Splitting the "I": (Re)reading the Traumatic Narrative of BlackWomanhood in the Autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley

By Tweedy, Clarence W. | Making Connections, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Splitting the "I": (Re)reading the Traumatic Narrative of BlackWomanhood in the Autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley


Tweedy, Clarence W., Making Connections


African American writers, such as Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley, used their autobiographies to subvert the boundaries of race and gender. Through their collective writing, they redefined and re-imagined racial/gender identity by portraying African American women not as objects but as human subjects. In nineteenthcentury women's slave narratives, depictions of personal trauma and racialized violence operate with distinct socio-political agendas that attempt to re-narrate both personal as well as collective racial identity. And, what becomes clear are that scenes of trauma, in Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Keckley's Behind the Scenes (1868), are not about the recuperation of the reality of the event; rather, the reality of the traumatic event is lost or subsumed under the narrator's/author's desire for self-agency as well as bodily and racial autonomy. In their texts, race is severed from biological connotations in favor of race as a sociopolitical construct, challenging the racialized and gender boundaries imposed upon black women in American society. Thus, the modification of personal traumatic experiences operates to precisely control memories of trauma, creating narrative as well as fictional resolutions to their violent experiences.

Historically, acts of violence against African Americans were used to maintain a system of white supremacy that defined Black people as second-class citizens. More importantly, Jacobs and Keckley struggled against and resisted a continual system of violent racism in the United States, ranging from the physical and sexual assaults of slavery to internalized psychological effects of trauma that fused notions of submission and domination into representations of the black body. However, at the same time, sadomasochistic representations of the black body were used by African American writers to subvert signs of powerlessness, while asserting and re-defining the Black experience. Hence, traumatic experiences are reinscribed in order to psychologically cope with the negative effects of traumatic experiences. Jacobs and Keckley do not reproduce realities of traumatic events, but, rather, they modify traumatic memories to precisely control and invest textual scenes of violence with their desires for self-mastery as well as bodily autonomy. For Jacobs and Keckley, representations of sadomasochistic violence function as reproductions that, on the one hand, challenge the social definitions and limitations of black identity while, on the other hand, create a means through which authors lay claim to their subjectivity.

Jacobs's and Keckley's depictions of violence reveal traumatic narratives engaged in public debates about social injustice, immorality, and the humanity of black women. Traumatic narratives are demonstrative of a subconscious revelation; and the fictive recuperation of trauma occurs for the individual to cope psychologically with past traumatic events (Tate 96). Their traumatic narratives serve as intersections of personal experiences and sociopolitical desires. What the audience witnesses are not scenes of victimization but, rather, moments of psychological mastery over personal trauma and heroic resistance to exploitation. According to Diana Miles, the victim's traumatic testimony is an attempt to both "revisit and revise the lost moment, thereby integrating it into the consciousness" (1). For trauma survivors, the silence that often surrounds violent experiences is partially due to their inability to comprehend what has happened to them, and their failure to translate into language an experience that initially was too psychologically overwhelming. Miles also contends:

It is important to note that testimony has an address, and when the testimony appears in the form of a published text, it is addressed to the world . . . All testimony requires an audience of ethical listeners who will not only receive the narrative but will also act upon the ethical demand behind the testimony, which is to ensure that the traumatic event will not occur again. …

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