Summer Scholars: Cotton and Black Labour, and Lewis and Clark Reimagined

"York" by Charles Russell (1908)

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Two scholars explore cotton culture’s influence on a global imagination, and Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the eyes of a slave

The Summer Scholars season of free, drop-in, lunchtime talks explore the broad and exciting range of research being conducted in the North American collections at the British Library by Eccles Centre Fellows and Award winners. Tea and coffee will be served and attendees are welcome to bring their lunch. 

Cotton, Race and the Global Imagination
Late 19th-century Americans struggled to come to terms with an incomprehensibly vast and complex world political-economic system, and to understand their own place within it. Kate Adams’ research focuses on how cotton and black labourers – two of the earliest global commodities – became part of efforts to conceptualize ‘the global’ as a coherent and legible unity. In this talk, she will share a variety of materials – children’s books, postcards, poetry, and political speeches – that used representations of cotton production and enslaved cotton hands to promote a progressive and white supremacist global imaginary. She will show how black writers like W E B Du Bois and Frances E W Harper responded to such narratives both critically and creatively, appropriating their logic to expose racial violence and envision a more just world.

Forgetting the Facts: On Researching for Fiction
In this talk, novelist Karin Altenberg discusses researching her forthcoming work, A Legend of Rivers. The novel imagines one of the most enduring founding myths of the United States: the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 to 1806. This great journey of discovery is seen through the eyes of York, an enslaved man and a member of the expedition effectively airbrushed from history. How can a novelist attempt to bring to life the full story of both the celebrated and the forgotten historical heroes? The proposed talk would focus on the adventures and challenges associated with research - on what it takes to build a solid framework of fact and on how fiction can emerge from the gaps in this historical record.

Kate Adams is Associate Professor and Kimmerling Chair in Women’s Literature at Tulane University, where she teaches courses on 19th century US literature and culture, African American Studies and women’s writing and feminist theory. She is the author of Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in US Women’s Life Writing (Oxford, 2009). She is currently working on a new book, Reconstructing Value: Cotton Culture and Blackness after Emancipation, that looks at how black writers reimagined racial capitalism after slavery, as well as a public-facing digital humanities project – ‘This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books’ – based on the Women’s Literary Department from the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. 

Karin Altenberg is a novelist and is currently working on a novel set in 19th-century America. She is a reviewer of fiction and non-fiction and a published translator of poetry, non-fiction and fiction from Swedish into English. Altenberg holds a PhD in Archaeology and is currently a Fellow at the Robert H Smith International Centre for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, an Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library and a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brunel University.  

Image: York by Charles M Russell, 1908


Name: Summer Scholars: Cotton and Black Labour, and Lewis and Clark Reimagined
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
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When: -
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