Professor Sharon Monteith works with a range of methodological approaches and creative interventions, and is particularly interested in the ways that critical-creative writing can extend the historiography as well as intervene in literary history. Currently, she is writing The Civil Rights Movement: A Literary History, an archival and interdisciplinary study that will extend civil rights historiography to include the recovery of neglected activists, activist-writers and texts.
Sharon Monteith, ‘“I second that emotion”: a case for using imaginative sources in writing civil rights history’ in Patterns of Prejudice, 49.5 (2015), 440-465.
Imaginative sources are a rich archival store. Facts may be as slippery as the sources in which they are contained, but to limit the sources we use in building a civil rights historiography is to risk curtailing the reach and interdisciplinary scope of historical scholarship. We need to read imaginative and subjective sources as objects for the study, analysis and explanation of the Civil Rights Movement. In civil rights, as in other historical subjects, there is a privileging of an ‘objective’, detached approach to historiography in which ‘the knower’ is made distinct from what is known, and fact distinct from its imaginative representation. Monteith’s essay argues that much can be gained by examining those sources in which the feeling of the movement is explored sensitively and intellectually—or even exploited. Organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Freedom Summer volunteers chose to represent the movement in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, and found themselves represented in fiction films. Monteith argues that imagination and emotion should be more closely incorporated into civil rights history writing but attention needs to be paid to genre and style if generically unstable sources are not to be misread as unadorned fact.
Extract from ‘“I second that emotion”: a case for using imaginative sources in writing civil rights history’
When Sweet Honey in the Rock sang about Joanne Little, on trial for the murder of the prison guard who abused her in 1974 (‘Joanne Little, she’s my sister/ Joanne Little, she’s our mama / Joanne Little, she’s your lover / Joanne the woman who’s gonna carry your child’), one reviewer observed that we fail to ‘listen to music as history’ even though such songs give the lie to the ‘notion that art and politics don’t mix’.  Debates about the role of history and politics in the making of art are longstanding—even if they seem caught in a continual loop, as academics and activist groups grapple in each era with the role of cultural productions in the struggle for social justice and its representation. While music as history has received sustained academic attention in, for example, works by Brian Ward,  the literary discourse of civil rights and the imaginative sources that contribute to the historiography have yet to be examined in detail.