Students foster better understanding of satirical neo-slave narrative

McDaniel College students Jehan Silva, Eimilee Bell, Julie Person, English professor Mary Bendel-Simso and student Ryan Wheeler
January 16, 2018

Readers may find Ishmael Reed’s neo-slave narrative “Flight to Canada” a little easier to understand and enjoy thanks to the students in professor Mary Bendel-Simso’s “Slave and Neo-Slave Narratives” class.

The 1976 satire is about three slaves who escape from a plantation to seek freedom in Canada, but the Civil War-era novel is peppered with references to modern items such as copiers, telephones and airplanes while also liberally fictionalizing historic figures such as Abraham Lincoln.

Full appreciation of the parody — its humor and its message — depends on sorting truth from fantasy with attention to every detail. Without context, Bendel-Simso says, there is no satire.

“Satire is intellectual play, but only intellectual play if you get it,” she says. “If you don’t get it, you not only won’t get the humor but you’ll miss the point altogether.”

And that’s where Bendel-Simso’s students come to the rescue. In pairs, they annotated all 29 chapters in the book and each pair presented their research to the class. While it is a work in progress to be continued by future classes, “A Reader’s Guide to ‘Flight to Canada’ by Ishmael Reed” can be accessed at https://blog.mcdaniel.edu/flighttocanada/.

On an academic level, the textual analysis was meaningful to the students in a variety of ways.

“I was surprised at the sheer amount of references Ishmael Reed put into ‘Flight to Canada,’” says Ryan Wheeler, a junior Computer Science major from Baltimore. “These ranged from pop culture references from the 1970s to references about obscure actors or Roman Emperors. The way Reed was able to blend multiple time periods together into one whole story is admirable to say the least.”

Senior Jehan Silva of Gaithersburg, Md., plans to put his English major to work in a high school classroom and after this class is going to look for opportunities to incorporate some of the less taught slave narratives such as “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”

“This class completely changed what I defined as a neo-slave narrative and exposed me to literature I otherwise might never have read,” he says, explaining that the first time he read the book he kept skipping over the references he didn’t understand. “It also taught me that some of the bizarre or exotic elements of neo-slave narratives can have metaphorical implications that make statements about slavery.”

The research and analysis will change how Eimilee Bell approaches what she reads.

“I believe I will analyze what I read at a greater depth after this course, as just with all books made into movies, so much is left out if you don’t research it,” says the senior English major from Fulton, Md. “My main takeaway is that there needs to be a greater focus on slave and neo-slave narratives in public schools as it is a huge part of American history that is largely excluded from core curriculum.

“Whether it’s a real firsthand account of slavery or a fictional account, all stories from this course were essential in providing varied perspectives on slavery.”

After working through the research, Julie Person finds neo-slave narratives as important as the actual slave narratives.

“These books matter as much as the slave narratives since a lot of African American history is tied to the fact that we started off as slaves in this country,” says the sophomore History major from Bel Air, Md.

Their professor finds as much value in learning how to analyze — how to do real archival research — as in the narratives both firsthand and imagined through an African American’s perspective.

“This is what real scholars do — this is authentic bibliographical research in which students have to try to find the original document, evaluate sources and figure out what is fact and what is fiction,” says Bendel-Simso. “Basically we are trying to help people become informed readers.”

Along the way, Bendel-Simso’s students discovered some interesting ideas. Wheeler found a reference to the New York Suffragette Society, which didn’t exist, but in his research he discovered the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, a gathering of women-led abolitionist organizations that came together in 1837 to discuss abolitionism and women's rights.

“It was fascinating to learn about such a thing — the fact that multitudes of women, especially during a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote, came together to fight for a particular cause is awe-inspiring,” Wheeler says. “What I take away from this class is that slavery still lingers throughout society, in both overt and subtle ways.

“It’s important to fight for the sake of being American, for the sake of being black, and for the sake of being human.”