Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives


Fugitive Testimony traces the long arc of the African American slave narrative from the eighteenth century to the present in order to rethink the epistemological limits of the form and to theorize the complicated interplay between the visual and the literary throughout its history. Gathering an archive of ante- and postbellum literary slave narratives as well as contemporary visual art, Janet Neary brings visual and performance theory to bear on the genre's central problematic: that the ex-slave narrator must be both object and subject of his or her own testimony.

Taking works by current-day visual artists, including Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Ellen Driscoll, Neary employs their representational strategies to decode the visual work performed in nineteenth-century literary narratives by Elizabeth Keckley, Solomon Northup, William Craft, Henry Box Brown, and others. She focuses on the textual visuality of these narratives to illustrate how their authors use the logic of the slave narrative against itself as a way to undermine the epistemology of the genre and to offer a model of visuality as intersubjective recognition rather than objective division.

Janet Neary is Associate Professor of Nineteenth-century African American Literature and Culture in the English Department, Hunter College, City University of New York.


[Future] literary history will engage in radical strategies to hear the silence of
the narratives. It will attend to the gaps, the elisions, the contradictions, and
especially the violations. It will turn original purposes on an angle, transform
objects into subjects, and abolish the abolitionists. The slave narrators were
feeling their way through strange fields in the dark, Arna Bontemps once wrote.
When they found light or a break in the fences, they ran on. Abolitionist nar
ratives, for one large instance, are critiques of certain aspects of America. A
subgroup of those, in turn, are critiques of critiques


Each ‘now’ is the now of a particular recognizability. In it, truth is charged to
the bursting point with time…. It is not that what is past casts its light on
what is present, or what is present its light on what is past: rather, image is
that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a


In 1993 visual artist Glenn Ligon debuted Narratives, a series of prints using eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave narrative title pages as templates for ironic commentaries on contemporary American race relations. Reproducing the baroque form and syntax of the genre’s titles and typography but substituting his own autobiographical details in place of those of the ex-slave narrator, Ligon creates large mock-ups of imagined title pages, which provocatively link the conditions of contemporary African American art production with that of the literary production of fugitive slaves. One of the prints in the series, for example, “The Life and Adventures of Glenn Ligon, A Negro, who was sent to be educated amongst white people in the year 1966, when only about six years of age, and has continued to fraternize with them to the present time,” sends up viewers’ potentially inflated notions of racial progress by confronting them with the unexpected collision of nineteenth-century literary conventions and late-twentieth-century autobiographical disclosure (Figure 1).

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