Academic journal article American Studies

Pro-Slavery Appropriations and Inadvertent Agencies: The Elder(ly) "Uncle" in Plantation Fiction

Academic journal article American Studies

Pro-Slavery Appropriations and Inadvertent Agencies: The Elder(ly) "Uncle" in Plantation Fiction

Article excerpt

The plantation-school genre of American literature, which featured harrowing tales of the white planter class, scores of racial stereotypes, and seemingly endless defenses of enslavement, began in the early 1830s and remained popular for nearly a century. Given that the offensive racial caricatures and cringe-inducing arguments maintained by the apologist, or pro-slavery school of writers, are repugnant to the majority of modern readers and the texts themselves are derivative, tedious, and uninspiring, the genre has received little critical attention in the humanities since the time of the civil rights movement. At that time, an increasing number of scholars turned their attention to the recovery of African American histories and literature, as told or written by themselves.1 Yet, on closer examination, acts of resistance emerge through the racist representations, specifically regarding their elder(ly) enslaved caricatures. In revealing glimpses of the real-life acts of agency they were attempting to disprove, apologist writers exposed unavoidable schisms between their aged characters as signifiers for slavery's supposed benefits and how they presented them in their pro-slavery texts.

Although enslaved and formerly enslaved people were adroit at employing oratory and song for communication, commemoration, and cultural critique, the majority were not able to read the appropriations of themselves that supported their bondage and thus were unaware and unable to answer back in writing. Coupled with the fact that, more often than not, it was young and able-bodied men and women who escaped North and subsequently shared their experiences, forced illiteracy surely accounted for the lack of accounts written by men and women who had survived enslavement into old age. Consequently, the relative absence of primary texts published by elder(ly) enslaved African Americans in the mid- to late nineteenth century leaves one searching for how this silenced group was depicted at the time as well as what effect such one-sided representation had on public perception and opinion. As William R. Taylor writes in Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character, "There are many things about the history of an era that cannot be learned from its literature, but historians . . . have been too timid about searching out the things that can. Stories and novels, even bad and unskillful ones, possess an element of free fantasy which is sometimes very revealing."2 Although these authors manipulated the lives and experiences of the elder enslaved in order to depict a carefree existence and twilight years of leisure, trauma and resistance are ubiquitous in representations of the "happy South." What these texts make plain to modern readers, if not nineteenth- or early-twentieth-centuiy readers, is that the local color of the Deep South was haunted by racial violence to the extent that these issues could not help but permeate every attempt at description or defense. As a result, the agency of the aged enslaved materializes despite the derivative characterizations and racism to reveal certain truths about the physical and mental traumas suffered by the people on whom these caricatures were based and the often overlooked efforts they put forth to survive.

In studying the antebellum plantation fiction that fascinated northern and southern readerships, we can glean elements of the resistant and resilient lives of the elder(ly) enslaved by analyzing the many unintended implications and double meanings extant in the genre that depicted them more than any other. John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn; or, a Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832) is widely regarded as the prototype for the pro-slavery plantation romance.3 Mark Littleton, the book's narrator and cousin to the residents of a Virginia Tidewater plantation, arrives with northern ideas about the ills of slavery but leaves a southern sympathizer.4 This blending of plantation romance with the popular travel writing genre was repeated throughout the 1850s and 1860s by numerous apologists, including "nonfiction" works by northern clergymen extolling the virtues of enslavement after brief visits to the South. …

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