“Race, Gender, and Crossing Water: Narratives of Mobility and Escape in the Nineteenth Century United States” (ENG 6650) was the final semester-long course offered at the Johnson Museum as part of a Museum initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Fall 2017 seminar was co-taught by Professor Shirley Samuels in the Department of English and Nancy E. Green, the Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints and Drawings, 1800–1945, at the Johnson Museum.

“Race, Gender, and Crossing Water” looked at movement through and across water in both actual and metaphorical terms. Texts included Clotel, The Morgesons, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There, Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the twentieth-century classic about the legacy of slavery, Beloved.

The image of water appeared in various guises. It appears in Beloved as the place of birth, as waters break on the banks of the Ohio River. It appears in Moby-Dick, a story set on the ocean, through the ominous threat of death by drowning as Ishmael grasps hold of a floating coffin and the crew of the Pequod disappears beneath the waves. Water can be contained as a mode of transport—the nineteenth-century transportation model of the canal system as well as water passing through the paddle wheel steamers. Condensed, transported, placed, and placeless, water shifts its outlines as it erodes the very boundaries that mark its location. What happens to make this very indeterminacy a mark of particular identifications? Who can be a sailor? Who can escape on a raft? Who can cross the river?

The idea of combining resources made this course a much richer—and more challenging—experience as we repeatedly dove into subterranean archives to locate images for a special study gallery installation, Water Marks. Some of these, such as the Frank Stella “illustrations” for Moby-Dick, had to be experienced in person. Others, such as the Hogarth etchings that functioned as illustrations of eighteenth-century drinking, were off the track of our explicit engagement with nineteenth-century American contexts but nonetheless enriched the quest. Archival material in Kroch Library was also extremely valuable in enhancing our first-hand inquiry to correspondences and conversations among images. 

The kaleidoscopic mirroring of the sea invoked in the short video by Isaac Julien, the sprawling silhouette of the body shown by Kara Walker, the symbolic counting of Lorna Simpson—each of these brings us back toward and away from the theme of water. What holds out hope? What holds out terror? Crossing water. From Moby-Dick to Huckleberry Finn, from oceans to rivers, water appears as metaphor, as cure, as poison. As transmuted into blood and milk, as well as carrying bodies to freedom, the marks of water are universal.

Fall 2017 Race, Gender, and Crossing Water students
Philippa Chun
Nneoma Ike-Njoku
Jennifer Rabedeau
Ecem Saricayir