The Slave's Narrative

By Charles T. Davis; Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

leading.It is difficult for us to imagine upon what sound, scholarly presuppositions could the testimony of the slave be regarded as invalid testimony. Clearly, such objections were rooted in essentially ideological presuppositions, rather than in scholarly concerns.

Nevertheless, as these essays show, historians were forced to disprove Phillips' charges by painstakingly researching the slave's texts themselves to demonstrate their truth and accuracy of description.What had been a polemical necessity for antebellum reviewers of the narratives, as reprinted in Part One of this book, became in the twentieth-century an academic necessity among historians: these scholars had to establish the historical accuracy of their evidence before they could analyze it in their recreation of the slave's experience. John W. Blassingame was a central figure in this reconsideration of evidence. Robin W. Winks's case study is one of the most salient examples of the complex textual relation between fiction and history, while Gerald Jaynes's essay uses the narratives as source material to recreate the economic relations implicit in the slave economy.

Perhaps a meaningful way by which to suggest the sheer irony of the demand that the scholar prove the worth of these narratives as historical evidence is to imagine the uses scholars would put even one newly-discovered narrative written by a Greek or Roman slave.There is little doubt that such a text would be hailed as a great discovery, and would generate scores of reconsiderations of classical slavery. Perhaps the ultimate irony of American slavery is that the Afro-American bondsman, denied a "voice" in print by the de jure and de facto prohibition of literary training, has had to continue his or her struggle to "testify," as it were, into the twentieth-century through such surrogates as these historical scholars.

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