You don’t have to go digging to find racism encoded in our culture. It’s right there in the art and literature of the past and present.

Michael Drexler

"The arts and humanities are where we can explore our culture's fears and desires," says Professor Michael Drexler, English. "A psychoanalytic approach to literature and history reveals society in the making. In the stories we construct and retell, we see beyond the facts in the historical record."

Drexler teaches classes in 18th- and 19th-century American literature and specializes in cultural study of the early republic (1776-1820) through the Civil War. Slavery and race are a particular focus of his research. He and one of his graduate students are working on an article based on less-circulated fugitive slave narratives of the mid-19th century.

"These stories may have been read by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain," says Drexler. "Our literary figures are often praised for being above the fray, apart from the 'rough stuff' of culture, but this is where culture is made and where the meanings that last, right or wrong, get built.

"America's preoccupation with issues of race goes back to the era of colonization, says Drexler, who adds that a heightened collective consciousness about these issues emerged during the great revolutions at the end of the 18th century. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) saw slaves rise against their white imperial French masters to found a new republic. In his co-authored book, The Traumatic Colonel, Drexler explores America's widespread fascination at the time with the notorious Aaron Burr. "Fictions inspired by Burr could just as easily have been written about Toussaint L'Ouverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines," explains Drexler. "Newspapers were even predicting Burr's imminent overthrow of Thomas Jefferson.

"Edgar Allan Poe captured the xenophobia of his time in his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In this work, two women are brutally murdered and, although no one sees the perpetrator, people hear a language that cannot be identified. "Different witnesses claim to have heard different languages," Drexler says. "Each believes another culture was responsible for the ghastly crime."

Ultimately, the detective proves that an escaped orangutan committed the murders, but what the story reflects about Poe's Baltimore in the early 1840s is telling, Drexler notes. "You don't have to go digging to find racism encoded in our culture. It's right there in the art and literature of the past and present."

Posted Sept. 23, 2015

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