Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form

Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form

Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form

Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form

Synopsis

NeoSlave Narratives is a study in the political, social, and cultural content of a given literary form--the novel of slavery cast as a first-person slave narrative. After discerning the social and historical factors surrounding the first appearance of that literary form in the 1960s, NeoSlave Narratives explores the complex relationship between nostalgia and critique, while asking how African American intellectuals at different points between 1976 and 1990 remember and use the site of slavery to represent the crucial cultural debates that arose during the sixties.

Excerpt

In the course of the sixties, American historians, social activists, and organic intellectuals contributed to the creation of a new discourse on slavery that shaped, and continues to shape, the options of cultural workers representing American chattel slavery. Three broadly defined topics emerged as particularly significant: violence, property, and identity. These three topics assumed a prominent place in this new discourse on slavery because they so effectively demonstrated the connections between the political climate of the sixties and the long-term effects the institution of slavery had on American social life. Let me state at the outset that these topics which appear to be enduring themes of what some might call "universal" importance are rather specific points of reference for locally significant debates that best illustrate the mobilization of social forces in American public opinion, historical writing, and cultural production during and since the sixties. This is not to deny that these topics have had earlier lives in previous historical debates, or even that those earlier debates helped shape the new discourse on slavery. It is to say, though, that these topics assumed the place they did within the new discourse on slavery because they emerged from specific social conditions in the political movements of the sixties and helped form the intellectual coordinates of the historiographical and cultural debates of the decade.

The topic of violence, for instance, is certainly not germane only to American life in the sixties and the slave experience in the antebellum period. Like narrative, violence is transcultural and transhistorical as a practice and a conceptual category. Nonetheless, we can understand violence as an issue in the emergent discourse on slavery only if we look at the concrete events and intellectual debates in the moment when the discourse is being formed. Although acts of racial violence were not new to the South in the mid-fifties, having steadily declined but not become obsolete since the national antilynching campaigns of the early 1890s, several lynchings in Mississippi in 1955--the shooting of George W. Lee and Lamar Smith while they were attempting to exercise their voting rights, and the brutal murder of Emmett Till--constituted a novel moment in the history of racial relations in the South.

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