English Professor to Give Talk at Oxford, Sees Renewed Interest in Black British History and Culture
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Gretchen Gerzina, professor in the Department of English and Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will present a talk for the University of Oxford’s Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series on November 30, 2020. Entitled “Sarah E. Farro: What a newly discovered African American writer can tell us about the British Victorian Novel,” the talk will explore Gerzina’s research on the forgotten nineteenth-century writer, whose work she uncovered in 2012 when she saw an announcement in an 1893 edition of London’s The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Farro to be “the first negro novelist” with the publication of her first novel.
That novel was titled True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, and Gerzina set to tracking down the only two known copies in existence. Gerzina claims that the book challenges assumptions about Black history and British literature because it is about white characters in England. “It takes place in England,” Gerzina explains, even though Farro herself was American and probably never visited the U.K. “[Farro] was heavily influenced by white British writers,” says Gerzina, who points out that Farro emulated writers like Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Oliver Wendell Holmes when writing True Love.
Gerzina’s discovery of Farro and True Love received much attention, both during a presentation to the American Literature Association in San Francisco in 2016 and in an article published for The Conversation that same year. “When I wrote about [the novel] in The Conversation, it received over 70,000 hits in just two weeks, and was picked up by other publications, like Slate,” says Gerzina.
More recently, Gerzina has seen renewed and heightened interest in her work, especially in the U.K. where she is in demand as a speaker, commentator, and expert on Black British stories. “[This] interest has to do with an awakening, in universities, organizations, and newly-developed media (like podcasts), with the roles of Black people in British history and culture,” explains Gerzina, who says the Black Lives Matter movement that originated in the U.S. has spread across the Atlantic.
An expert in Victorian literature, African-American literature and the story of Black people in England, Gerzina’s first book on Britain’s Black history, Black London, was published 25 years ago. Her most recent, Britain’s Black Past, was published this April. “Unlike the U.S.,” says Gerzina, “there is a huge gap in the awareness of [Black British] history, so it’s exciting to see how often mainstream outlets are embracing this important information.” Many people in the U.K., including academics, are eager to “fill these gaps in their knowledge,” she says. “I think they’re also fascinated by the fact that I’m American,” Gerzina adds.
Gerzina is excited to speak again at Oxford, where she spent the 2009-2010 academic year as Eastman Professor, a role “filled on a visiting basis by senior American Scholars of the highest distinction” according to the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. “My year at Oxford was one of the best of my life!” remembers Gerzina. “I was given a large house, attended wonderful dinners and meetings, and was treated like royalty,” she says and recalls conducting research on a book at the Bodleian Library, the Rothermere Institute for American Studies, and at the British Library.
More information about Gerzina's upcoming talk at Oxford can be found by visiting the University of Oxford's Faculty of English website.