Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

"This Is No Hearsay": Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives

Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

"This Is No Hearsay": Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives

Article excerpt

For Linda Hutcheon (1)

I Admitting the 'Fugitive' U.S. Genre to Canadian Literature

The Canadian slave narrative is ignored as a genre of Victorianera Canadian literature (1837-1901) because it seems not to exist. Indeed, North American slavery is so profoundly identified with the Great Republic that the slave narrative is eyed, in Canada, as an exotic species of Americana, one having only incidental and abstract engagement with British North America and, post-1867, that infant state--the Dominion of Canada. Furthermore, African-American scholars have long asserted the organic Americanite of this prose genre, one principally defined by first-person-narrated memoir and autobiography. Introducing The Classic Slave Narratives 0987), editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., declares, with strange triumphalism, that, "In the long history of human bondage, it was only the black slaves in the United States who--once secure and free in the North, and with the generous encouragement and assistance of northern abolitionists--created a genre of literature that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate." (3) Insouciantly here, Gates omits Exodus and other Hebraic texts about captivity, enslavement, and eventually liberation, and reconciliation to God, and he identifies "the African person's enslavement in the New World" with, specifically, "black slaves in the United States" (ix), so that African itself is conflated with American. Gates acknowledges that the four narratives included in his edited compendium were "written or related by one African, one West Indian, and two Afro-Americans" (xviii), but he views all of them as providing a skeleton for "the Afro-American literary tradition" (xii). Sagely, Gates states, "no group of slaves anywhere, at any other period in history, has left such a large repository of testimony about the horror of becoming the legal property of another human being" (ix). But, he Americanizes this necessarily international writing, scotching the truths that some United States-born, ex-slave authors spent crucial parts of their lives in other countries, while still other black anti-slavery writers were not African-American at ail. As stereotypically annexationist (or 'globalist,' a synonym) as Gates may be, he is not the only African-American scholar to insist on the innate Americanness of the slave narrative. Witness the great African-American literary historian, Blyden Jackson. He is compelled to adopt odd cartographical and historiographical contortions to patriate the West African-born, West Indies-settled, and British-identified Olaudah Equiano, the author of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):

   His America was much, much more the Caribbean than it ever
   was the colonies which have become the United States. Yet in
   the eighteenth century the English possessions in the Western
   Hemisphere constituted a unit.... In his Narrative it is clear that
   Equiano feels himself, in terms of his sense of where he belongs, as
   much at home ... in continental, as in Antillean, America.... [He]
   tends to view that world--the mother country and the colonies,
   whether islands in the Caribbean or land along the American
   coast--as substantially an undivided whole. (4)

Although Jackson admits "the degree and kind of Equiano's Americanism must ... always be subject to qualification," he asserts that Equiano "probably still does remain continentally American enough to be permitted in a pantheon of continental America's black authors" (61). Such lawyerly expansion of the boundaries of the United States permits Gates to include Equiano's text as one of his four classic--that is, American--narratives. When Gates writes, blithely, that "the narratives of ex-slaves are, for the literary critic, the very foundation upon which most subsequent Afro-American fictional and nonfictional narrative forms are based" (xii), the truly astute "literary critic" must answer that slave narratives belong to more than one national literary tradition. …

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