James Basker: Interviewed About William Wilberforce


Ms. Sheu is an HNN intern.

James Basker, Professor of Literary History at Barnard College, is the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which recently began featuring an online exhibit, "Wilberforce, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery." In light of the new attention being drawn to Wilberforce, the subject of the new movie Amazing Grace, we thought this would be a good time to interview Mr. Basker, the editor of Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810 (2002), Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Anti-Slavery Writings 1760-1820 (2005), and Slavery in the Founding Era: Literary Contexts (2005) .

1. Americans are soon going to be hearing a lot about William Wilberforce after the movie Amazing Grace appears.  I haven't seen it, but I take it you have.  Is this Wilberforce as he really was?
Of course the film takes creative liberties -- Wilberforce was a tiny man with a crooked nose, for example, not the dashingly handsome movie star who plays him in the film. But overall the film captures the dramatic story, the psychological intensity, the political and economic tensions of the abolition campaign, and the heroic persistence, to the point of physical self-ruin, that Wilberforce brought to it.

2.  Is it important that Americans know more about Wilberforce?
Yes, because he was part of a transatlantic abolition movement led by people in both America and England that dates back to the 1780s, and even earlier. We forget that Anthony Benezet, the Philadelphia activist, began writing pamphlets against slavery as early as 1759 and that Vermont abolished slavery in its constitution in 1777. We might otherwise think that the struggle had only begun with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1820s, or Frederick Douglass in the 1830s, or Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s. Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and countless other anti-slavery figures of the 19th century remembered Wilberforce well, and were inspired by his example. The struggle has deep historical roots.

3.  Why has Wilberforce seemingly dropped out of view? Hardly any Americans have ever heard of him.
Wilberforce's disappearance is part of a larger forgetfulness about the whole history of slavery and abolition. As David Blight so brilliantly demonstrated in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, America somehow forgot, or repressed, its memory of what the Civil War had actually been fought over -- slavery. Then, too, we have had a tendency sometimes to think of American history rather narrowly as something apart, something exceptional, with the paradoxical consequence that many think of slavery as having happened only in the United States, and not as it did, in every region of the New World from Canada through the US and the Caribbean, to the tip of South America.

4.  What sort of influence did Wilberforce have on American abolitionists?
Wilberforce was inspirational to American abolitionists, white and black. From the moment the slave trade was abolished in 1808, African American communities from Boston to New York and Philadelphia began holding annual celebrations in their churches, with sermons, speeches, and hymns. In 1815 one black preacher, the fiery William Hamilton, lauded him as "the immortal Wilberforce." When Wilberforce died in 1833, African American churches held memorial services and great eulogies were delivered and published. The first college in America for African American students was founded in 1856, calling itself Wilberforce University. In one of his 1858 speeches, Abraham Lincoln noted how familiar Wilberforce was to Americans, and how admirable: "Schoolboys know that Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe helped that cause [abolition] forward; but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?" Wilberforce deserves to be restored to his proper place in American memory.

5.  Why did you decide to study Wilberforce?
When you plunge into this history, Wilberforce is inescapable. He was so central to the movement for more than 40 years, and he accomplished so much, that he cannot be ignored. At the same time, as he would himself have been the first to acknowledge, the story of slavery and abolition really begins and ends not with one man in England, but with the millions of Africans and their descendants who suffered, endured, resisted, rebelled, and ultimately overcame.

6.  Where should a movie watcher who becomes interested in Wilberforce's life go to begin learning more?
The Gilder Lehrman Institute has produced an online exhibition and a booklet entitled "Wilberforce, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery." People should go to the website of the Wilberforce Museum in Hull, England for further resources and recommended books. There is still room for good biographies of Wilberforce, as well as children's books about him, reprintings of his major speeches, and much much more.

7.  How do you see movies fitting into your teaching? More generally, what do movies bring to the table that more traditional modes of teaching do not?
I rarely use movies in my teaching, except as supplemental assignments and perhaps as material for inclusion in the topic of a research paper. That said, I deeply believe that films are among those cultural genres that can inspire imaginative engagement. And imagination is the prerequisite for meaningful intellectual and historical work. 

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Louis N Proyect - 3/7/2007