Confronting the rifts created by our common conceptual vocabulary for North American colonial studies
How can we tell colonial histories in ways that invite intercultural conversation within humanistic fields that are themselves products of colonial domination? Beginning with a famous episode of failed communication from the narrative of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano, The Silence of the Miskito Prince explores this question by looking critically at five concepts frequently used to imagine solutions to the challenges of cross-cultural communication: understanding, cosmopolitanism, piety, reciprocity, and patience.
Focusing on the first two centuries of North American colonization, Matt Cohen traces how these five concepts of cross-cultural relations emerged from, and continue to evolve within, colonial dynamics. Through a series of revealing archival explorations, he argues the need for a new vocabulary for the analysis of past interactions drawn from the intellectual and spiritual domains of the colonized, and for a historiographical practice oriented less toward the illusion of complete understanding and scholarly authority and more toward the beliefs and experiences of descendant communities.
The Silence of the Miskito Prince argues for new ways of framing scholarly conversations that use past interactions as a site for thinking about intercultural relations today. By investigating the colonial histories of these terms that were assumed to promote inclusion, Cohen offers both a reflection on how we got here and a model of scholarly humility that holds us to our better or worse pasts.
Matt Cohen is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England. Jeffrey Glover is an assistant professor of English at Loyola University Chicago and the author of Paper Sovereigns: Anglo-Native Treaties and the Law of Nations, 1604–1664.
Contributors: Ralph Bauer, Heidi Bohaker, Galen Brokaw, Jon Coleman, Jeffrey Glover, Peter Charles Hoffer, Andrew Newman, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Richard Cullen Rath, Sarah Rivett, Gordon M. Sayre, and Germaine Warkentin.
"I remember the bold, proud, and highfalutin terms we used to toss about in early American studies, so proud of our own ‘discoveries’ and ‘understandings.’ Because that’s the model we inherited. Because we did not know any better. But now we do—thanks to Matt Cohen’s rigorous and powerful remodulation of our scholarly language. This book points us in the direction of better scholarship, by which I mean greater care, awe, patience, and accountability. A model work of literary criticism for our chastened and tender times."—Joanna Brooks, author of Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants
"The Silence of the Miskito Prince is almost alchemical in its ability to draw new insights from familiar texts. Matt Cohen’s work will be a model for literary scholars, and maybe even some historians, of the power of scholarship that considers the work that words can and cannot do."—Jonathan Beecher Field, Clemson University