Reflections on an NEH Summer Institute

[By Will Cunningham]

The history of black writing has taken many twists and turns over the last few centuries; but never have I encountered a more complex, exciting, and perplexing example of it as I did last summer. As a 20th century scholar, I seldom encounter “novelty” forms of writing. My academic interests rarely call me out of the library or office. 

But to trace black writing in America prior to the Civil War is often an exercise in futility-especially within the context of enslaved Africans. While free blacks certainly produced and published varying pieces of writing, the large majority of African Americans were enslaved in a system that largely prohibited literacy. But, ever so often, scholars will stumble across examples of literacy that date back to this period, and they are often surprising.

I spent two weeks this summer in Savannah, Georgia at the Georgia Historical Society for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. While there, we took a trip to the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. This church’s history dates back to the 1770’s, but has occupied the current building since 1859. The church has been masterfully preserved, including the original pews in the balcony. 

When we first walked up into the balcony, the first thing I noticed (besides the change in temperature) was that nearly every pew (40+) contained very curious etchings on the side. The historian leading us through the church noted that while no one had attempted to translate the pews, he believed the carvings were written in West African Arabic. The pews themselves predate the 1850 building-they were transported from the previous church building once the new building was acquired. While the language of origin is certainly speculative (he noted that others believed it is an example of “cursive Hebrew”), I was amazed that no one had even attempted to translate the carvings. 

With so few examples of enslaved African writings available, these etchings contain potentially valuable information concerning the life and culture of enslaved Africans. I was, to put it bluntly, simply dumbfounded that no scholar had attempted to translate these. For anyone that reads this blog, please think if you know someone who might be able to recognize these carvings and forward this post on!