After joining Clemson’s faculty in 1998, something turned Susanna Ashton’s attention from popular 19th-century literary authors to writers of narratives that society and time had ignored.
“Here I was on a plantation, and nobody wanted to talk about it,” says Ashton, now chair of the Department of English at Clemson University, which is located on the former plantation of John C. and Anna Calhoun Clemson. “Nobody knew how to talk about it. Scholars understood Wharton’s Gilded Age. Americans were acquainted with Twain’s life aboard a steamboat. But what of the people who built the farmhouses and worked the ground?
“I decided to start asking those questions myself and with my students and discovered that so few enslaved people in South Carolina had their stories told,” says the Brooklyn, New York, native. “Of the people who miraculously managed to survive or escape and share their stories, their books were largely out of print.”
The daughter of a nonprofit attorney and a rare-books librarian, Ashton has wrapped her arms around social justice and truth telling and brought them together in her work. She has co-authored and co-edited several books, including I Belong to the South: South Carolina Slave Narratives and Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt, which won the 2018 Sylvia Lyons Award from the Charles W. Chesnutt Society. She’s currently working on A Plausible Man: The Life of John Andrew Jackson.
Ashton recently received considerable attention for discovering the true identity of Samuel Aleckson, the pen name of a former slave who, at 9 years old, was forced into service to a Confederate officer during the Civil War. The writer eventually moved to Vermont and wrote Before the War, and After the Union, in which he recounts the harrowing life of a slave in South Carolina.
Aleckson’s name never appeared in historical documents. After a newspaper story appeared about Ashton’s book, a relative from California contacted Ashton with the author’s real name: Samuel Williams. “It was a student who pointed out that the [author’s] father’s name was Alex,” Ashton says. Samuel Williams, Alex’s son, had become Sam Aleckson.
Aside from name changes to protect their identities, the level of detail in slave narratives gripped Ashton from the start. They were included not so much as literary device, but to ward off challenges that the narratives were fictionalized — and challenges were constant, even from white people sympathetic to the cause.
“Almost every enslaved person who wrote a narrative, the front page says ‘written by himself’ or something similar to that. White authors didn’t have to do that. Only black writers talking about slave-society America had to do that.
“When you’re an editor and a reader and a scholar of this period, it just jumps out at you the different ways in which people have to prove their authenticity and their truth,” she says.
Slaves and former slaves took accuracy to the extreme. Ashton opens a book to read from a narrative by former slave James Matthews, who wrote about a slave trader who lived in Charleston.
“He says, ‘He lived on the left hand of King Street when you’re coming down from the railway station.’ [The author] felt it was important that you understood the side of the street,” Ashton says.
Slave narrative authors “took great danger to share their witness, and it’s humiliating to have to defend your own truth like that,” Ashton says. “They absorbed that humiliation in order to make that testimony because it was so important to them.
“I feel really good about again and again going into these unknown, unauthored narratives and saying, ‘This person was real,’ and, ‘This person survived,’ and, ‘This is what happened to this person,’ and, ‘Their story was not given the respect it should have been given at that time,’” she says.
“Truth telling is still under siege, now more than ever with amplified methods to drown out anyone who challenges authority,” she says. “The question is, in 150 years, will society look back and ask why people were not believed? How we understand historical witness can teach us how to listen to people around us today.”