on Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre

June 2024

Kelly Ross is an Associate Professor of English at Rider University. She recently discussed her first book, Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre in Antebellum United States Literature (Oxford University Press, 2023), with PhD candidates Kirsten Lee (UPenn), Courtney Murray (Penn State), and Jorden Sanders (Rutgers). In Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre, Ross locates the lineages of detective fiction at the intersections of race, genre, and gender across the nineteenth century. She examines how this intersection reveals a common interest in surveilling African American people and their bodies. Reading multiple genres–from early fugitive narratives to fiction–Ross examines how writers including Frederick Douglass, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Hannah Crafts, and Harriet Jacobs countered white surveillance’s power to make race visible or invisible with constant watching from below, or what the book terms "sousveillance." Sousveillance illustrates how enslaved people and their fellow abolitionists resisted and evaded racial and gender oppression. Ross’s critical analysis expands the fields of genre analysis, carceral studies, and literary criticism. In this conversation, Ross discusses her writing process from graduate seminar to book, her thoughts about surveillance and sousveillance, the intersections of genre and gender, and the importance of writing and collaboration. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtney Murray (CM): As graduate students, we are always intrigued by where projects start and how they change. In your case, you have said elsewhere that it had roots in a seminar about Edgar Allan Poe. So, how did the project develop from an interest in a seminar to a dissertation and then to a book?

Kelly Ross (KR): Yes, I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in a seminar with Eliza Richards at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where I went to grad school. I was fascinated with that novella, which came out in 1838. I saw all the same stuff going on in Pym regarding tropes that would later be associated with detective fiction—investigation, deduction, ratiocination, clues, disguise, and spying. But it's in this novel we receive Poe’s most extended treatment of race. Toni Morrison is foundational for me for everything, but she specifically writes about Pym. I built upon her thoughts and work. Why are these two things together in this novel, and why have they become separated in our discipline? Why is detective fiction not thought of in relation to race? To answer that question, I needed to go to ex-slave narratives. 

I focused my first chapter on ex-slave narratives from the 1820s and 1830s. My crucial intervention is foregrounding African American authors, showing their precedence in crime fiction, and demonstrating how Poe responds to and appropriates them. Chronologically, it was important for me to start with them. As I tried to answer that question, I realized that the tropes associated with detective fiction during the antebellum period were very strongly associated with controlling and surveilling Black people. That is the subject that Black authors deeply engaged in. Simone Browne’s work became really important to me in how she thinks through racializing surveillance and dark sousveillance. That really helped me to think through the dynamics of watching during the antebellum period and foreground that Black people are always watching, looking back, and asserting a critical Black gaze. I couldn’t have done my work without Browne’s work, which helped me through these questions that were unavailable to me when I was in grad school.

Moving the dissertation to a book had its challenges. I had to figure out how to move the project from my committee (who were wonderful, incredible, smart, and supportive) to how to make this book speak to groups of scholars whose expertise usually does not overlap. People who read Poe tend not to be the same people who read Charles Ball or William Grimes. Because of that, I had difficulty figuring out where to pitch the critical intervention in the literature review. How do I bring these two groups of scholars together, get them on the same page, and offer something new? The way I bridged that divide was to get lots of people to read my work and get lots of feedback. That’s what I love the most about our profession—the collaboration and generosity. 

I ended up splitting chapters. There were originally two chapters on Poe, but I collapsed those into one chapter. I subordinated Poe, which allowed me to write more about how other authors influenced him. I moved a lot of other chapters and people around. At one point, Nat Turner got his own chapter, but then I put him in conversation with Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville. I added Harriet Jacobs and Hannah Crafts. 

CM: Thank you, your emphasis on collaboration is affirming for those of us in the dissertation stage. We cannot and should not go through it in isolation. 

Jorden Sanders (JS): I'm really interested in how you pair authors and texts. Could you tell us about your process for choosing these pairings and how you decided which ones were the best for this iteration of the project?

KR: That's a great question. Part of what I think is fascinating about Poe and Ball is that Ball’s narrative has an embedded detective story that doesn’t become salient unless you pair it with Poe. By pulling that out and putting it in conversation with what we know or think of as detective fiction, that really makes something about Ball stand out and become significant in a way that fades if you think about the text only in the history of the ex-slave narrative. However, it was also a really conscious effort to try to decenter Poe and show how he responds to a Black tradition that he is threatened by. By combining Ball and Poe, I could think through how Poe takes concepts from ex-slave narratives and erases his appropriation. 

The same goes for Turner, Douglass, and Melville. I was pleased when I finally realized I could put those three together. How do we handle these odd literary objects that require a different reading method? Because Turner’s Confessions is oral, it’s recorded by someone most likely not entirely sympathetic. How do we read that text as critics? When I finally read Turner alongside Melville and Douglass, that pairing really helped me see that many of these texts are about whiteness. 

I know that interpretation is more prevalent now, but I don’t think I had that framework in grad school. When I thought about race in grad school, I thought more about Blackness than whiteness. Recent work has helped me rethink that. Bringing those three authors together helped me see how they all interrogate whiteness and what happens when that power structure is disrupted. Black agency becomes visible rather than covert. And how does that visible Black agency affect the position of whiteness?

JS: Thank you for illustrating how reading texts in conversation lets us reimagine ways a text could work and circulate. Sometimes, putting them next to each other gives us a window into something different.

Kirsten Lee (KL): This topic on pairing makes me think about how pairing Poe and Ball also helps us return to texts such as Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark differently. I'm really excited to return to it and think more about visibility, invisibility, hypervisibility, and invisiblizing. 

That leads me to a question about process—setting key terms for a project, for example. Your book invites us to think through the history of American police and policing and how carceral structures built technologies targeting free and enslaved Black peoples. However, your key term isn’t “police” or “policing,” but “surveillance.” For those who haven’t read the book, can you explain how a term like “surveillance” offers a conceptual framework that specifies or expands our attention to the history of policing?

KR: It is important to think about surveillance and sousveillance together. It reminds us that surveillance is never just top-down. It’s always resisted by watching from below. 

There are a few ways I want to respond: Policing has been erased from early U.S. history, especially in the Southeast, where it was not thought of as policing when it came to Black people. Much of this policing was thought of as labor discipline and coercion. Slave patrols, overseers, and all these policing mechanisms were not considered policing. Thinking about sousveillance helps us pull those carceral systems together and highlights how policing is societal and not just a specific institution. It gives us a broader framework to think through the actions of policing as opposed to the institutional history of the police. It is crucial to think about sousveillance and the resistance of watching, looking back, and asserting a critical gaze distinct from how policing implies state control. 

JS: What I love about your answer is the way it makes us think about time. Focusing on surveillance and sousveillance allows us to think about the long history, present, and future of how these policing tactics operate. In the book, you invite us to think of the long histories associated with surveillance by studying shorter measurements of time. I’m taken by the term “microperiod” in Chapter 1. How does studying shorter time periods shift how we think about the long histories of genre? How does it allow us to see how men and women, writing as contemporaries, work alongside and within similar constraints?

KR: I love the way you frame that. Regarding genre, the microperiod is crucial to help us think about institutions. Genre is one of the best ways we have of getting at institutions as opposed to individual authors or readers. It’s difficult to convey and study institutional change over long periods of time and make sense of that. The microperiod worked really well for me, especially for the 1820s and 1830s in Chapter 1, because I could think very precisely about how institutional sponsors for antislavery put pressure on the genre of the ex-slave narrative at different historical moments.

The same is true in the other chapters. Jacobs and Crafts are writing at different times, but I think their writing strategies are shaped by the expectations of women’s writing and gothic, popular, and sentimental fiction. All these genres exert a lot of literary pressure on Crafts and Jacobs. It’s really interesting to see how each of these writers responds to those generic literary pressures, takes up tropes of what’s become pretty familiar in gothic or sentimental writing, and strategically deploys those tropes to highlight elements of their experience that would not otherwise be sayable because of propriety and their readership. So, again, the microperiod allows me to zoom in on certain formal aspects of genres that appear small but have pretty large stakes in the historical moment.

Responding to the gender part of your question, when I began writing this book, there was a sense in the historical scholarship that enslaved women were less likely to use violence or run away—that they were much more likely to resist and stay within the system than escape. The microperiod helps me tease out how Jacobs and Crafts were within the system of enslavement but trying to leverage different surveillants to protect themselves and why we see less of that in earlier ex-slave narratives. Hopefully, the first and last chapters show how antislavery institutions changed, how individual responses to it had changed, and how surveillance, policing, and control persisted. The tactics changed, and so the responses changed. 

KL: And our sense of surveillance has to do with the cutting edge so much, right? It's only adaptive to the current moment. So, it would follow that to study surveillance literature, then, is to dilate the way we think about time.

KR: Yes, the cutting edge in 1820 and 1830 is different than the cutting edge in 1860. We don't think about that because we're obsessed with the cutting-edge right now. 

CM: I want to focus on how you connect surveillance, sousveillance, and genre to the interrelationships happening during and after this period. When you think about people like Crafts or Jacobs, you're saying they engage with many genres and readerships. You can tell that they are reading to write, right? They are reading to understand how they want to convey their experience. How do we enter these interrelationships as researchers and scholars? Where do the researcher and scholar fit in these fluid generic and power relationships, especially when researching sensitive topics? Do you see the scholar or researcher perpetuating modes of surveillance and sousveillance in productive or destructive ways?

KR: Wow, that's an incredible question. Yes, obviously we do. And Crafts’s text is fascinating, right? Because it's not published. You could argue that with people's published works, we are perpetuating surveillance, but they have chosen to share it with the world. With Crafts, that's not the case. She is so fascinating in the way she picks up Dickens and uses it to think about what you were saying, using genre to represent her own lived experience. Yet, she's doing it through another person's words that she's adapting.

Regarding the archive, I am, or try to be, thoughtful about my position concerning these authors. I do try to think about these subjects and the power dynamics at work in them. One of the reasons that I came to this grouping of authors and put Poe in the middle but tried to decenter him is that I think that's something I can contribute as a person who's trained in 19th-century American and African American literature while understanding my lived experience as a white woman. I hope I can bring that conjunction to the work.

This is a broad claim, but I feel like 19th-century American literature has tended to be more interested in the individual genius model and less interested in collaboration. Bringing this grouping of people, these bodies of knowledge, and scholarship together is to bring careful attention to collaboration and networks that we get from 19th-century African American scholarship. I try to bring that to authors who have not been thought through in that way, like Poe. However, as soon as I say that, I think of good scholarship on Poe that does that. I have to keep thinking about that question of surveillance and perpetuating surveillance and what that means.

How can we be sous- instead of surveillors as researchers? 

I would love to know your thoughts on it.

CM: I think what's productive here is that we do a little bit of both as researchers and scholars of the 21st century. We practice surveillance because we feel like we must find things because, if not, some people think that these histories do not exist. Sometimes, the archives aren't as giving, but it doesn't mean these histories did not exist. Can we look or read differently? That's where sousveillance occurs: how do we read or misread these texts and erasures? We can speculate above and below.

JS: I wonder to what extent operating in the speculative is a kind of sousveillance instead of surveillance. I can't help but think about Carla Peterson's claim that sometimes speculation is the only alternative to what would otherwise be silence or invisibility. Surveillance attempts to control what is visible or not, while the speculative might be more the opposite.   

KL: I think there’s so much room to reimagine how Black folks document and understand their sites of value outside frameworks of property. 

Your introduction begins by analyzing an illustration of the “Eye of Providence” hovering over the 1837 periodical The Slave’s Friend, and its gaze looks out from the page. However, throughout the book, you engage with multisensory formats of perception; sometimes, that multiple sense of perception operates within the same author. I’m curious whether reading can or cannot be a central metaphor for either sur- and sousveillance in such a project. From your perspective, what do we gain by thinking of sousveillance, for example, as a hermeneutic process or a form of literacy? And what do we perhaps lose?

KR: Wow. Gosh, these questions are incredible. Simone Browne talks about “dark sousveillance” as not just a mode of watching but also a form of resistance to slavery based on the experiential insight gained from plantation slavery. Maybe what we lose is the physicality of the bodily information of sousveillance and a sense of the auditory. There’s so much in Charles Ball, especially about auditory information and listening, being aware of all your senses, being alert, and protecting yourself. When I write about it, I focus on the visual, how sousveillance tends to be watching and looking, and how that power dynamic inscribes the Cartesian dualism that comes through seeing while the other senses are subordinated. Even though I’m trying to think through resistance, I’m still privileging a power structure that has roots in white supremacy. 

A better reading would be to think through how these other bodily senses, the experience of being in a body, inform sousveillance. I'm thinking of Charles Ball in the embedded detective story and how he describes crawling on his belly trying to discover these people in the midst of a swamp, and they're in the midst of this enclosed cane bracket. He crawls on his belly along the log, describing the mud and the feeling of the animals.  So, it is very bodily. It is very much about all of his senses. You're bringing all this to mind now. 

KL: Thank you. I'm not convinced that everything can or should be analogized to reading. What I like about your deployment of sousveillance is that it makes me wonder: what does sousveillance look like as a competency, trained skillset about reading situations? You're showing how this is not just about slavery but about Blackness. That sousveillance is a way of reading the world.

CM: My question comes in here with the multisensory part, and it connects to a lot of how our conversation has been about the tension between voice and page, writing and reading, and all these different ways to engage the same subject matter. How does the dictated voice provide a genealogy to the written word and then to the video form you bring up in the Coda? How does this further complicate the relationship between surveillance and sousveillance? And, as you progressed through the book, you brought all these different genres together. Did you experience any generative challenges and/or opportunities through this generic fluidity you were dealing with?

KR: I don't do much with oral or other types of media or performance, but I do think that genre is a way for me to try and think through many of these questions you're raising. Genre, again, is a social question or dynamic of literature. It’s not writing in a void. It’s the horizon of expectations that shapes how you write, the readership shapes the reception, and institutions shape all of those things. That brings us out beyond the page and the authorial intention. Tracking this through the video in the Coda helps us to think about how the Pulitzer, as an institution, legitimized Darnella Frazier’s video and made it journalism—labeled it as journalism as opposed to resistance, activism, survival, a kind of anger, or a visceral reaction. That would be interesting to think through. Has anyone tried to speak to Frazier about how it is post-Pulitzer? How does she visualize or conceptualize her role after being legitimized in this way, and does that change her understanding of her contribution? All that said, there’s an interesting generic aspect to the video because I do think that it means something different when it’s posted on Facebook than when it’s lifted up as a prize-worthy object. 

KL: I always wonder, without putting it on the person filming, who was meant to watch these videos, and why are we meant to watch the act itself if we know the system? I don't need to watch a video of someone's murder to know that Black people are meant to be murdered in the United States by the systems created to murder and enslave them. Your project has me also thinking differently about watching and watchfulness in the present. 

KR: Yes, I do think that there's a parallel to be drawn between the current moment and the type of slave narratives in the 1840s and 50s that were sponsored by the American Anti-Slavery Society, whose readership was imagined as white, and those white people needed to be told and shown these systems. 

JS: I think that leaves us with the question: where do we go from here? What advice do you have for graduate students who will take up this work or continue their own work? How has this book influenced current or future projects you’re working on?

KR: On a theoretical level, going back to the pairing question, I would advise students to be intentional or thoughtful about how our current institutional structures and disciplinary formations pull apart ideas, authors, or genres that were in conversation in their moment. Is that preventing us from seeing things? Because we're trained in certain ways, does that make us less aware of influences and conversations that were true to the people as they were writing but are less visible now? What do we see when we put different texts in conversation, and how does that help us bring to light things that have been overlooked? Also, bringing scholarship from different areas and disciplines and putting them in conversation is crucial. When a certain field’s key terms are brought into another field, that illuminates texts in ways we might not have thought about. 

For practical advice, don’t be shy about asking people for feedback. People have mentored me and been so generous to me, and I know I want to be there and pay that back to people who are coming up. We all want to help. We all or most people want to support. Don’t be frustrated by rejection. If you’re getting that, we all get rejected so many times. That does not speak to you or your work. It speaks to the particular institutional needs of wherever you’ve submitted your work to at that moment. 

What’s next? I am really excited about a few different projects. One of them is thinking more about the microperiod of the 1820s and 1830s—thinking about texts that focus more on the kidnapping of free Black people. Another project that I’m working on, my next book hopefully, will be about the U.S.-Mexico War and literary responses to that. I specifically am thinking about how systems of racialization were shaped by that war and influenced U.S. literary responses during the period. 

Dr. Kelly Ross is an Associate Professor of English at Rider University where she specializes in Early and 19th-century American literature and African American literature, with secondary interests in 20th-century American literature, detective fiction, poetry, and American Studies. She will be a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the US Air Force Academy for 2024-2025. Her first book, Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre in Antebellum United States Literature, was published by Oxford University Press (2023). Her work has appeared in PMLA, the Oxford Handbook of Edgar Allan Poe, Leviathan, and Cambridge University Press's American Literature in Transition, 1820-1860. She edits Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation