- Black Subjects Re-Forming the Past through the Neo-Slave Narrative Tradition
“124 was spiteful,” so begins Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is surely the most well-known contemporary novel of slavery (3). This spite emanates from what some would describe as the ghostly presence of the child Sethe, killed in order to protect her from the horrors of slavery. The novel begins with a haunting and concludes with an exorcism as the characters, and by extension the readers, deal with the painful history of slavery. Morrison has referred to her writing as “literary archeology,” as her goal is to access the interior life of slaves via her imagination (“Site” 92). In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison notes that slave narrators “were silent about many things, and they ‘forgot’ many other things,” and her job is “to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (91). Thus through the stories of Sethe, Paul D, and other former inhabitants of Sweet Home, [End Page 877] Morrison seeks to imagine the life of the slave that is not captured in the slave narratives. However, what readers are to do with this imagined world is unclear. The last chapter of Beloved notes: “This is not a story to pass on” (275). However, the ambiguity of this phrase reflects the richness of contemporary novels of slavery. On one hand, this is not a story to share; on the other, it is not a story to avoid. Thus contemporary writers and critics must grapple with this painful history and find a way to negotiate its continued legacy
Contemporary fiction about slaves and slavery include such diverse works as Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings (1979) and The President’s Daughter (1994), David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990), Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) , J. California Cooper’s Family (1992) and In Search of Satisfaction (1994), Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River (1994), Louise Meriwether’s Fragments of the Ark (1994), Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (1994), Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child (1995) and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003) among others. While critical texts such as Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu’s Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Feminity Unfettered, Ashraf H. A. Rushdy’s Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form, Stefanie Sievers’s Liberating Narratives: The Authorization of Black Female Voices in African American Women Writers’ Novels of Slavery (1999), my own Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women’s Fiction (2000), and Angelyn Mitchell’s The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in Contemporary Black Women’s Fiction call for the rethinking and re-evaluation of slavery and its legacy. This degree of discussion both in both literature and theory suggests that slavery has captured our imagination.
Bernard Bell is credited with the initial definition of the neo-slave narrative as, “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (289). However, Rushdy offers a slightly different definition for his term, which refers to texts that “assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the ante-bellum slave narrative” (3). Yet, Beaulieu offers a broader definition: “[c]ontemporary fictional works which take slavery as their subject matter and usually feature enslaved protagonists” (xiii); while Mitchell takes a very different approach with her term, “liberatory narrative,” which she defines “as a contemporary novel that engages the historical period of chattel slavery in order to provide new models of liberation by problematizing the concept of freedom” (4). Although these critics vary on their terminology, it is clear that [End Page 878] the subject of slavery has become...