Shaping and Sharing a More Inclusive American History

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

This powerful quotation by the author James Baldwin (1924-1987) has informed Westenley Alcenat’s career as an educator, historian and noted expert on 19th-century U.S. history, including slavery and abolitionism.

On March 4, these words also framed an engrossing community talk by Dr. Alcenat, one of Chapin’s three 2020-2021 Scholars-in-Residence. (The other Scholars are Professor Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99, who will address the Chapin community on April 29, and Professor Naomi Extra, who spoke on February 9).

Dr. Alcenat, whose presentation was entitled, “I Ain’t Never Tell No Lie: Slave Narratives, the Gift of Black Folk, and Making Sure the Kids Are All Right,” currently serves as Assistant Professor of History and Affiliated Assistant Professor of Urban Studies & American Studies at Fordham University. He is also a Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Visiting Assistant Professor in African American Studies at Princeton University.

After her lively welcome, Head of School Suzanne Fogarty passed the virtual microphone to Class 12 student Anjali Tandon, who introduced the evening’s distinguished speaker.

“When we study experiences other than our own, we gain a fuller understanding of the world,” remarked Anjali, “and when we hear the stories of the community who this country was built on, we gain a more inclusive and truthful history of our nation.” Describing Dr. Alcenat’s work as “revolutionary,” Anjali added, “I’m very much looking forward to this lecture.”

Dr. Alcenat’s webinar began with a far-reaching question: “How in this moment of national reckoning can adults and educators communicate a better curriculum by shaping and sharing a more inclusive American history for the young people in our lives?”

In other words, he continued, “What is the next moment of consciousness raising after the George Floyd rebellion that we witnessed last summer?”

In order to discuss pedagogy around the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond, a visit to the past was in order, specifically to the late 1800s in Buncombe County, North Carolina. After a screen share, an image of an elderly Black woman appeared, her hands clasped in front of her and a shawl pinned to her shoulders.

The Chapin audience learned that this woman was a former enslaved person named Sarah Gudger. For the next several minutes, Dr. Alcenat played a reenacted recording of Ms. Gudger as she poignantly described her day-to-day struggles during her years of enslavement:

“I work all the time from morning ’til late at night. I had to do everything they want to do on the outside. Work in the fields, chop wood, hook corn, ’til sometimes I feel like my back surely break.”

Dr. Alcenat explained that Ms. Gudger’s recollections are part of “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” a momentous endeavor that contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and hundreds of photographs of former slaves. The narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA).

Pointing out that slave narratives comprise an extraordinary literary genre invented by slaves themselves, Dr. Alcenat stressed that introducing these stories into the canon would go a long way toward recasting American democracy as a “multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-narrative society.”

“These enslaved men and women reached deep into the well of their most intimate experiences with white domination and bondage to communicate to us about how American freedom had been constructed on black enslavement,” he said.

Dr. Alcenat talked at length about freedom and its myriad meanings. “Was freedom the right to make choices or did freedom extend to the ballot box, to education, to equality of opportunity?” he asked. “And who gets to define freedom and what did it mean for 19th century African Americans, both under slavery and after the Civil War?”

Citing the essential contributions of Black writers, activists and intellectuals like Maria Stewart (1803-1879), Harriet Jacobs (1815-1897), William Cooper Nell (1816-1874), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) and W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), Dr. Alcenat credited these brave pioneers with broadening American perspectives on freedom and citizenship.

He concluded his riveting remarks by reading the views of another enslaved person, who thought about freedom this way: “Now that we are free, what do we want? We want land, we want access to capital, and we want the opportunity to be able to succeed in our endeavors without the white violent supremacy attacking us for it.”

Rejoining the webinar, Anjali asked Dr. Alcenat a selection of thought-provoking questions from the audience, including how Chapin might begin to bring this new viewpoint on the fundamental nature of slave narratives, particularly those of girls and women, into the curriculum.

“We’ve started from a good position already with the Scholars-in-Residence program. Given that I’m here right now speaking to many of you, is indicative of an assertive effort toward that project, he said, adding “I’m so glad to be among wonderful students like Anjali and others.”

In addition to working with three Chapin students, who will serve as “historians in apprenticeship,” Dr. Alcenat is partnering with faculty members to make their course offerings more inclusive.

“Thank you so much for all that we have learned from your research and will continue to learn,” said Ms. Fogarty as she as Anjali unmuted themselves and gave Dr. Alcenat an enthusiastic round of applause.

To watch a video of Dr. Alcenat’s Chapin presentation, visit https://vimeo.com/521069043

Learn more about Chapin’s Scholars-in-Residence program here: https://www.chapin.edu/about/community-life-and-diversity