Dr. Ernest Cole of the Hope College English faculty is one of only 20 scholars from around the country chosen to participate in the Summer 2023 Faculty Seminar being held at Yale University through the Legacies of American Slavery initiative organized by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University in collaboration with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).
The seminar will be a resource as Cole, who was born and raised in Sierra Leone, continues his research into the legacies of slavery and colonialism. He is exploring how history, culture and identity relate to cultural and geographic displacement, disillusionment, and the struggle for integration of Africans, primarily in the Americas, during the era of the slave trade (known as the African Diaspora), and of African Americans in the United States.
“What home means for African Americans, Caribbeans of African descent and Africans from the continent like me is quite different,” said Cole, who is the John Dirk Werkman Professor of English and department chair, and has taught at Hope since 2008. “Even though we can trace our historical and cultural ties to a common ancestry, over time, because of the effects of displacement and the nature of our lived experiences, we have morphed into three different constituencies.”
“And so, given this disparity, how the different constituencies conceptualized Africa, the common homeland, whether as being a specific location or region, an imagined community or a frame of mind, is critical to the construction of the continent and the possibility of returning to it.”
The summer institute at Yale will be not only a professional journey but also a personal one for Cole. He is descended from former slaves who immigrated to West Africa after being freed from bondage in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. Freed slaves from Charleston, South Carolina, Nova Scotia and Jamaica were sent to Freetown. Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, initially the Province of Freedom, was established by British abolitionists in the latter 1700s as a colony for freed slaves, including the Black Poor from London, and slaves captured along the coast of West Africa, known as Recaptives.
Family history, he notes, is why his last name is Cole. At some point, one of his enslaved ancestors was baptized with an English last name.
“This puts me in a position to identify my own history, my own identity — and what it means for my children, who were born in the United States,” he said.
Established in 2020, Legacies of American Slavery is a multi-year project that provides a variety of opportunities for CIC-member institutions, their faculty members and students, and community-based partners to participate in research, teaching and learning, and public discussions about the legacies of American slavery. Through opportunities for deep reading and intensive discussion, the June 18-22 Faculty Seminar will enable the participating scholars to consider specific ways to apply the content of the seminar to their teaching, research and public outreach to communities beyond their campuses. The seminar will also include a visit to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to view original sources and documentary materials, and participants will have an opportunity to conduct individual research at Yale libraries for two days beyond the formal end of the seminar.
In addition to conducting research during the seminar, Cole is hoping to gain insights for developing new courses at Hope. In keeping with his academic discipline, he is especially interested in exploring the topic through the lens of literature, and his and the department’s teaching. As one example, he cites Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Homegoings,” which traces the lasting impact of the diaspora, including the harrowing Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and slavery through several generations.
“She presents the generational effect of trauma in a way that I’d never seen before,” he said. “It goes way beyond a physical displacement. It’s the psychological impact and the struggle to make sense of that loss, that rootlessness, that is so powerfully and intensely portrayed.”
The topics, he said, are particularly appropriate at a Christian college like Hope.
“How do we address brokenness?” he said. “How do we as scholars and readers and teachers talk about trauma and mental health, and how history shaped these conditions?”
“What does it mean to bring a Christ-centered perspective into the framing of culture, and how we can as a body of Christ reclaim what was lost?”
Cole specializes in post-colonial literature with particular emphasis on Sub-Saharan Anglophone African literature; disability studies with a focus on the disfigured body, violence and trauma; and travel and empire studies, especially Victorian literature and its intersections with world literature. His research also focuses on post-apartheid South Africa, and body and trauma studies — especially the ways in which bodily injury shapes identity.
He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Sierra Leone, and began his career conducting research and teaching English at Fourah Bay College. During Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war, he left for The Gambia, where he taught at The Gambia College and the University of The Gambia for a number of years. He subsequently pursued a doctorate at the University of Connecticut; he completed the degree in 2008.
His publications include the books “Space and Trauma in Writings of Aminatta Forna” (2016); “Theorizing the Disfigured Body: Mutilation, Amputation, and Disability Culture in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone” (2014); and two edited collections, “Ousmane Sembene: Writer, Filmmaker, and Revolutionary Artist” (2015), with Oumar Cherif Diop, and “Emerging Perspectives on Syl Cheney Coker” (2014), with Eustace Palmer. He has also had multiple articles and book reviews on post-colonial literature in the Journal of African Literature Association, as well as book chapters in “A Critical Introduction to Sierra Leonean Literature” (2008) and “African Cultures and Civilizations” (2005).
In 2020, Cole was honored by the African Literature Association as author of the best article in African literary studies published in a major peer-reviewed journal article in 2019, for his article “Decentering Anthropocentrism: Human-Animal Relations in Aminatta Forna’s ‘Happiness,’” which was published in the Journal of African Literature Association in January 2019. In 2017, his article “Space and Trauma in the Writings of Aminatta Forna” was the focus of a roundtable session of the 43rd annual conference of the African Literature Association at Yale University. In 2012, he was one of 15 scholars nationwide chosen to participate in that year’s Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers, “Teaching Peace and Reconciliation: Theory and Practice in Northern Ireland.”
Hope named him a “Towsley Research Scholar” in support of his research in 2011, and presented him with its Motoichiro Oghimi Global Courage Award in 2017. He discussed his work during the college’s Winter Happening event in February 2011, presenting the seminar “Negotiating Amputation, Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” and was among the presenters during the college’s September 2012 Critical Issues Symposium, which examined “Reconciliation: Hope in a Divided World.”