By Kaitlyn McCormick
Students and faculty gathered in Fine Arts room 321 on Feb. 16 for a special installment of “English Matters” where they were able to applaud one of Rider’s own after an idea that once originated as English professor Kelly Ross’ Ph.D. dissertation has evolved into a published book from Oxford University Press.
English professor Jack Sullivan introduced Ross as well as the program in which the department presents “significant outside speakers” to Rider and, in this case, “a beloved insider.”
“Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre in Antebellum United States Literature” links the genres of the fugitive slave narrative and detective fiction, drawing from works of authors of color. Attendees were able to learn more about the publication, released in England in November 2022 and the United States in January, from the author herself in a Q&A style talk hosted by English professor Matthew Goldie.
Sullivan, who was on the hiring committee that brought Ross to the university, recalled being “blown away” by the idea Ross had for this book at the time. “I’m so gratified that it’s in its fruition now in this publication from Oxford University Press,” he said.
Ross, after expressing her own gratitude for the faculty and students that filled the classroom and took advantage of the free pizza offered to attendees, explained that the “germ of the project” originated from a class she took in graduate school, in which she read Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”
While this work is a travel narrative and what Ross would describe as “fantastical,” she also noticed Poe “essentially making Pym into a detective,” three years before what would be generally acknowledged as the first detective story. This then led to the major connection in her work: “Why in this novel about race is Poe talking about the way that this man, or this character, observes, investigates, deduces, pursues, tracks. … I came to realize, after thinking about it, in 1830s and 1840s America, those skills are extremely tied to the pursuit and recapture of fugitive enslaved people,” Ross said.
A large portion of the work deals in the distinction between surveillance and sousveillance. Sousveillance, meaning to watch from below and often from a position of vulnerability if perceived.
Senior English majors Shamiya Ford and Omotara Dairo shared their takeaways and reasons for attending Ross’s presentation.
“Anything that supports, especially what other professors are doing, like the work they do outside of classes, is something I feel like a lot of students should participate in more,” Dairo said.
Ford, who took a class on Poe with Ross and is in the process of working on her thesis, expressed interest in the professor’s views on genre and said that she wants to be an academic, so hearing what distinct members in the field like Ross have to say is beneficial and provides insight to be emulated in her own work as a student.
The book takes on a chaptered structure to explore fugitive slave narratives from the 1820s and 1830s and how they influence what is now known as detective fiction, slave rebellions, where according to Ross the “watching and the surveillance becomes visible and violent,” as well as slave speculation of the 1850s, where the original meaning of the word speculate was to spy.
The discussion opened up to a lively forum, where fellow professors posed questions about Ross’s redefinitions of genre and the ways in which these themes and influences of surveillance, sousveillance and the American penal system are evident today.
In an interview after the discussion, Ross dove deeper into the roughly collective eight-year undertaking that was authoring this book, specifically the care she felt necessary in crafting a discussion around race and slavery as it related to literary genre.
“I gave a lot of thought to even things like word choice,” Ross explained; “I use the word enslaved and enslaved person to make sure that I am constantly recognizing the humanity of the person rather than the condition they were being put in.”
The linking of genres in this book also highlights Ross’s specialties under the umbrella of English and literature. “I am trained in both African American and American literature, and so I can bring those conversations together,” she said, while maintaining the importance she felt in citing people of color and women of color in her work.
“I am very aware that…this topic is full of trauma and violence, and it still is traumatic for our country and the people in our country today. It’s not a subject to be taken lightly,” Ross said.