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Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy. Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. viii + 286 pp.
If Ashraf Rushdy's Neo-slave Narratives was composed simply of his close readings of four Neo-slave narratives--Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, and Johnson's Middle Passage--it would probably stand alone as a worthwhile book. But Rushdy builds far beyond Bernard Bell's original use of the title term as "residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom"; his nuanced and thoughtful examination of these four "contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and [End Page 541] take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative" offers a clear delineation of the form without ever forgetting that form's multiple functions and locations. Rushdy also usefully places the form in dialogue with the politics of Black Power, arguing that the novels "negotiate the two historical moments from which they emerge and in which they circulate--the Black Power movement of the late sixties and the neoconservative and right-wing backlash to it in the seventies and eighties." Thus, Rushdy tells us, these novels insist on a kind of intersubjectivity that questions the cultural politics both of literary individualism and of received and often (mis)appropriated histories of race and slavery at different points in the second half of the twentieth century.
Were Neo-slave Narratives such a collection of these four close readings, readers might wonder why Rushdy doesn't closely consider other texts that function more broadly in dialogue with the title term; Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Octavia Butler's Kindred, and Toni Morrison's Beloved come to mind. There are moments where it sounds as if the four texts Rushdy considers are the Neo-slave narratives. Still, his significant revision--and focusing--of Bell's use of the term might salve this concern. Readers might also worry that, though the individual readings consider issues of gender, the complex place of gendered power in slave narratives and especially in their twentieth-century recovery is never fully explored. Thus, although Harriet Jacobs and (much less so) Mary Prince are mentioned, "slave narrative" in Rushdy's text, as it has in too much of our criticism, usually and unreflectively means Frederick Douglass, with nods to James Pennington and Josiah Henson. Still, in a useful rethinking of intertextuality, Rushdy consciously argues that Neo-slave narratives "talk back" to much, much more than just slave narratives; the goal of Neo-slave Narratives is not to study the specific and singular dialogue between such texts and slave narratives as much as to mark and place this specific form in its own multivocal cultural moment. Finally, readers might wish that the informative contextual work Rushdy integrates into the close readings was paired with some discussion of the reception of these texts. Still, the readings of these four novels have much to tell us; standing alone, they would make a useful book.
It is the frame that Rushdy creates around these readings, though, that make Neo-slave Narratives not simply a useful book, but an important, [End Page 542] exciting one. Rushdy continually demonstrates that this form, in Johnson's words, "whistles and hums" with history. Thus, the readings are prefaced by the best consideration I have seen of the controversy surrounding William Styron's (in)famous appropriation of Nat Turner's voice. This section, in turn, is prefaced by a skillful historiography that focuses on the cultural work of Stanley Elkins's 1959 Slavery. Both sections are figured against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the eventual rise of different forms of Black Power, and both sections probe historians' sense (or lack thereof) of slave testimony as historical document, especially as it...