Between the Lines: Literary Transnationalism and African American Poetics

By Monique-Adelle Callahan | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
Write the Vision: Gender and
Nation beyond Emancipation

Sin aire, la tierra muere. Sin libertad, como sin aire propio
y esencial, nada vive
.
[Without air, the earth dies. Without freedom, just as
without proper and essential air, nothing lives.]

—José Martí, 1883

Few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such
unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two
centuries. To him, so far as he thought and dreamed,
slavery was indeed the sum of all villanies, the cause of all
sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key
to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched
before the eyes of wearied Israelites. In song and exhorta-
tion swelled one refrain—Liberty; in his tears and curses
the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand. At last
it came,—suddenly, fearfully, like a dream
.

—W. E. B. Du Bois (1907, 5–6)

Freedom is not inherent to the human condition, historian Orlando Patterson proposes. Instead, it has been “generated from the experience of slavery” in the history of Western Civilization (1991, xiii). For Patterson, this freedom is a double-edged sword. Those who possess freedom can indeed “create and transform their worlds.” But they are also free to “brutalize, to plunder and lay waste … to rape and humiliate, to invade, to conquer, uproot and degrade” (1991, 403–4). This understanding of freedom highlights an idea central to this chapter’s reading of Ayala’s and Harper’s work: inherent in the practice of freedom is the dialectic it forms with slavish oppression.

This chapter further examines the ways Cristina Ayala and Frances Harper’s work demonstrates the interdependence of slavery and freedom. Through a close

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