simple that a child can do it. This form has helped me think about what it would mean to ‘shadow the romance’ of Stowe’s text (a kind of inversion of the way 19th century American Literature “romanc[es] the shadow” (Toni Morrison), or romances blackness and the institution of slavery), and, through the simplicity of the blackout poetry form, to reveal how this violently romantic depiction of slavery lies at the very surface of the novel. Thus far I have been exploring and imagining how certain characters might speak or act differently in select passages. I have also intentionally left the words of the original text visible, so as to juxtapose the meaning of the poem with the meaning of the original text and to keep them entangled with one another.
My purpose is not to erase and completely blackout Stowe’s message–– that would not only feel irresponsible, but would undermine the political intent of this project. Moving forward, I hope to further explore how this poetry might shed new light on how we continue to read and re-read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I have spent awhile researching the history of blackout poetry. My encounter with this research has been underwhelming–– I found many blog posts and online articles about the artistic and pedagogical uses for blackout poetry, but none of these came close to a traditional scholarly account of the history of blackout poetry.
The most useful piece of information I found was on a writer and poet named Austin Kleon. Kleon is credited with spawning the blackout poetry movement. In a Ted Talk titled “Steal Like an Artist,” he discusses how the idea came to him at a moment in his life when he was struggling with writer’s block. Kleon grabbed a newspaper, started circling words on the page, and used a marker to ‘blackout’ the surrounding words. He then shared this work on his personal blog. This practice later transformed into a collection of poems titled Newspaper Blackout (2010). In this book, Kleon gives a brief history of blackout poetry, tracing its origins back to the 1760s. For instance, Kleon cites Caleb Whitfoord, a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin, as (possibly) the first person to experiment with the form by reading narrowly placed newspaper columns straight across rather than from top to bottom. Whitfoord then performed this reading in front of friends at a pub. For my own purposes, I have been thinking a lot about the performative nature of (blackout) poetry alongside Kleon’s notion of “stealing,” or the theft of ideas for creating something new, such as blackout poetry. (Kleon self-identifies as a “creative kleptomaniac”).
In other blog posts, I noticed that blackout poetry is used as a pedagogical tool to teach young students a range of things about literature and poetry. Some teachers use blackout poetry for its creative and aesthetic benefits, such as teaching young students how to make poetry. Others use it for more academic purposes, such as for ‘summarizing’ a passage, identifying figurative language, and for teaching about plagiarism.
While these blogs are not immediately relevant to my own interest in blacking out sections of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I have been thinking about how my poems might be used to think about the aesthetics of blackout poetry. How might blackout poetry literally highlight what I am thinking about as the ways figures of blackness are held captive in the text, which is to say, in the material form of Stowe’s racial imaginary? I have been struggling with whether I should include this research in my paper, or to just use Black Studies texts to theorize blackout poetry in the context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Considering the research I’ve done for this project and my own interest in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the latter idea makes more sense for articulating my project, I think. Regardless of what the final paper looks like, I will include this research in my presentation for the festival and look forward to hearing people’s thoughts.
For my last blog post, I want to share a few links to blackout poetry projects and talks I found helpful for my thinking: