William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Did you ever have a fantasy, while singing soulfully in the shower, that one day, somehow, somewhere, someone would hear you and select you for a recording contract that would catapult you into stardom? Well, I’ve had fantasies like that. But I never fantasized that I’d be awarded the Jay B. Hubbell Medal. Never. I know some of the people who’ve won the medal, and I hold them in the highest esteem. I once chaired the Hubbell Medal selection committee, and I can tell you that back then, we had standards.
Yet here I am, for some reason, and unless someone gets up and demands a recount of the ballot, I’m pleased to accept the medal with profound thanks to the selection committee, the American Literature Society, and all of you who’ve taken the time on this extremely frigid day to come to this ceremony.
In the email informing me that I was to be honored with the Hubbell medal, I was struck by this statement: The Hubbell medal is awarded annually to one “scholar whose lifetime of scholarly work has significantly advanced the study of American literature.” Looking back over the 43 years since I received my Ph.D., there have been three emphases in my research and publications: 1) African American writers’ crucial contributions to the literature of the American South; 2) 18th- and 19th-century African American writing as a rich field of literary expression and tradition; and 3) the African American slave narrative tradition, both as bedrock of African American literature and as foundational to any serious comprehension of American literature and culture from the late 18th century right up to our present moment.
When I emerged from graduate school in 1973, I don’t think any of those three themes of my life’s research would have been considered American literature, at least as American literature was understood at the time. But somehow the literature that claimed me from the early 1970s onward has become increasingly recognized for its profound role in and influence on what we have come to understand as American literature.
I can’t fully explain why or how my almost half-century of study of African American history, culture, and literature has led me to this occasion today. I do know that I owe an immeasurable debt to innumerable people, such as Blyden Jackson, who introduced me to black literature, and Nellie McKay, who taught me by example what a privilege and responsibility it is to study and teach black literature. I’m profoundly grateful to so many people who have said or written something about African American literature, perhaps something they no longer even remember, that has made a lasting impression on me. I remember a remark about Frederick Douglass made by an assistant professor attending an NEH Summer Seminar that I led at the University of Kansas. That brief remark a quarter-century ago so intrigued me that I began to research and finally to write a 635-page manuscript entitled Slavery and Class in the Antebellum South, based on almost 70 slave narratives, which is now in press with Oxford University Press. I also treasure the following note of encouragement sent me 15 years ago by a woman from a small town in North Carolina who had discovered my North American Slave Narratives digital collection on-line.
Ours is a small church of about 100 people of which about 25 are children of all ages and they especially need the information that you and others provide. Also I’m the only person in our congregation that has a computer. That’s the other reason I try and provide as much information as I can to others. It’s really quite sad in our day and age how informationally deprived most people are. Especially African Americans and all other poverty stricken peoples of our country. May God continue to bless your efforts.
Let me close with this: whatever I have contributed to the study of American literature, I owe the deepest gratitude to the hundreds of African American writers from long ago, many still under-appreciated, who inspired in me a sense of calling that has sustained me throughout my professional life.
New York Public Library
January 5, 2017