Thursday, September 9, 2021

Barbara McCaskill Week, Criminal podcast, and Black literature


Artwork by Julienne Alexander for Criminal 

Look, this week in African American literary studies might as well have been known as McCaskill week. It turns out that over the last couple of days, four of our African American literature courses focused on the Criminal podcast episode "In Plain Sight," featuring scholar Barbara McCaskill discussing the lives and great escape of William and Ellen Craft's escape.

I covered the episode in two of my classes. My colleague Donavan Ramon covered it in his class. And my colleague Elizabeth Cali covered the episode in her class. We're talking somewhere around 80 students in African American literature classes covering a podcast on clever runaway slaves. 

I've followed Criminal for a few years now, and I was surprised and delighted to be driving in my car one day back in 2017, and hear McCaskill's voice on the episode. I was aware of her work for years, and so I was pleased to stumble across her talking about African American literature and former enslaved people in the context of this show on criminals. The presentation here shifted the view of "criminal."  

The "In Plain Sight" episode has McCaskill and Criminal host Phoebe Judge retelling the lives of the Craft's. The two of them escaped bondage through a most inventive scheme. Ellen Craft dressed up as a white man and pretended to be sick and injured, while William Craft played the role of a servant assisting the ill master. 

Even though I knew that they escaped, the storytelling by McCaskill and Judge had me wondering and worried as I listened to the episode. The excitement and intrigue that's presented as well as the important historical information led me to begin assigning the episode in my classes. It has been a mainstay over the last few years. 

Each year, we read excerpts from Frederick Douglass's Narrative. We read poems about slavery by various black poets. We look at runaway slave ads. We study various visual images concerning slavery and abolition. And, we listen to McCaskill and Judge on "In Plain Sight."    

McCaskill elevates the idea of the black literary scholar as storyteller. Too, she offers the new possibility of blending African American literary studies and podcasting. A few years ago, I had not considered including podcasts on my syllabi for my unit on slavery. But now, I couldn't imagine excluding this episode. 

At the end of each unit, I do a poll on what aspect of what we've covered the students enjoyed most. The Narrative? Poetry? Visual images? The episode of Criminal? There's really no contest at this point. The clear winner the last few years has been "In Plain Sight."

Yesterday, I saw Cali and Ramon in the hallway outside our offices, and Cali noted in passing that her students had just covered the episode. I knew that Ramon and I were both covering it. So what a cool coincidence that Cali was too, and that we all three covered it in the same week and span of days.  


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